I've known that I was attracted to both men and women since my 20s. Actually… the crushes on a couple of truly awesome female teachers in my teens might mean I knew it before, but didn't realise what it meant. The first time I came out as bi to a lesbian friend, she told me that bisexuality is just a phase, and I should pick a side. Consequently, I didn't tell anyone else for a long time.
I married Paul at 24, which now seems impossibly young. Over a decade our marriage fell apart. Tim, who I'd known for many years, helped me through depression and a divorce, and we drifted from being very close friends to falling in love. While I spent this period of my life 'straight passing', I was still bisexual. Tim knew about my sexuality and loved me all the same. He died suddenly at 50, after we'd only been married nine years, and my life crumbled.
Some friends had known that I was bi, but I wasn't really out. Even before Tim died I'd been feeling that I was somehow living a lie, and betraying who I was. As I started to build another life, I became more open about what I was. And when I started seeing a woman, I couldn't really hide any more.
The responses to me coming out, as well as 'picking a side', ranged from total acceptance and 'when I met you, my gaydar pinged, but I assumed that I was wrong – I see now', to 'I don't understand – you used to be married to a man but he's dead' and 'does that mean you were sleeping with women when you were married to your husband?'
Now I am married to a woman, I guess I'm 'lesbian passing', and I suspect that many people think I have made a major lifestyle change, finally picked a team, or only just realised I'm gay. This isn't helped by bi erasure, and by the media and entertainment tropes about bisexuals showing them (us) as cheating, confused, greedy, promiscuous, villainous, unable to stay faithful, or just bi-curious. And that's just the women. The bisexual men are much less visible.
However – I am proudly and defiantly queer. I am bisexual, from the pink and purple in my hair down to my awesome Pride Converse. Have a wonderful Celebrate Bisexuality Day!
In my other life, I'm a medical writer, and I sometimes travel to for work. A few months after Tim died I went to Germany to write a report on a meeting. Whenever I went away, I'd always tell Tim that I was heading off to spend time with my people – doctors, scientists, researchers – and going to the conference was a little slice of normality after his death turned my life upside down. I love flying and the excitement of the journey kept me going, but arriving at the hotel brought me back down with a bump, as we'd message when I arrived safely and I'd send him pictures of the hotel room and the view out of the window. The conference went well, and I found moments of happiness talking about the science that I love. The journey home was hard, with a long delay in a late-night European airport, but a fellow widow kept me going by chatting on Messenger, and for that I'm still grateful.
Four and a half years on and I'm going to Grenoble to chair a panel at a medical devices conference, and my journey starts in Hope, at a rural railway station in the dawn light. I am living a whole new life – before I left I kissed my new wife and my new puppy goodbye – but I still carry Tim with me as I head out to see my people.
Sometimes I feel that I'm living two parallel lives. There's the life that changed abruptly when Tim died, and the other that carried on, where we are still married and he is still in his bookshop downstairs.
I've had a birthday this week.
My birthday has long been a bittersweet day. My first husband's mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on my 24th birthday, nine months before we got married. He rang me just as I was getting up, and I knew as soon as he spoke that something was wrong. That was the first death close to me.
Roll on a couple of decades, and Tim and I married on my birthday. Everyone sang happy birthday to me at the reception. It seemed like a lovely thing to do at the time. But after Tim died, this left me with two milestones on one day. A birthday in September is associated with a change of the seasons, and I think my brain and body subconsciously mark the approach of the date with the smells, sounds, temperature and day length of oncoming autumn, even before I realise that the date is approaching.
My birthday rolls into the milestones. Tim's birthday in December. Christmas, which was often a time just for the two of us. New Year, where we saw the people we've partied with since our early twenties. And then his death date, 24 February. And so, I find this time of year tough, and often have to surf a wave of depression around now. Which means I need to try to take my own advice. I'm going to be kind to myself. Sit through the grief attacks. And know that the depression wave will lift.
There are so many 'what ifs' after we lose someone
I've looked back over some old posts of mine on the Widowed and Young Facebook forums (WOC is short for the Widowed and Young Without Children group).
I have managed to avoid the what ifs so far. Coming up to 14 weeks, they are fighting their way in. He was tired and sometimes out of breath but he was doing a lot of lifting and carrying - what if that was early signs of heart failure and not just him overdoing it. What if the rough night on that last night wasn't just one of his frequent stomach bugs and was the early signs of his heart stopping. What if...
23 May 2018 -14 weeks after his death
Having a bit of a wobbly week. Struggling with an upsurge in the guilt and what ifs about Tim's death - what if I had noticed he was more tired, what if I had insisted that we got more help moving books from one storage to another.
