Category Archives: mental health

Narrative

After Dimitra died, one of many reactions was from someone who pointed out that there was “no right way to grieve”. For some reason this stuck with me.

Sure, I knew that everyone experiences grief differently. But my grief always seemed really more different than everyone else’s.

For a long time, this was the narrative I held on to. I carefully avoided grief literature and didn’t feel much connection to other people who had gone through something similar. I didn’t look for professional help because, so I told myself, this would only focus on the grief and I didn’t need help with that. I was fine.

If I could go back in time about a year, I would really urge my slightly younger self to be wiser than that. And from my current vantage point I would like to apologise to all mental health professionals for underestimating your ability to see through my narrative.

Grief is complicated. It’s about far more than missing someone. It includes many things people don’t often talk about, including new life opportunities and a relief that certain difficult things won’t have to be dealt with. Those are fine feelings to have. And I am of course far from the only one to have experienced them.

But by sticking to my narrative and my story of my grief being really very different, I slowly got stuck. The past six months, in many ways, have been about getting unstuck a little bit and then every time discovering I was actually more stuck than I realised.

I am fine. It would be wrong for me to claim otherwise: I am healthy, enjoy life, have many friends and good things are happening to me. But being fine isn’t everything and as there is still plenty of work to do, being fine shouldn’t be the defining part.

Even now I often catch myself focusing on the “I am fine” part, talking about professional help in the context of “I want to do great things” as if is below me to seek help with something I have been dealing with for the past sixteen months. I am silly.

And maybe that should be how I define myself at this moment.

Escape

When people hear the story of Dimitra’s death, they often comment on how beautiful our relationship clearly was and how much we loved each other. This always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Yes, we loved each other and I am forever grateful for the time we spent together. And yes, looking back it was beautiful, if only because an unexpected early death makes it easy to see the beauty of what was before. But there were also things that weren’t working and that we both, for different reasons, were ignoring. Things that couldn’t have lasted much longer.

I can only guess Dimitra’s reasons for not facing what wasn’t working. I know mine. I was afraid. Afraid that we couldn’t fix things without doing irreparable damage to the relationship.

When I say I felt very peaceful in the months after her death “because death brings you close to what life is really about” this is only partly true. I also felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to do this difficult work.

That isn’t pretty and it isn’t something I am proud of. I am okay with Dimitra’s death. But as a consequence I got a very easy way out of doing something big and important. I am not okay with that.

There is a famous phrase from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. I have started to interpret this freely to mean that if you really want to change a situation, you should be willing to accept having to leave altogether, which is still better than not doing anything about it.

Belatedly, I am working on that. I keep saying I want to do “great things” (and then quietly remind myself that merely writing these things isn’t good enough). I won’t be able to do so if I keep avoiding difficult things in professional and personal situations.

I am okay with what happened last year. But I owe it to myself, to Dimitra and to the world to learn from this not-so-great part of our life together and to do better.

Meta

I started using this blog for ‘mental health blogging’ a little over four months ago. The motivation was pretty obvious: I had lost my wife, found processing our relationship to be more complicated than initially anticipated and struggled with moving on. I thought writing could help.

I certainly did help.

I never had a clear idea of where I wanted to take this writing, but in the back of my head, I always had some implicit end goal in mind. Getting over something. Working through something. Being ready for something.

But what if I change that goal and instead try and become a bit better every day for the rest of my life? A better human being. Better at dealing with things that happened in the past. Better prepared for things that may happen in the future.

Of course, I might not always be writing on this blog, which is only ever a means to an end anyway. But making this end a moving rather than a still target seems a much healthier thing to do.

And while doing that, it is good to note that writing on its own is never going to be enough. Writing doesn’t ask questions. It doesn’t ask whether I really was okay when I describe periods when things were fine, or whether that thing I write about is really what had been bothering me as I claim it had.

And thus I need to remind myself that I am not always the most reliable narrator when it comes to my own life, especially when things move beyond facts. Or, as I put it to a friend the other day: on my blog I write what I feel, or maybe what I want the world to believe I feel.

So let me not forget that talking to people, both personally or professionally, will always be very important too.

