This is one of a pair of blogs - see also Clearing after bereavement: My story
Clearing after bereavement is hard. It’s full of triggers and tough memories and it's not something we ever imagined ourselves to have to do. Don't feel guilty clearing things out. This is your home, and is where you need to feel comfortable living.
There is no single right time for doing it. For some people, sorting out a partners' belongings happens the day after the death, for some it takes years, for others, it never happens. It also doesn't always happen all at once – it could be in two goes, or six goes, or ten goes, or sometimes a lifetime of goes. I did some sorting, got rid of some clothes and changed the layout of the bedroom, but it took about two years, the death of a friend, and a global pandemic for me to tackle it properly.
I did the clearing on my own, as it meant that I could work at my own speed, and not have to stop to explain things or answer questions. I did have a couple of friends on hand who I could message for support, or to show pictures of my progress. I also took frequent breaks as it was both physically and emotionally exhausting. But it's not the same for everyone – you might want to call in a friend or a family member for practical help, or just moral support. For some people, the process has to involve other people. This can be hard, and will need a lot of conversations and patience from everyone involved.
When you start clearing, divide things into categories:
Break the process down into manageable tasks, and start with the things with the fewest memories attached to them. Do an hour a day or a day a week, and tackle it room by room, or even cupboard by cupboard. Step away for a bit whenever you need to – go for a walk, have a nap, watch or listen to something.
If you are not working to a deadline, don't feel rushed – if you're not sure about whether to keep something or get rid of it, put it away until the next round of clearing. Some people will be under a deadline to sort things out – there may be a date to leave the property, or there may be pressure from other family members. If you have this kind of stress, enlist friends to help and to support you.
Create a memory box for things you want to keep but don't want to see every day, and take photos of things that are important memories, but you don't want to keep.
Be prepared for the grief attacks. And for the unexpected. But also, enjoy the happy memories. However hard it is, decluttering and rearranging your home can be a very positive experience. I found that it helped me to process my grief, which I didn't expect, and to reclaim the house as my home.
Clothes and jewellery
CDs, DVDs, games and books
Phones, tablets and computers
Some days we potter along. Everything is, if not marvellous, then pretty much okay. Then seemingly out of the blue comes an attack of grief. It feels as if you are standing on a beach and a wave has come up and caught you behind the knees, throwing you off balance. Grief attacks can seem overwhelming.
What triggers a grief attack?
A few months after Tim died, I watched a Lancaster fly across my village. I knew that Tim would have loved it, would have had so many stories about it, and I dissolved into grief. Grief attacks can be triggered by different things – thinking about milestone dates, suddenly hearing a piece of music on the radio, someone saying a particular phrase, seeing someone wearing a particular colour or style. Even a particular kind of weather can trip off a grief attack.
When a grief attack hits, sometimes we need to just 'sit' in the grief, and let it wash over us. Cry if we need to. Be gentle with ourselves. Remember that the attack will pass. And then breathe slowly, and use grounding techniques to return to the here and now.
After Tim died, I became so tired. The kind of tired that squashes you flat. The kind of tired that it felt like even my bones hurt. Feeling this exhausted can be scary. But it is a normal part of grief.
Why does grief make you tired?
You're in shock
A psychological shock triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. Our bodies fill with the stress hormone cortisol, desensitising us and putting us on alert. After a bereavement, particularly a sudden and unexpected one, our cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, leaving us exhausted.
Your brain has so much to process
Our brains get tired when they are being asked to process information all the time – every decision requires energy. So grief exhaustion is both physical and mental.
You can't sleep
Grieving often means your head just won't stop – it's full of spinning thoughts and tough memories. You may also be having nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive memories. All of these will affect your sleep.
There's so much to do
Bereavement leaves us with a lot of admin, from bank accounts to businesses, and from phone contracts to funeral arrangements. There is so much that needs to be completed, and some things must be done in specific timelines.
Losing someone also means losing their help at home. This can include routine jobs around the house and caring responsibilities. For some people, bereavement means having to find somewhere else to live, sometimes at short notice.
