Category Archives: mental health

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.

Sorry

On a beautiful summer day last year, I found myself standing next to my wife, looking at her. She didn’t look her normal self: she wore make-up, which she rarely did, and her hair was done in an unusual way. Also, she was lying in a coffin.

I didn’t know what funerals in Greece were like and just let things happen. I didn’t know whether there would be an opportunity to see her before the funeral, but there was and thus I was standing there, thinking of something to say.

I thanked her. For everything. And I promised her I would go and do great things. I don’t know the exact words I used but that was the gist of it. Then I went outside again.

I didn’t say sorry. Death makes a lot of things alright and the things I regretted or wished I had done differently suddenly didn’t matter any more.

But now, more than a year later, I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t fully appreciate her health problems. Not because they likely caused her early death, but because they made her life before that more difficult than I realised.

I am also sorry I didn’t fully appreciate her difficult childhood and how that had continued to affect her.

I think in practical terms I did alright to make her life easier and she certainly showed her appreciation for that. But it isn’t always about the practical things. I wish I had understood her a bit better back then. It would have helped her. It would have helped me.

Saying genuinely sorry is one of the hardest things to do. I certainly haven’t always been able to do so at times when I should have, especially because a good apology should come with a real intention to do better next time.

I don’t know what my next times will look like. But I know that I am able to do better. Because I am genuinely sorry.

Coupling

We were not one of those couples who would spend most of their free time together.

We were not one of those couples who, when not together, couldn’t wait to see each other again.

We were not one of those couples you would expect to ever be a couple.

And because we were not one of those couples, I didn’t think there would be much decoupling to be done.

But we were that couple who deeply cared for each other, in ways that I am only slowly starting to fully appreciate.

When I decide about what next steps to take, be they big or small, and I am honest and true to myself in doing so, I invariably end up going for what she would have wanted me to do.

Thus her caring for me continues, just like my caring for her continues by telling her story and honouring the gift that she has given me.

Decoupling is a lot harder than I thought it would be, but this is in part because not everything needs to be decoupled.

Because we were that kind of couple.

We are that kind of couple.

Imbalance

It was the evening after my wife’s funeral and my mother, who had come over for it, my wife’s mother and her father were sitting in our living room. “She wasn’t an easy wife” I found myself saying and her parents responded by saying that she wasn’t an easy daughter to have either.

I cannot express with how much love this was said and it remains one of my most treasured moments of that week.

My wife wasn’t an easy one to live with. And especially now that I look back at our relationship, this is actually one of the things I am most grateful for. An easy life is rarely a satisfying one.

I wasn’t an easy one to live with either. Knowing how to deal with my own feelings isn’t something that comes natural to me and frankly, I am still learning. Various things going on in my life made the first year of our marriage a particularly difficult one.

My wife wasn’t someone to give up easily once she had made up her mind, but I am certain that during difficult times, the thought of quitting had gone through her head. It did then, but also later, go through my own head.

It was never a thought that stayed for a long time. But as I am processing our relationship, I realise there was something unfair about it: for a number of reasons, including but not limited to me having a stable job, leaving would in practice have been a lot easier for me than it would have been for her.

The decision for her to do poorly paid or unpaid work was a deliberate one that we both fully supported. And it was fine, then but even more so now, because so many things become fine after death. But I don’t think I ever fully appreciated this imbalance.

Of course, should we have broken up I believe I would have done the decent thing and continued to support her. But in such circumstances people don’t always do the decent thing they intended to do.

For unrelated reasons, I have recently done some reading on relationships that are both abusive and very hard to leave. Alhough ours wasn’t like that in any way, it has made me realise the importance of being able to leave a relationship with relative ease and making sure the other party can do too. Because many relationships don’t end, like ours did, with death.

Minister

Italian for Beginners” is a Danish romantic comedy that I watched in the local art house some fifteen years ago and then again a few years later with my wife at home.

I don’t watch a lot of films but I often find myself thinking of this one, for it has one of my favourite film characters: a Lutheran minister who seems so calm and grounded as he talks to others about their various problems.

I have always wanted to be that person.

When I am confident enough, I think I can be that person. My wife used to say I had a lot of potential and even though that was often in the context of me not fully utilising it, I think she was right.

When calm and grounded, I do feel very strong. I have been called “the voice of reason” in meetings more than once and though often insecure about my own abilities, I do think this is an accurate description. It is also when I feel most myself.

But I am usually not calm and grounded. Fears and anxieties often get in my way and my ignoring of these fears and anxieties make things worse. This has always been true and is true even more so now, as I slowly come to realise that what happened last summer really did really throw me off balance.