Onwards and upwards. Forever.

Fifteen

“Time heals all wounds” people kept telling me after Dimitra’s death and I never really knew how to respond. I actually felt very peaceful and perhaps more closely connected to her than ever during our relationship. All time seemed to do was trying to disrupt that peace.

Indeed, as I noted three, four and then five months since her passing on Facebook and Twitter, I felt myself shouting: hold on time, not so fast! Please let me live in this moment a bit longer!

But time never waits and so it became six, seven and then eight months and eventually even twelve months, a symbolic moment that made more of a difference than I had expected.

For a long time, Dimitra could have rejoined my life fairly seamlessly. Now, if she were to somehow come back, it would be rather awkward and not just because I mostly sleep on what used to be her side of the bed now.

That is a good thing. This isn’t her life any more. It is my life now.

This evening marks fifteen months since she took that taxi into eternity. Fifteen months since I last heard her voice. Fifteen months too since I last had doubts about our relationship.

I miss her. I miss looking after her, making lunch and making the bed. I miss making her happy. I miss discussing things with her and asking for advice.

I also regret not being brave enough during our time together to fix the many things that weren’t working. Death is underappreciated for making most things okay and these things are okay now, but at the same time, it should be a darn good reason to try and do better in the rest of my life.

It is good to have things to work on.

Today, as I was doing some tidying around the house, I found myself thinking of a temporary place for some not too crucial items. And then I had to tell myself: hold on, isn’t the idea that in not too long, you want to move away from here? Shouldn’t you start throwing things out and giving them away?

So I went and bought a roll of bin bags. I am less focused on the symbolism of yet another month since Dimitra’s death, but it is good day to start throwing things out. Many more bags will follow.

It is really good to have things to work on.

Exciting

14 months ago my wife died. My life at the moment is quite exciting.

Now I obviously don’t mean the latter sentence to be a corollary of the former. But they are more linked than it may seem.

Losing someone very close to you, such as a partner, isn’t easy. I have struggled in the time since Dimitra died, have worried about the future and felt pretty unsettled, often more than I admitted to myself.

But, at least in part because I never had to worry about practical things, it never felt like something I wouldn’t be able to overcome. It always felt liked something that, because it wouldn’t kill me, would make me stronger. It did.

This life experience has made me a better person. A stronger one, who can deal with things affecting me and others. The kind of person person who I always wanted to be but someone never really managed to become.

And that is exciting.

Suddenly finding myself single again and after slowly untangling myself from my relationship with Dimitra, I am now forced to look at questions like: who am I? What do I like? What do I really want to do in life? What do I need to do in life. I had not really looked at any of those questions that seriously since my mid-20s.

In the past year, I have discovered more new music than I had in the ten years before. I haven’t read more books, because I already read a lot, but my reading has become more purposeful and focused rather than pure entertainment. I have made many new friends. And I have been thinking about next jobs.

That is really exciting too.

It is still unclear what my future looks like, other than that I have now set things in motion for things to become quite different and also, at least in the journey there, quite difficult. But, as I keep telling myself, things being difficult is a feature not a bug. I need for this to be difficult rather than find some kind of shortcut to a next phase in life.

Really, that too is exciting.

I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity at this phase in my life to get to know myself better, become a better person and to look for where I can make a real difference.

In some poetic sense, Dimitra showed her love for me by stepping aside and giving me this opportunity. I can only reciprocate that love by doing my utmost best to live a good life.

And that is the most exciting thing of all.

Gone

This is the “everything you always wanted to know about my wife’s death but were afraid to ask” story. People tend to be afraid to ask. Maybe because talking about death makes them feel uncomfortable (it shouldn’t). Or maybe because they think it makes me feel uncomfortable (it doesn’t). This took place between 12 and 19 July 2018.

Just before Dimitra and her mother take a taxi to the airport to spend a week in Crete, she tells me she is feeling a bit funny. “Like I had a stroke or something.” I tell her it will be alright because I think it will be and also because I am the kind of person who says these things ─ or at least I was back then. She just had some busy days visiting various people and places in Athens and today she has been packing, which she always finds stressful.

