Very new grief – the first days and weeks

When it hits the news that someone died unexpectedly in our country, on the other side of the world from their family and friends – or the other way around, someone from our country died far away amongst strangers, it always feels extra sad. GAY McKINLEY shares her story about this experience and what it revealed to her, when her partner David died in Italy, while the two were on holidays together.

Gay wrote an earlier piece for GoodGrief! “When Grief Comes Unexpectedly Calling.” It’s part of an occasional series that Gay has written, in the hope that sharing insights into her experience will help others.

When David, my partner of nearly thirty years, died suddenly and unexpectedly while on holiday in Italy, I was thrust into what I knew was a significant trauma.

In my time as a psychotherapist, I had many clients who had suffered from traumatic events in their lives. 

The likelihood of healing from any trauma is often directly related to the circumstances surrounding the trauma.  For example, if a child has been abused, and is believed and protected and the perpetrator held to account, they are much more likely to ‘heal’ than if, as so often happens, they are disbelieved or told to keep the secret.

I was so fortunate to be with the most amazing people, strangers only a few days before, when David was taken to hospital and shortly after pronounced dead.  One would have thought being alone in a foreign country would have made everything so much worse – so much more traumatic – but that was not the case.  Truly.

My Italian Family - Gay McKinley
My Italian family

Of course, I wish that I had been home surrounded by family and friends; but the hotel staff, my ‘Italian family’ as they came to be known, cared for me, fed me, transported me, translated for me, introduced me to a most wonderful funeral director, hugged me, nurtured me, dealt with the hospital and the necessary bureaucratic requirements.  They even celebrated my birthday which was a few days after David died. 

I was in a bubble of shock and robotic responses – but I was being so well ‘nourished’.  If I had been at home, I know all my energies would have gone into caring for others.

While I was waiting for all the arrangements to be made to bring David’s body back home, I had what I now know to have been an extraordinary gift – a quiet, deeply personal space to reflect on our lives together and to somehow have him all to myself for just that little bit longer.  I believe this time was a significant experience of Good Grief!

When I finally arrived home ten days after David died, being surrounded by family and friends was balm for my soul.  But it was chaotic!  Planning all the things for the funeral and wake (pre-Covid thank goodness), all the ‘doings’ rather than the quiet ‘being’ was a nightmare. 

The day before David’s farewell service, I panicked.  “I can’t do this!”  I rang a most wonderful friend whose own husband had died two years before.  I remember how contained she seemed at his service, and I asked her how she did it.  On reflection, she told me that she and her children had a quiet place deep inside them that was very personal. 

They went ‘there’. 

Immediately, I was able to breathe out.  I knew I had this quiet place inside me.  I knew I would be able to get through the day.

And thus began my grief journey of taking just one day at a time.  Sometimes just one breath. 

Because after the first few chaotic and somehow protective weeks, the reality of having to live my life without David kicked in. 

One day I can do. No, I can’t.  Okay, one breath.  Now another…

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