As I was discussing mindfulness with someone the other day, I thought of the minister from the film and remembered a crucial detail: at the beginning of the film, his wife has just passed away.

I have always seen what happened last summer as an opportunity to do really great things and becoming the person I always wanted to become is one of these things.

But to do so, I first need to learn to deal with my own anxieties. That is more difficult than I realised as I constantly need to fight my tendency to escape from the anxieties for some false reality.

Instead, I need to stay focused on these anxieties to learn to properly deal with them. This is part of the reason I started writing about them on this blog. It hopefully helps me remain patient too.

And then the prize at the end is going to be great.

Grief

I have long felt connected to the ancient stoic philosophers and in particularly to their attitude towards death. There isn’t anything one can do about death, so there is no point in worrying about it, or wishing it wouldn’t or didn’t happen.

This didn’t change when my wife suddenly died last year. I have never, not even for a moment, wished her back, or felt angry about what happened. That just seemed pointless. It simply felt like her death at 37 was something that was always going to happen, except that we never knew about it.

It often seemed that other people were more affected by what happened than I was. As I was speaking to my mother-in-law earlier today, she mentioned that she didn’t remember much of what happened during those days. It feels like I remember every single moment.

There exists a great amount of literature, and other kinds of media, on grief, but I carefully avoided these, for I felt so little connection to them. It seemed that everyone else who lost a partner also lost part of the will to live, at least temporarily. I went out to buy a new bag three days after my wife’s death and felt happy and very much alive.

It is well known that everyone experiences grief differently and I just seemed to experience it very well.

“Did you really?” the psychologist sitting in a big armchair asks me. And I proudly and a little too quickly answer that “yes I did”. And then slowly realise that this pride was at least part of the problem.

“Doing well” was something I had become proud of, something that I almost defined myself through: I was that guy whose wife died and who was doing so well.

As with many things I write down here, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. Especially because after a while I wasn’t doing that well any more.

Sure, I was dealing well with the narrow definition of grief. I was never upset or angry about her death. But grief is so much broader than that.

It includes feeling lonely. Feeling unsettled. Being anxious about the future. Worrying whether you will ever find someone who will know you that well. Missing the things we did together. Missing looking after someone. Missing those things that were really ‘us’. Struggling with the questions that will forever remain unanswered.

In my wish to be doing well ─ and to appear to be doing well ─ I ignored all these aspects of grief, sometimes right until they hit me in the face. And then I tried to reason these worries away.

“You know it doesn’t work like that, don’t you?” the psychologist, still sitting in the big armchair, points out. And I don’t answer because of course I do. But patience isn’t something I am particularly good at.

A few months after my wife’s death, someone said I seemed to be embracing grief. And at the time, I did indeed. And then I stopped doing that.

Apart from the fact that I was feeling somewhat proud of my way of dealing with grief, I also felt that focusing on it got in my way of moving on. Which it did, but only because I was trying to move on too fast.

In recent months, I have started to embrace grief again. No, I still don’t feel upset or angry about my wife’s early death: that aspect of my dealing with grief was genuine. But I have suddenly become the kind of widower who uses his wife’s picture at the background image of his phone. And that is more okay than I thought it would be half a year ago.

Saying that we are again dealing with my fears and anxieties together sounds cheesy and isn’t really true either: I am very aware of the fact that I am really on my own and that she isn’t there to give me advice. But as long as I feel connected to her, I can gather the strength and patience I need to move forward. At whatever speed is appropriate.

Still in my heart retain her wonted place

Yet is remembrance of those virtues dear,
   Yet fresh the memory of that beauteous face;
Still they call forth my warm affection’s tear,
   Still in my heart retain their wonted place.

In the eastern outskirts of Athens, there is a neighbourhood named after Lord Byron. On the eponymous cemetery, my wife lays buried. I have always found it fitting that the final resting place of the woman who taught me to love poetry is named after a poet.

The cemetery is a happy place, where the hills and trees look after her and the stray cats keep her company. I don’t go there very often, but when I do, standing next to her grave always does more to me than I expected.

Today, a service was held to commemorate the anniversary of her passing. She didn’t die until the 18th, but as she took almost six days to die, any day of that week would have done. This just worked out best.

As I entered the church and saw her photo on the altar ─ the one in which she laughs a very happy laugh ─ I suddenly got overwhelmed with emotions and cried louder that I think I have done since last summer.

It was great.

I felt very connected to her in a way that I haven’t always done in the past year. I missed that connection when I was trying to live an easy, care-free life, or when I was pretending to myself to be further ahead than I really was.

Now I realised that as long as I remain true to myself, I will always be connected to her, wherever in the world I am and whatever happens in my life.

I will always carry her in my heart.