You are hypervigilant
Hypervigilance is a state of extreme alertness where you are constantly assessing the environment for threats, both real and perceived. You may feel that since you have been through a traumatic event, what's to stop another? Hypervigilance can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is exhausting in itself, as well as making it hard to relax or sleep.
You aren't eating properly
It can be hard to eat well when you are grieving – it may not seem worth it to cook for one, or your appetite may not be what it was. Not having enough of the right kind of nutrients leaves you without energy. Both your diet and your alcohol intake can also affect the depth of your sleep.
What to do?
I'm a writer by trade. Science writing pays the bills and fiction provides the creativity. After Tim died, I used my blog as part of my grieving, sometimes writing to Tim, sometimes documenting the steps I took, other times just setting down in words how I was feeling. There were bees in there too.
Writing The Widow's Handbook is helping me work through parts of my grief, and understand why I feel how I feel.
Writing your grief
Writing can be a way of making sense of the world, of getting feelings out of our heads and putting them in order, of processing our grief. It can help us to manage the chaos in our heads. Writing can trigger emotions, so be prepared for what I call grief attacks, those moments that feel like waves of the sea catching you behind the knees and sweeping you off your feet.
Writing can actually help our health – it can boost our immune systems. It can also improve our mood. While depression isn't the same as grief, a study of people with depression showed that writing every day lifted their mood.
Just sit down and do it, with paper and pen or pencil, or on a computer or tablet. Whatever works for you. Don't worry about whether what you are writing is any good. Later you can edit it if you want others to read it, or if you want to keep it as a record, but for now, just pour it out on the page.
Writing for yourself means that you can be more open and honest than you perhaps can be with other people. You can just let out exactly how you feel, whether that's anger, relief, hope or heartbreak.
How to start
The spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino to explain to a friend about what it felt like to have the chronic illness lupus. She used it to describe how every task in a day requires a block of energy, be it physical or mental, and that she had to budget out those blocks across the day. She wrote it up as an essay for her blog.
"I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said 'Here you go, you have Lupus'… I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of spoons. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many spoons you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons…. I asked her to list off the tasks of her day, including the most simple. As she rattled off daily chores, or just fun things to do; I explained how each one would cost her a spoon… I think she was starting to understand when she theoretically didn’t even get to work, and she was left with 6 spoons. I then explained to her that she needed to choose the rest of her day wisely, since when your spoons are gone, they are gone."
Spoons and grief
The spoon theory was created for chronic illness, but it can also be used for the impact that grief has on your physical and mental spoon numbers. Early on in grief I was so tired that my bones hurt, which took away some of my physical spoons. I also had widow brain, which took away some of my mental spoons too. Creating a spoons graphic based on your own needs can be a useful exercise to help you understand what you need, and what you can do to look after yourself.
What you can do
Notes about spoons
You can get Bereavement Support Payments from the government. This is not a means tested payment, and is open to people whose husband, wife or civil partner died in the last 21 months, provided that the late partner paid National Insurance contributions for at least 25 weeks in one tax year, or if they died because of a work-related disease or accident. You will get £2,500 as an initial payment, and £100 a month.
Claiming within 3 months of the death means that you will get the full amount, but you can claim up to 21 months after their death. You can apply online, by phone or by post.
Straight after Tim died, my head was full of fog. I felt disconnected from the world. And I think this was my brain protecting me from the awfulness of what had just happened. While the disconnection went away, the brain fog – known as widow brain or grief brain – stayed.
It's a feeling that you can't think straight, and with it comes short term memory loss, numbness, lack of ability to process information or instructions, tiredness and lack of focus. But be reassured – it's normal. Our brains are acting to protect us from the trauma.
Widow brain, for many people, lifts in the first year to 18 months, but it lasts for different lengths of time for different people, and stress or milestones can make it worse. For people who have been caring for someone for a long time, part of widow brain may be a loss of purpose. Greif can also mean not eating properly, not exercising, or not sleeping well, and this all feeds into widow brain.
The science bit
Emotional traumas affect how our brains work. Imaging the brain shows that mental and physical pain trigger the same areas of the brain. While it's nothing like the same level of trauma, a brain imaging study in people who have recently split up with their partners shows that it affects their executive function, the system in the brain that sits in the prefrontal cortex and supports your ability to understand, decide, recall, memorise and have self-control. Your prefrontal cortex gets overloaded by grief and makes it harder to function well.