Nov 2018 – nine months after his death
Can I have a WOC hug, please? Doing a lot of clearing out at the moment. Been shredding paperwork and this morning it was Tim's medical paperwork from some years back. He had hyperlipidaemia and type II diabetes and had an angiogram some years ago. It's brought back the few months before he died, when he was starting to get tired. At the time I though he was just working too hard (we were moving books from one storage unit to another) but now I see that it was the beginning of his heart failure. I am hypersensitive at the moment as I am just a few weeks away from his second anniversary, but I am having major attacks of 'what if...'
Feb 2020 – two years after his death
My mental and health physical health weren't good in the few months before Tim died. What if that was the reason he didn't tell me he felt ill, or the reason I missed it? Or what if being ill meant that I made his last few months unhappy?
Coping with the what ifs
I believe that we get these feelings because our brain is trying to explain things, and attempting to deal with our feelings of helplessness. A fellow WOC said to me "what ifs are like demons on the shoulders of our grief, whispering in our ears at times when we are most vulnerable". What comforts me is that Tim and I loved each other, and that he died at my side.
When we get what ifs, it's important to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and what-ifs are generally completely unrealistic. It's like looking at a puzzle – when you first glance at it, it seems unfathomable, but once you have the answers it seems so obvious.
When you get caught in what ifs and if onlys:
I remember so clearly packing your bag for the last time. Pants and socks. A clean white shirt – I think it was the one you wore when we got married in. The shoes you wore the last time you acted, in Sue Hawkins' All the Lonely People. Your favourite tie. The suit that you joked had seen more funerals than weddings, your Jaguar keyring in your inside pocket, the one you got in the Secret Santa just two months before, and a ticket to the Goodwood Members' Meeting in your top pocket. The race meeting we'd been planning for months. The one that started the day we buried you.
The last time I packed your bag.
I've shared my story on the WAY Widowed and Young website.
"I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Although we'd known each other since our early 20s, we’d been married less than ten years.
I was fortunate to find WAY Widowed and Young and the subgroup WAYWOCs (Widowed and Young WithOut Children) just a few days after I was widowed. I can honestly say that I couldn't have got through the past four years without this incredible bunch of young widows, male and female, cis and trans, straight and queer.
We have shared (virtually and face-to-face) our tragedies, our successes, our tears, our laughter, and any number of truly bad puns and Marmite-related comestibles. I’m bisexual, I’ve known since my 20s but been married and divorced and then married and widowed, each time to a man, had me hiding in plain sight. I’m now in a same-sex relationship with an amazing woman called Dee and we’re getting married in August.
It’s important to me that I am a bisexual woman, and that I am still me, whoever I’m in a relationship with.
Getting involved in queer communities has helped me explore who I am. The amazing WAY LGBTQ+ group allowed me to be out in a safe space, where I felt supported and listened to. These amazing people looked out for me as I came out to my family, and told them that I had a new partner. The LGBTQ+ group is a little glittery place of fabulousness filled with people who are looking after each other and shouting out for each other. We celebrate the good days and the successes, support each other through the bad days, make each other laugh, talk about frocks and lipstick and films, rant, and send each other virtual hugs. I have been fortunate that, apart from some rare occasions, I’ve seen nothing but acceptance. My family, friends and village have fully accepted my partner, which is fantastic. But I know that the WAY LGBTQ+ group would have been there for me if it hadn’t been like that."
I've lived with depression for many years – since my teens at the very least. And it's not as a result of anything. No childhood trauma, no lack of love. It's worsened by stress, but not caused by it, and no amount of tree hugging, walking barefoot in the grass or eating clean will cure it. It just is. It’s in my genes. I have had counselling and CBT, I take medication, and I exercise. And together they help me manage it.
Depression comes in waves. I can feel when it's coming on, the slide down. It's sometimes triggered by something small like a squabble on social media, or not being able to do something I should be able to do perfectly well, or actually nothing specific at all. And I know it's on its way, and I know I need just to ride it out, keep doing what I'm doing, until I feel the start of the climb up. I have it today.
When I'm low, all the colour seeps out and it feels like the world has become black and white. Sounds are muffled and my brain fogs. I'm very good at putting a mask on, and I can work and function perfectly well. In fact, before I was first formally diagnosed I assumed that I couldn't be clinically depressed, because I got out of bed, kept myself clean and tidy, and went to work every day where I met my deadlines perfectly adequately. After all, everyone knows that people with depression can't do that.
