Occasionally people ask me about my husbands death and what happened. Nowadays, this question takes me completely by surprise. Directly after the death, I was asked this often and therefore felt more prepared. Now you might be thinking, given that I write about his loss, that I am comfortable talking about it to others. The truth is, there are days when the shock of what happened still takes my breath away. The trauma I experienced and the grief I feel, is no easier to cope with because I am a psychologist who writes about traumatic loss. I am managing it like anyone who has gone through something similar, one day at a time. Talking about it can be hard and emotional.
Don’t misundertand me. I don’t feel angry at being asked. People ask because they are concerned and caring and curious. I also get the sense sometimes that they ask because they want to find out if they are at risk of the same tragedy befalling them. The details matter, so they ask about them. It is a natural human instinct to try to control things. We want to feel assured of our own safety and stability.
I’m not immune to this curiosity about other people’s stories by the way. When I was pregnant with my twin boys I came across Constance Hall. She is a writer and blogger from Australia who at that time had two young children and then had a set of twins. She was real and raw, swore constantly and was a force. I read her blog and like many women, and probably a few men too, found her honesty to be such a tonic. Then, she and her partner split up. It was all over social media, newspapers in Australia carried the story and speculation was rife. What had gone wrong? People wanted to know all the details. Largely, Constance remained silent. She has since spoken in a Ted talk of her experiences of online bullying. Previously I had bought her first self-published book ‘Like a Queen’. I assumed in her second book, ‘Still a Queen’, that the story of her break up and what had actually happened would be revealed. What I discovered was that Constance addressed it directly, stating she would not be sharing the intimate and private details of the split. And what was my reaction? I felt dissapointed. Dissapointed?! About a story that was nothing to do with me. I, like many, had grown accustomed to hearing Constance share so openly the details of her life. I’m sure she had many and varied reasons for keeping these to herself in this instance and I applaud her now. Now, I understand.
Since Matty’s death, I’ve found a love of writing and sharing my journey and experiences with others. I am motivated by a desire to be open about the psychological impact of something that people often struggle to talk about. Death is scary and often avoided. I want to show people it can be spoken of and witnessed. However, there is a difference between being your authentic self and giving parts of yourself and your story away, that are not for anybody else to hold. Our story is ours; mine and my childrens. It is both a sad one and a happy one. But it is ours. And it is his.
In an article in the Scotsman in January this year, another amazing woman, who I first came across in relation to her work with offenders in the Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow, highlighted this issue. Karyn McCluskey writes ‘you don’t owe the world all the gory details, despite its appetite for them, you share what you feel will serve your reason for speaking’. This resonates greatly with me. My reason for speaking is to shine a light on the darkness of traumatic loss. She goes on, ‘people’s dissapointment is not enough for you to give away pieces of your life’.
My husband died. Being asked to share the details of my trauma and re-living it over again in the telling of it, just isn’t necessary to get my message across. I can protect the pieces of our life while also writing and speaking about traumatic loss. These things are not mutually exclusive.
To those of you who have gone through a similar life event. It is your decision what details you share and with whom. Reminding yourself of this, is an act of self-compassion when life has dealt you a really bad hand. You need permission from no-one else to be compassionate in protecting yourself and your story.