Three quarters of an hour later I too am in a taxi, knowing that my life has changed forever.

In the meantime, I had gone out to buy some food before the shops close and then, as I am about to go to the pet shop, her mum calls to tell me Dimitra isn’t well and that they’re going to the hospital. I am almost back home when she calls again, telling me the name of the hospital and urging me to come. “Please!”

I call a taxi, which frustratingly takes forever to come, and then intuitively go and get my teddy bear: we have two bears that we always take with us when we travel. I am surprised to discover Dimitra hasn’t taken her bear. This has never happened before. I squeeze both bears into my little bag and wait for the taxi to arrive.

Of course, there is a chance Dimitra’s mum is just panicking over something relatively minor. Mums can be like that. But it doesn’t feel that way. And when I arrive at the hospital, I learn that Dimitra is in the emergency room, which is certainly not a good sign.

I find her lying on a hospital stretcher. She is unconscious. The hospital isn’t the world’s most zen place ─ this is Greece and this is a hospital ─ and many doctors and nurses as well as patients and relatives are walking around. It isn’t very clear what is happening or what we are waiting for. Dimitra, meanwhile, lies there very peacefully.

Then a doctor comes and tells us it can be anything, from something minor to something serious and that they need to perform an MRI scan. For this, Dimitra is taken to a another part of the hospital where I help her lift onto the device. Dimitra isn’t exactly feather light and in her unconscious state obviously not cooperating well. We do eventually get her in the right place. Dimitra is thankfully not able to comment on my clumsiness.

The results of the MRI scan change the doctors’ assessments, which are now that she had a haemorrhage and that her condition is between serious and very serious. The terms ‘life threatening’ and ‘fighting for her life’ are mentioned.

This isn’t communicated as clearly as I write it down. I can order a bread in Greek, or tell a taxi driver how to go to our house. I have not yet reached the level where I can discuss life-threatening medical conditions. My mother-in-law’s English, though better than my Greek, hasn’t reached that level either, so some communication happens with Dimitra’s brother over the phone as a interpreter.

As it turns out, another hospital is better equipped to deal with her situation, and we are told they are waiting for an ambulance to take her there. When it arrives, we ─ me, my mother-in-law and the two teddy bears still in my bag ─ take a taxi and ask it to follow the ambulance.

In the other hospital more tests are being performed but it isn’t always clear what exactly is happening or what we are waiting for. The hospital is less crowded though and has long corridors for me to walk through to kill the time. I have a stupid football song stuck in my head ─ the men’s World Cup is taking place this week. I also think of Seamus Heaney’s final words to his wife: “don’t be afraid”.

I don’t think she will make it. I start thinking of what to do with my life after Dimitra dies. I know I will be alright and that is a comfortable thought. I am so certain she won’t make it I get a bit impatient with the hospital staff for not just telling me.

At the same time, I am getting worried about mundane things, like my need to go to the bathroom or the fact that my phone ─ that I use to keep relatives informed ─ is running out of battery almost as fast as the night progresses.

When the tests have all been done, Dimitra is taken to a proper hospital room that she shares with one other lady. She is still unconscious. We are told they keep her sedated to give her body a better chance to heal. Every now and then doctors need to perform some tests or adjust some of the machines she is connected to, but outside those times we are free to sit next to her.

I had never thought about what to say in such a situation. I end up sharing our favourite memories together. Like that magical moment a few years earlier, on a mountain in Austria, when a deer came running by very fast and so close it almost touched us.

As the night turns into morning we are told more information will be given by doctors who will arrive latter in the morning. I decide to go home to have a short break. As I open the front door, the cat comes running to me. “I think we have lost Dimitra” I tell him. Then I to go the bathroom, call my mother and to charge my phone.

Back in the hospital, we get confirmation that it is indeed a haemorrhage and that her condition is still life-threatening. We are told about the first 72 hours being the most critical. We are now at 14.

She will be taken to the ICU and we believe this will happen any moment. It ends up taking until late in the afternoon, for no reason that is clearly communicated to us. It doesn’t matter. The doctors are friendly and working hard. I just wait and see what happens.