The day that the gym being closed unexpectedly left me sobbing, curled up in a ball on the floor in the corner behind my bed should have told me something was wrong. It took a wonderful and kind friend who made me go to the doctor, and a gentle GP and patient counsellor, to make me realise that not only was there something wrong but that it could be faced up to, and it could even be fixed. Or at least managed.
After Tim’s death I found myself in a more complicated world. Tim understood depression. He understood that it couldn't be fixed, but that it could be contained with care and the wave surfed. He would hold me while I cried, hug me when I just felt melancholy, and then make me laugh at the ridiculousness of it all at just the right moment. And so, after he died, I lived with depression and grief.
Whereas depression is a world without colour, and tastes of mud, grief is a different thing. It is greeny-yellow, and tastes bitter. It is sharper-edged than depression. And while both come in waves, grief waves I can't see coming. They crash in out of nowhere, sweep me off my feet, and leave me breathless and gasping. Some days they are both there, and I can visualise the colour or grief and the grey of depression, intertwining but separate. I know the difference between the two. Those days are hard.
Adapted from a post on my website The House of Correction, written during the first year of bereavement.
Unlike Theresa May, Tim and I never thought that there were 'boy jobs and girl jobs' around the house. There were just jobs he did, such as taking out the bins and the recycling, and doing the vacuuming. He partly did those because they needed to be done, but he partly did them because he knew I hated them, and he was a nice man.
That first Monday morning when I put the rubbish out it hurt, and it reminded me how much I missed him. Now, while I still hate doing it, it reminds me how good he was.
This is one of a pair of blogs - see also Clearing after bereavement: The practical side
Tim died in the bedroom, in our bed, and the room was full of triggers. The day of his death, a friend stripped the bed, washed everything, and remade it for me.
I made myself go back and sleep in it that night, but I knew I had to replace it – the bed, the mattress, the bedding – and rearrange the room.
Tim sold second-hand books, and the shop was on the ground floor of the house. Walking through his bookshop, seeing the counter where Tim would always be – smiling at me when I brought him a cup of tea, calling me down if there was something exciting that had come in – was so hard.
Friends helped me run it for a while, but I knew that I couldn't keep it going for long, and I had to sell the business. Fortunately, the amazing Juliet Waugh bought it and it's now in another location in the village, with Tim's face presiding over the customers. The money paid for my Master's degree.
The house was still full of stuff belonging to Tim. He sat somewhere on the borderline between being a hardcore collector and a hoarder, and he found it very hard to let go of things. Everything had a sentimental connection, and most things he had were for a reason – they were books he would read one day, magazines that he wanted a complete run of, model kits that he would make, or things that might come in useful. It was overwhelming me.
The COVID-19 lockdown came two years after Tim's death and around the time that an old and very close friend died from glioblastoma, a very unpleasant and usually fatal brain tumour. I had little freelance work and I felt truly alone. After hitting a very deep low, the way I coped was by sorting the house.
This involved making a lot of very tough decisions. Getting rid of clothes was difficult. They are so personal – and somehow shoes and ties were the most personal of all. My sister Judith had helped me run through them a few months after he died, and she took some to her local charity shop, so I didn't have to see them when I went into town. Judith made me a bear out of his favourite jumpers, with a waistcoat made from his ties. It took me going through them another two times before I got it down to the few things I really wanted to keep.
The next things were magazines and race programmes. These were in every room of the house, mostly in labelled boxes, but sometimes just in piles. They were in cupboards, under beds, in drawers. In the bathroom. On the shop counter. Everywhere. When I collected them together, they filled one of the rooms of the empty shop. Full of guilt, I sold them to a magazine seller in London for a sadly small amount, and it took him three journeys to take them away.
And then on to the house. There wasn't a room that didn't remind me of Tim. I didn't intend to erase him, but I needed to reclaim my home, and reignite my love for its 15th century beauty. I started a clear out, which some days reduced me to tears as I picked up things that I knew had meant so much to him. I started piles to keep, to throw away, to sell, to donate to charity shops. I made a memory box of things that I couldn't bear to let go of, but I didn't want to see every day. I cleaned, painted, moved furniture around. And gradually created a home that brought me joy. The next step is finding a new home for my wedding dress. I loved it, but it's time for it to make someone else's day perfect.
The thing that surprised me about lockdown, and about sorting out the house, is how it helped me process grief. A friend said to me that she saw the change in the house as a reflection of the change in the inside of my head. I, and my house, are still a work in progress. But at least it's a work in progress where there is somewhere to sit down.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.