When journalist, author and therapist Andrew Marshall lost his partner after a gruelling illness, he kept a diary documenting that first grief-stricken year, the things he did to stay sane, and the surprising things he learned. Twenty years on, Andrew opens his diary in My Mourning Year, and shares some universal lessons about grief with WYZA that he hopes might help others navigate their way through it.
1. Grieving is a kind of madness
“It exhausts you – and you feel like you’re the only one going completely mad. And in a strange sort of way you are, because the rest of the world is out there with their fingers in their ears, going ‘la la la la’ about it and not wanting to talk about death at all despite it being something that affects all of us. We don’t talk about it enough. Twenty years on, I’m happily married, but that loss is still a part of me. With anyone we lose – from lovers to grandparents – we sort of take them with us. And that’s comforting but also a bit complex and painful as well.”
2. The people who are there for you might not be the ones you’d expect
“That’s an incredibly comforting discovery. When you need them, if you let them, people will come into your life and give you the things that you need. It doesn’t really matter where the support comes from, but one of the things I’ve learned with the benefit of 20 years hindsight is it’s probably best not to get quite as upset with your family as I did because it’s not about you, it’s probably about them. And others arrive that will help you through it.”
3. Making big decisions in the first year is not a great idea
“I always tell clients, don’t move house, don’t have a new relationship in the first year – but I know men are more likely to. One of my friends lasted six months before he started dating after his wife died. As you can imagine, it was a complete and utter disaster, but I told him I thought he was pretty good lasting six months! But no, dating doesn’t help. It’s a distraction, but it’s better to face the madness and dive in rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.”
4. It’s okay to grieve in your own, unique way
“Forget ‘grief etiquette’; you’ve got to deal with it how you deal with it at the time. You’ll make mistakes and so will other people. And one of the worst things to do is to criticise yourself for ‘doing it wrong’. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no ‘right time’ by which to have moved on. Be compassionate with yourself.”
Talking about the person you've lost can help you through the grieving process
5. In a profound way, grief teaches you not to put things off
“I’ve learned over the years to have death as a constant companion and though it sounds kind of creepy, it has made me aware of my own mortality and it rather helps with the choices you make. You don’t put stuff off. You very much embrace that Latin idea of carpe diem and seizing the day.”
6. Honour milestones
“Especially the first year. On the anniversary, go out to lunch with a good friend. Talk about the person you’ve lost, if you want. Often hearing stories about him or her from someone else can be good, too. Even though they’re not [your] stories, it’s nice to hear them. And doing little things to honour that person is nice too – for me, it’s sometimes filling the house with daffodils around the time he died. But if you have a new partner, it can be a private thing, too.”
7. Do something that alleviates the loneliness
“In my case, it was dog-minding a crazy dog called Tyson, which I write about in the book. After my experiences with Tyson, I got a dog of my own and to this very day, going out and walking that dog is something that sort of keeps me sane. I was incredibly lonely, coming back to an empty house – it’s overwhelming. I had no structure to my life because I was freelance. But a dog gives you that. Dogs like a job, too – the dog I got after Tyson, his name was Flash and his job was to go everywhere with me. When you’re lost and alone, what could be better?”
Andrew Marshall’s book, My Mourning Year, is available here.
Have you lost someone close to you? What helped you get through it? Share your stories below.