My only consolation is that I vaguely remember attending one such evening not long after her death. I was so upset at the time I haven't a clue what that night's speaker spoke about. No doubt, few will remember a word of what I will say, and yet there is always the danger that I might upset someone even more by making a not very well thought through comment or remark.
I will probably just end up saying a few things about how it was for me. But I need the comfort blanket of a script in case I freeze, or worse, I blubber on the night. One of the characteristics of the grieving process is that it is so personal: You feel that no one has ever gone through the same process as you, and in one sense this is correct: Each death is unique, and each relationship is unique, and there is no magic formula which can encompass it all.
I'm posting this here in order to "road test" my possible script. If any of you are angered, upset, annoyed, or concerned by anything I propose to say, please let me know. I'm trying to be helpful to people at a difficult time, not make it worse. This should be about them, not about me, but I'm not sure I can talk about this in anything other than a very personal way. I also reserve the right to edit out most of this diary afterwards if I come to feel that publishing this is all wrong. Maybe some things are best said in the quiet of the night and should never appear in hard print.
So here goes...
"When I was asked to do this talk, I must admit I was a little taken aback, because, despite what people might say about me, I am not used to talking about things I know very little about. And that, I'm afraid, is the truth of the matter: My only qualification for being here and speaking to you tonight is that I, too, have been bereaved.
And it is an extremely difficult topic to talk about, because it is so personal. Each of us has experienced it in our own unique, personal way, and no matter how much others may seek to empathise with us from their own experiences, it never quite seems to help that others have gone through a similar process.
How could this have happened to me and to my loved one? That is the question all of us must have asked at one time or another. Little matter that we know the world is rampant with war, poverty and disease; that for many, death is an everyday occurrence in their daily lives. Little matter that we all appreciate that there is a circle of life and that ultimately the wheel turns for all of us.
So I want to spend a few minutes this evening talking about how it was for me, not because I think your bereavement was the same, but precisely because all our experiences are different. I want to celebrate the uniqueness of our lives, our deaths, and our experiences of the deaths of our loved ones.
I'm sure most of us have heard of the alleged five stages of bereavement:
And perhaps all of us have experienced them to a greater or lesser extent. But for each of us the experience is different and unique. I will try to explain a little of how those experiences were for me.
Muriel Boothman was my life partner and wife for 27 years, and the mother of our three absolutely brilliant children. She was a social worker, community worker, social activist, feminist, and ultimately ended up managing a drug treatment service for heroin addicts. She helped many people to free themselves from drug addiction, the effects of domestic, physical, psychological and sexual violence, illiteracy, discrimination, poverty and the terrible effect on people's lives and self esteem which these things can have.
At her funeral, and afterwards, many people came up to me to speak about how she had changed their lives. People who had been sexually abused recovered their love of life, people who had been illiterate achieved university degrees, people who had been on hard drugs went on to lead full lives. What justice can there be in the world when someone like that dies from breast cancer at the age of 47?
In contrast, I worked in business, and provided for many of the material needs of our family. I supported her in every way I could, but there was really no comparison between her love of life and her contribution to the living and what I could bring to the table. When her terrible disease struck, I genuinely wanted to take her place had that been possible. She had so much more to give.
Being Muriel, of course, she set about dealing with her disease in an incredibly objective and professional manner. Consultants were harangued if they didn't give her the full facts and all the treatment options that were available. She went though the terrible trauma of mastectomy, chemotherapy, and every alternative treatment available.
When it became clear that these treatments had failed, she set about dealing with her own impending death in an incredibly clear and determined manner. She stopped all except palliative treatment and insisted on returning home from hospital. On no account was an ambulance to be called. She wasn't going back to hospital under any circumstances. Our children (then aged 14, 18, and 20) were kept fully informed. All the paperwork regarding wills and provision for the children's education and future had to be fully completed.
I went along with all of this, of course. It was important that her wishes be adhered to in every respect. But really, I didn't believe for a moment that she would die. Someone with so much life in her just couldn't be put away. Right up to a few days before she died, she was still listening to other people's problems, eating out at a friend's house, and making sure I was on the ball with all the things that had to be done for the children.
In retrospect, I think my state of denial was a very important part of helping me cope with the situation. Whatever happened to Muriel, I wasn't going to be complicit in the process. THIS WAS NOT HAPPENING AS FAR AS I WAS CONCERNED.
Muriel and I had an absolutely fabulous relationship since the time we first met. Friends couldn't believe how two such stubborn, strong willed, and sometimes awkward individuals could get on so well. We never had a serious disagreement. We even managed to do many of the things both of us wanted to do in our all too short time together. And yet I felt incredibly guilty when she died.
It should have been me, of course. She had so much more to give. I wasn't present at the moment of her death. I was too busy looking after all the friends who had called to the house. We never got to finish writing down all the childhood stories she wanted to preserve for the children. I have such a terrible memory for things that happened years ago, no matter how exciting at the time. I wasn't going to be much of a substitute mother for my children.
My children handled it much better than I did, of course. They seem to have inherited her calm assurance and determination to get on with their lives no matter what the obstacles.
In retrospect, I can see my denial of her dying process as very important for my own self preservation. If I could feel so guilty at her death even though we had had such a brilliant relationship, how bad must it be for people who are bereaved in much more difficult circumstances - people who have lost a child, people who lost someone in an accident, due to violence, due to poor medical treatment or people who have lost someone they had a bad relationship with and about whom they felt guilty in any case?
Whoever decided that Muriel should die did so against my absolute opposition. And still I felt guilty. I hadn't a clue as to what more I could have done, except spend more time with her in the last few days - but then I didn't accept that these could be her last few days.
The denial, guilt and anger have now gone, and every bargain I ever made was broken. But I was saved from depression by her love and that of my children. I will never accept that her death was part of any process I had anything to do with, but that is only as it should be. We do not own each other, however much we might love one another.
Muriel is dead for 4 years now. The kids have gone on to ever greater things. I have gotten on with things as best as I could. Muriel would have been quite cross with me for not moving on and doing more. But then we always respected each others space and our right to do our own thing in our own way.
Life goes on, we all move on. But Muriel will live in our hearts for ever. I hope that is the way things will be for you. There is no such thing as a good death, although no-one would have wished Muriel to suffer on as she did for much longer. But all we can do is honour our dead by getting on with our on lives as best we can - and by making the best of the opportunities we get but perhaps don't deserve.
Tonight is about celebrating those whose lives have been lost, and about reaffirming our commitment to making the best of those lives we have still got to live. Muriel would have kicked my ass big time if I had allowed myself to wallow in grief, guilt, anger, self pity or resentment. I'm not going to give her that chance!
And I hope that is how it will be for you, in a couple of years time, when the immediate pain has dulled. Yes, life does go on, we all have to move on. But we have to do so in our own slow and different ways. We do not own our loved ones, and they do not own us. The best we can do is remain true to their memory in the way we live our own lives - and make the most of the lives we still have. That is the least we can do for those who do not have that gift of life any longer.