Who do you think you are? How strong is your sense of self? Do you know your own values, have your own rules, and do you live by them? If the keystones of your current life were taken away from you, would you feel fractured and helpless, or – whatever other emotions might disturb your balance – would your core be strong enough to withstand the onslaught?
I left my job (by my own choosing) and lost a soul-mate (suddenly & unexpectedly), both of whom I'd been with for over 30 years, in the space of ten days. So I find myself coming up against these questions over and over.
I am discovering just how important the answer might be.
I remember telling someone a few years ago that "I am far more fragile than you think". I was wrong. I am much stronger than I knew.
I am open to my emotions and often they are not what I would wish, and sometimes they lay me very low indeed, but ultimately I know my core is solid and I can withstand a great deal. I know who I am.
When someone dies, especially when it seems to come out of the blue, you will be enveloped in love from those around you. And you will need it.
Some people, either instinctively or through their own life lessons, will know how to express that love. They will be there for you, quietly doing what needs to be done or making very precise and specific offers to pick up where they know you can't. They are the ones you will turn to. You will find that despite what you might have thought, you are actually quite good at asking for help.
I have long held to a motto of when you can't cope, don't – but I've only just discovered what it really means to not be able to cope. When I couldn't, I didn't. I didn't try to.
Sometimes, the volcano just erupts and the best you can do is try to direct the floe. And ask for help.
Others will offer to be there, but it is just a form of words. Be grateful that they cared enough to offer, but be careful of calling them on it.
Both groups are likely to tell you how you are going to feel. Ignore them. They do not know.
You do not know. That was the most useful and truthful piece of advice I have received over the last six weeks was this: do not even think about tomorrow, you don't know how you will feel in two hours' time.
Even so, I have not felt most of the things I'm told I will feel. Maybe I will, maybe I won't, maybe my sense of self is my guard against some of them. I am not angry. I do not feel empty. I do not resent him leaving me – I do not even feel that he has left me. Hurt and pain are difficult ones: I'm not sure whether or not those words apply. I am frustrated and challenged by some of what I now have to do, which he should have done – but to be fair, we'd talked about this stuff, I was already frustrated by it years before it fell to me to resolve. I think I always knew some of it would land on my desk.
If this sounds cold, let me add that I do feel intensely sad, sorrowful. I have my meltdown moments, the worst of which to date lasted fully four and half days, during which the only time I wasn't weeping or sobbing I was asleep. Small things choke me up. Thoughts distract me. I can't remember where I've put things.
I am also slightly scared. I wake up every day knowing that no-one is coming: that this day will only be what I make it. My safety-net and my safety-valve are gone. I'm flying solo.
To quote my lover quoting my dad: it wasn't supposed to be like this.
But it is.
And I know that I am ok. And will be ok. Because I am stronger than I knew.
Because, fundamentally, I know who I am – and who I am is not dependent upon who I'm with or what job I'm doing.
As the taxi approached the hospital where he had died in the half an hour I had been away from his bedside, the radio played How am I supposed to live without you?
Some while later, just before I kissed his cold hand for the last time, I asked him "So what am I so supposed to do now, my man?"
It was a few hours later that I heard him answer: same as you always have; you'll be fine.
One of the reasons for that is the way we lived our shared lives. We never completely wrapped ourselves up in each other. I had my interests; he had his, we had ours. Overlaps, not congruity. It was important to both of us that we had our own space as well as our shared space. We took that further than most couples would, but even so, the concept is valid. If you rely on someone else for total validation, if your lover or soul-mate really is your whole life, then you will truly struggle to survive a parting of the ways however that parting might come about.
Much of my life remains intact. I have often travelled alone and walked alone and written and read and cooked and gardened alone. I have swum and even danced alone.
I have shared these things with him, but I did not need him to enable me to indulge them. I also know that I can share these things with others. I can therefore still do all of the things I love to do.
The same goes for the work. I have seen many people work hard their whole lives, on the when-then hope of what they would do in their retirement only to find that the premise on which that was built was taken away. Either the money or the person they wanted to share it with or the time were no longer available to them, or more often the simple fact of not being defined by their job, their perceived role in the world, meant that they no longer had the confidence, the sense of self, to follow through on their dreams.
My career was accidentally built, some of my biggest passions were always outside of the job; others only developed when the job took unexpected turns. I was never going to wait for retirement to fulfil my ambitions, I worked on those around the day job. I walked away from full-time employment to improve the mixture, with only a half-baked plan as to how that was going to happen. That plan is still in the oven. I suspect it won't come out looking anything like the picture in the recipe book in my head, but that doesn't mean it won't taste amazing.
I have no idea what my life will look like in 12 months' time. All bets are off. It will not be the one I was planning six months ago. Or even 3 months ago. But there is one thing I do know…I will still be standing, getting up and getting on with it and just generally being me.
That person is still growing, and this experience will no doubt change her, weaken and strengthen and remould parts of her, but the core is both solid and flexible and the values are intact. I don't know what my life is becoming, but I know who I am.
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