A few more friends and relatives arrive. I spend some more time sitting next to her, share more memories and have the bears stroke her arms. I take a few photos of the bears leaning against her.

I walk some more throughout the hospital corridors. I have been awake for more than 24 hours but only occasionally feel very tired. My phone helpfully informs me I have taken 14,400 steps today.

When Dimitra is finally taken to the ICU, our job is more or less done. The ICU rules allow us visit her only one hour a day and the next visiting hour isn’t until the next afternoon. We are given a secret peak at how she is lying very calmly in bed number one, then we go home.

I am now getting more certain she will make it after all. She isn’t done yet.

In the evening I talk to a friend who shares my calm observation of the situation. I let a few other friends know what happened via email. Then I go to bed. I sleep well.

I do some shopping in the morning before we go to the hospital. There is no point in going earlier than the one hour visiting slot, something Dimitra’s mother will also realise after today. I can’t bring the bears into the ICU itself, but they are in my bag that I bring to the hospital. I smile when I talk to her. I cry. She looks peaceful and I know I don’t have to worry about her.

Indeed, I do not worry. Over the next few days, we learn a few more details about her situation. Some positive, some negative, most of them neutral and left up for us to interpret. It is fine. I learn what happens so that I can tell others about it, but that’s really the only reason I need to know.

The next few days are mostly the same. We visit the hospital during the one hour slot, spend some time together with friends and relatives and that is it. I do some things around the house. I do some work. And I continue to sleep well.

In the meantime, Dimitra makes it through the first 24, then 48 and then 72 hours. They are talking of doing another MRI scan so they can see whether she is ready to be woken her up, but a slight complication arises in that there has been an infection in her lungs, a possible side-effect of the haemorrhage. This needs to heal first.

Tuesday, five days after the haemorrhage, something changes inside me. I start to get a bit impatient. I want to know when they will wake her up and what state she will be in. There are mentions of very long recovery processes. Of possible permanent damage. We are well over a 100 hours in now and no one talks of the possibility of this being fatal any more.

On Wednesday morning I do some work before we make our daily trip to the hospital. Then my mother-in-law comes into my room. She tells me that the hospital called her and that something is up with Dimitra’s lungs. She calls Dimitra’s brother and passes the phone to me. “Dimitra is gone” he says.

I thank him and forget to ask whether this means that she has died, or maybe that just they know she will not make it. I tell a few people the sad but still somewhat uncertain news. I call my mother. Only much later will I learn that “being gone” is the Greek way of saying someone has passed.

So the news of Dimitra’s death is slightly lost in translation. It is one of the many small but genuinely funny moments of this strange week.

While we are waiting to be picked up go to the hospital, Dimitra’s mother asks me to help her find some clothes, including clean underwear and a bra, for Dimitra to wear in the coffin. Apparently, dead people wear clean underwear. Apparently, if they have breasts they wear a bra.

In the meantime, I remember how five and a half days earlier, I had been thinking about what my life would look like after her death and how I knew I would be alright. I am glad I am prepared. It is all quite surreal, but I do feel calm.

When we get to the hospital, some relatives have already arrived. Dimitra is in a small room, probably a small mortuary. She doesn’t look pretty, like she has been badly punched. I touch her. I cry. I thank her. Then I leave the room.

Greek funerals generally take place the next day and this is what will happen for Dimitra as well. A few practicalities are discussed with the funeral director and then we are done. A relative and I go to a bakery to buy some food. Nothing in the bakery suggests that life is any different now that I have become a widower. It is good.

I talk to some friends on the phone in the afternoon while most of Dimitra’s relatives remain downstairs. I arrange for my mother to fly over for the funeral. I feel a strong sense of purpose about my life.

At some point, Dimitra’s father comes to me and says “thank you”. Nothing more. Just that. Given the complicated relationship Dimitra had with her father, and given how I didn’t always understood this well enough, this would be one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

I go to bed on time, but I only sleep about half an hour during the night. I am lucky to have friends around the world who are in different time zones and I talk to a few of them online. I worry about the future. I worry about finding meaning during the rest of my life.

