Trying to navigate through bereavement is like trying to drive a car, blindfolded, on a busy street. Terrifying.
But I’m a fairly patient man, and ultimately this quality has been my saving grace. I’ve only been able to withstand the despair by clinging onto the hope that one day things might improve.
My name is David Gledhill. I’m a 41 year old musician (one half of the band Skint & Demoralized), film-maker – and widower. Last year, on the 17th of April, I sat by the bedside of my partner Tracey. As the clock read 11:26am, I held her hand. Her little body had been ravaged by cystic fibrosis and, despite battling the odds, she had lost the fight.
I met Tracey in 1997, 18 months after she’d had a double lung transplant. Tracey was born with the disease, which amongst other things, slowly destroys the lungs, usually leading to death before the age of 30. But she was one of the lucky ones. And when I met her, she was the healthiest she had been.
We spent 15 wonderful years together, achieving limited success with our band Gledhill (Tracey was backing singer and keyboardist, see her in our video for debut single Remain, above). But bereavement was inevitably a topic of many conversations. After all, she was chronically ill, and I was her carer. Yet rather than crumble with fear, she wanted to try and prepare me for what was to come. But the cold truth is that nothing can.
In the early stages, it’s not actually that bad. Leading up the funeral, it’s busy, everybody trying to help. You’re propped up, but at the same time you’re in a dream state. And you feel at the centre of those around you.
But then the funeral is over, and slowly but surely people go back to their own lives. Tracey wasn’t their partner, so for them it’s not the end of the world. Anger erupts because nobody else is feeling the same pain. Much worse is loneliness; it nearly swallowed me whole.
After a month of sleeping on a friend’s sofa, I summoned enough courage to go back to the house I had shared with Tracey for 15 years. She had very limited mobility in the last years of her life, and she’d pant and pause as she made her way up the staircase. Eventually we moved our bedroom downstairs.
So the first thing I did now was move my bedroom back to its original location. I started rearranging furniture in other rooms, trying to create new patterns. I decided to get all of the photographs of her printed, a kind of irrational fear lest I forget her; it certainly was not helpful having her staring at me from every corner.
I’d see a picture of us on holiday or her favourite dress, and feel my throat suddenly contracting with the realisation that she wasn’t there. She brought that coat or dress to life; nobody else could have worn it with such exuberance. And now it sits, precariously balanced between the rubbish tip and the charity shop. It’s no longer a treasured possession or an indulgence, just a painful impracticality.
I think the best word to describe those first six months is numb. I was in so much pain and denial that I tried to turn down my emotions in the vain hope that the pain would decrease.
I kept expecting someone to tell me it had all been an awful joke. To go from being the most important person in someone else’s life to being “that poor bloke who lost his wife” is hard. You feel like you have a virus. And as much as Tracey had tried her best to prepare me, bereavement is so complex I hardly knew where to begin when people asked how I was coping. So many nuances, moments of hope, dashed by a lightning bolt of pain.
I’d seen a therapist several years ago to help me cope with the anxieties and stress of caring for somebody who is chronically ill. Returning, the first question I asked was, “So when do I remove Tracey’s picture from the lock screen on my phone?” His response: “Whenever you bloody want. There are no rules.”
Over that first year, I had to wrestle so much with what to do with Tracey’s things. It’s one of the hardest parts of grieving. When do you start going through possessions?
Tracey loved to shop, so the prospect seemed endless. Take her favourite red shoes that she could hardly even wear due to increasingly swollen ankles. Only very recently did I summon the courage to remove them from the shoe-rack.
The final pillowcase that she used still carried the scent of her perfume. Smell has such a strong sensory effect that there was no way I could wash it. Closing my eyes, it was just like we were together in bed again. And once you’ve done that, opening them again is unbearable.
There are some darker and weirder sides to bereavement. One month after Tracey died, I wasn’t able to stop looking at women. My libido was insane. I declared myself a monster to my therapist, who pointed out that it was perfectly natural, but the guilt was still horrendous. And even flirting or just talking to women made me feel great, but then I would always return home and force myself to look at endless pictures of Tracey. So the healthy option was to stand up to my grief and not take the easy way out.
I also told everyone that I would spread Tracey’s ashes on the first year anniversary of her death. One year arrived, and I bottled it. I couldn’t do it. Still can’t. And nobody can tell you when it’s the right time.
It’s worth adding that for me, I not only lost my partner, I lost my role as a carer. And that has been just as tough. Looking after someone gave me so much pleasure and a sense of worth. And I miss that too. I’m having to learn to try and be more selfish and think about what’s good for me now.
And so, finally, I had made it through the first year; I could stop counting the monthly anniversaries. And I’d survived without doing anything crazy, apart from spending £800 on a camper van for a film I’m shooting (more of which below). So was the darkness was just starting to lift a little?
Recently, I went on my first date. It was – coincidentally – through the Kentishtowner that we met. I was ridiculously nervous, yet it was good to feel that a little sunshine was creeping into my world. If I’m honest, however, the guilt did come afterwards. I didn’t want it to; but it did.
Although we had a few dates, this girl and I, things didn’t quite work out and we’ve since agreed to be just friends. But no matter: it was such a milestone for me that I feel much more confident moving forward.
Now, 17 months after her death, when the grief threatens to take over, I cling onto Tracey’s assertion that I will find happiness again. And not to try would be a slap in the face to everything that she stood for as a human being.
Her mantra? “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.”
And so that’s the title of the film I have just made, about what happens to a man in the twelve months after he loses his soulmate. It’s not out till next year but if you wish, you can watch the trailer below.