The practical bit
Grief has made me the most tired I have ever been. So tired my bones hurt. Rest your mind and your body when you can.
Explain to people what's going on in your head, and send them this blog post if they don't get it.
A really useful piece of advice for me was not to make any major decisions for the first year.
To do lists and notes
Write things down. To do lists are useful, and have stopped me forgetting to do many, many things (the combination of widow brain and ADHD really doesn't help my memory!) Break tasks down into the smallest bits possible – rather than having a to do for 'put everything into my name', break it into house insurance, deeds, rent' etc. That way tasks are less daunting, and crossing off each small thing make it feel like an achievement.
Digital reminders rule my life. I use smartphone alarms to remind me to do things that are daily or weekly. I put appointments with reminders on my digital calendar for everything from whether it's bin day or recycling day, through birthdays, to work deadlines and days out, and I can access this on both my phone and my computer.
Physical reminders can also be helpful. If you need to remember to take something with you when you go out, put it on the doormat, or leave a sticky note on the front door (I get through a lot of sticky notes).
Have a pad of sticky notes and a pen somewhere convenient. When you think of something that needs doing, write it on the sticky note and put it on the wall. When someone says 'what can I do', give them a sticky note.
Stilling the whirling thoughts
Grounding can help to still your brain when everything is churning around and destroying your ability to focus.
Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself. Remember – you are only human. You've been through a lot. And you are grieving. It's not your fault your head is like this. In the end, things getting missed or forgotten are very rarely the end of the world.
Tim died suddenly in the early hours of the morning. His heart just stopped. He had type 2 diabetes that he perhaps didn't manage as well as he should, and he had been feeling tired. But he was a bookseller, and we were in the process of moving his enormous stock of books from one storage unit to another.
I asked him if he was having chest pain, and he said no. So, I brushed it off as simple weariness. A banana box of books weighs a lot, after all.
After he died, and the post-mortem revealed heart failure related to type 2 diabetes, I was wracked with guilt. What could I have done? Monitored his diet more closely? Watched him take his tablets three times a day? Insisted he went onto insulin? Got the truth out of him about how he was actually feeling? If he'd died in an accident, I suspect I would have felt guilty for not giving him a lift that day, or persuading him to get the bus, or agreeing that he should cycle.
That's one kind of guilt after someone dies. There's also the guilt of feeling that you didn't say what you should have, or said what you shouldn't have. Did I tell him I loved him the night before? Did we work too much and not spend enough time together? What if our last night out had been a terrible one (rather than the wonderful evening it was), or if I'd persuaded him that we shouldn't go? How would I feel if we'd had an argument? This kind of guilt may become more complicated if you had a difficult relationship with the person who died.
As survivors, we can often feel guilty that we are alive, and our partner is dead. This is particularly intense for people surviving an incident where their partner died. Survivor guilt can also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – talk to your doctor or a psychotherapist if you think you might have PTSD.
In grief, I became full of 'I should have…' 'I could have…' 'I would have…' But feeling guilty doesn't mean that we are guilty – it's us trying to put order into the chaos that grief is. If we can blame someone, especially ourselves, we can think we get back control.
What can we do?
The cost of living is climbing, and that puts a squeeze on all of us. Here are some hints and tips that might help a little, and some of them will help the planet too.
People who are widowed don't just lose their partner – they lose their partner's income, and may lose access to their partner's pension and their home. These are part of the secondary losses. Money is the last thing we want to have to worry about while we are grieving.
Make sure that you are claiming all the benefits that you are due. The Citizens Advice Bureau can help. For new widows, there are some specific benefits, including the funeral expenses payment and the bereavement support payment. The support payment is currently only due to husbands, wives and civil partners, but this is set to change in 2022.
Heating, lighting and hot water
Broadband, phone and TV
Food and cooking
Citizens Advice: If you are struggling with living costs
Martin Lewis' MoneySavingExpert website
StepChange, a debt charity
Money Advice Trust