And I worry about all the things that made us. The bears in particular. I realise I will never send Dimitra an email on behalf of bear when I am travelling any more. When I finally give up getting more sleep, I ask a cousin of hers if I can send her emails on the bears’ behalf instead. I can.

I pick up my mother from the airport and together we take a taxi to the cemetery. I had never attended a funeral in Greece before and I don’t know the procedures. I have already decided that whether or not I will be able to see Dimitra once more, it will be fine.

It turns out I can still see her, lying in a beautiful black coffin. She looks a lot better than the day before, but with lots of make up, which she rarely wore. I thank her once again. I tell her I will be alright. I know I will be. And then I have the bears have a final peak at her.

Outside the little room she is in, I speak to friends and relatives and point out to my brother-in-law that Dimitra would have told her mother off for sitting there next to the coffin, crying so loudly. He decides to tell her and she thinks it is funny. It is, because it is true.

There is a short ceremony in the church, after which we take Dimitra to her grave. The coffin is lowered into the open hole as clumsily as I had lifted her onto the MRI scanner a week earlier. It is funny.

And that is it. The rest of my life has now truly started. It was a strange but in many ways beautiful week, just like the year that followed would be strange but often very beautiful.

Dimitra is gone, but she will be with me forever. Everything is good.

Midlife

It was Dimitra’s birthday on a Sunday in March and because that was worth celebrating, I joined a few friends and relatives to pay a visit to her grave. Following Greek custom, one of the priests working at the cemetery was called and said a short prayer and then somehow felt inspired to mention how he had come to realise that life, especially for men, really starts at 40.

It was a slightly surreal experience, because I was standing next to him and, unbeknownst to him, I was 40.

I had been more concerned about turning 40 than I had wanted to admit. Not only did 40 feel incredibly old (I left home not long after my own parents were 40; I would turn 40 without having had children), it also felt like the point of no return. And in true midlife crisis spirit, I doubted just about every decision I had ever made in my life.

Then one week before my 40th birthday I suddenly became a widower. And everything changed.

Though it took me a full year to fully realise this, all my past decisions suddenly became alright while at the same time I was able to change anything I wanted.

Dimitra had the power to change people’s lives. This is how many friends past and present remembered her after she died. This is also what she did to me when we met a decade and a half ago.

And this is what she did again when she took that taxi into eternity last summer.

The year I was 40 has been the most amazing year of my life. Because not despite the many moments, especially towards the end of it, that I actually did feel rather miserable. I learned as much from those moments as I did from the many new friendships I made.

It dawned on me the other day that the last time I felt truly miserable was the morning of my 41st birthday. Then I got so tired of myself I gave myself a virtual kick up the backside. Everything has been going better since.

I am often surprised at how amazing my life is going and how great the future looks, even if in practical terms it also looks very uncertain. I am eternally grateful to Dimitra for giving me this opportunity and owe it to her to make the best of it, every single moment of the day.

It turned out to be an unexpectedly weird midlife crisis and yes, I do miss her dearly every single day, but heck, I really like this life as a 40-something. And I am so looking forward to the rest of it.

Podcasts

A few years ago, I was interviewed for a podcast by a presenter who clearly wasn’t much of a listener himself. “How can you listen to so many podcasts?” he asked at the beginning of the interview and I explained I listened to them while doing work around the house, while walking around town and really, at just about every moment I didn’t need my brain for something else.

Podcasts are great. I have always liked radio and podcasts are essentially radio on demand. There are so many good quality ones on so many interesting topics and when I have run out of podcasts to listen to, there are always audiobooks to complement them.

Dimitra’s death last year significantly reduced the amount of social interaction in my life so I ended up listening to even more podcasts. I had a bluetooth earpiece in my ear for most of the day so that I could press play whenever I went to the bathroom, checked the laundry or got myself some fresh coffee from the kitchen.

Listening to podcasts had the added benefit that most mundane tasks became fun and interesting. It was great.

Except that with all this listening, I didn’t give my brain much time to actually think. About work. About life. About trivial things. About big things.

It would be too far-fetched to say that podcasts were an escape mechanism ─ after all, I had been listening to them a lot before Dimitra’s death ─ but all this listening didn’t give me the time and space to digest the increasingly complex feelings I had. And I had been evading those feelings.

Last month, as I was travelling, I took a break from listening to podcasts. I walked through foreign places absorbing the sounds of the city and found myself catching bits of other people’s conversations on public transport. It was great.

I also found myself listening to my own thoughts. I had forgotten that much as I like to digest information, I also like to think. I found myself thinking a lot more. And I had missed that.

I now listen to podcasts occasionally, when there is something I really want to listen to. They’re still great and my preferred podcast app ─ ironically named Podcast Addict ─ is still there within hand reach. But being on my own, with just me and my brain, is great too. And even more important.

Renewing the vows

In 2010, Dimitra and I both read a book that inspired her ─ and thus inspired us ─ to write ‘manifestos’: lists of rules to keep in mind and to live our lives by.

Dimitra would often enthusiastically refer to her manifesto in the years that followed (“the Prague Diner Manifesto”, as she called it, for it was written while we were on holiday) and even got some of her friends friends to write their own.

I quickly forgot what I wrote in mine.

In part this was because I wasn’t ready for this. At 32, I felt a lot less my real age than I do now. I still struggled with life more than I admitted.

I also found it hard to make it genuine. I am a natural pleaser and thus it became about what I thought Dimitra wanted from me, rather than what I wanted for myself. Trying to please others isn’t necessarily a good character trait, and certainly not what others are looking for.

Nine years later, fate has made it so that I am on my own again.

As I tried and sometimes struggled to adapt to this new reality, I started to write things down on this blog. And then I found myself using these blog posts as reminders of what I really want, of what I believe I am meant to do.

And so I found myself thinking of those 2010 manifestos and ended up writing a new one: ten things I tend to forget, especially when I am not well, to regularly consult and to check big and small decisions against.

And here’s the thing: it helps. It might be psychology 101, but having a written list of things to check is a surprising simple way to not fall into bad habits.

Asking how someone is doing only because I am lonely? No, because I have promised myself not to do things disingenuously. Saying something just for the sake of doing so? No, because I agreed with myself to know when to shut up.

Dimitra and I occasionally discussed renewing our wedding vows. We never did ─ and then things happened. This is like renewing the vows I made to myself. I need this to move forward. It is great.

Moving and moving on

Elizabeth Alexander is an American poet. She read a poem during the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. She is a mother of two and was married to a man who died unexpectedly in 2012. She wrote a memoir about this called The Light of the World.

Dimitra, for that was my wife’s name, and I both read the book a few years ago, having discovered it independently of each other. Not until a few months after her death did I remember it and not until this spring, during a visit to the United States, did I finally get my hands on a paper copy.

Though everyone’s story of grief and loss is different, the book really resonated with me when I re-read it. And then I came to the passage where Elizabeth and her children, a year after the husband’s death, decide they need to move out of their house.

Yes! I realised immediately. Yes! So do I.

I always knew I would eventually be leaving Greece, but I also thought this would be ‘when the right opportunity would present itself’. Suddenly I realised that I needed to take matters into my own hands and that it was actually very important to do so, perhaps more important than the actual moving away.

After Dimitra died, it helped me a lot to continue living our life, in our house and doing the job that, in many ways, we had built together. It gave me the time and space to digest what had happened and the safety of, in many ways, living life like I had done it for the past decade.

Now it is just as important for me to move on. Not to forget what happened or what our life was life, but to properly close that chapter in my life. To help us become me again.

And thus I will be leaving our house and Greece, and also my job, for new adventures. I don’t know yet where I will be moving to or what work I will be doing, or when this will place, but the necessary things have been set in motion. Alea iacta est.

It is exciting. It is exactly the opportunity provided by Dimitra’s death that I have talked about so often that I am now going to chase. I feel immensely privileged that I am able to do this.

It is also scary. Moving isn’t easy and moving internationally (which I have done twice) is even more difficult. There are many things I will need to discard of. And I have not made big decisions like this on my own for a very long time.

And this is exactly why it is such an important thing to do. I want to be doing great things, I keep saying. It is very important that I take this first step on my own.