When Grief Comes Unexpectedly Calling

Grief came unexpectedly calling for GAY McKINLEY, and she is still learning how to find her way without the love of her life. This article first appeared as A Reader’s Story in the Good Grief July 2023 issue, which can be found here.

Gay McKinley
Gay McKinley

Last year Gay got in touch, following one of my talks. Many years before, we were in each other’s orbits through our work. And now, here she was, listening. When we caught up again over dinner, Gay explained that it was the loss of her much-loved partner, David, that led her to the talk that night.

And we both agreed that the person who is grieving following the loss of a long-term partner tends to be ‘undernourished’ in our culture.

This person suffers the loss of someone who helped define the beginning of each day, with their rituals and habits woven into our own over a period of many years. And now they are gone.  Because this group often carries their loss so stoically, it tends to go unseen. We make assumptions about adjustments made. We gloss over psychological and social needs. Maybe this is because we need to believe in the toughness and the powers of endurance of our elders.
Gay and I both agreed that it would be helpful if these experiences were shared more openly.  

So here is the first in an occasional series of articles for Good Grief! that Gay will share on this particular loss, the loss of the partner.     

I was a counsellor and a psychotherapist

I was a counsellor and psychotherapist before I retired to spend quality time with my partner.  In my work I sat with many clients who were experiencing profound grief.  Whether it was the loss of a child or partner, the loss of health or youth, the loss of employment, the loss of relationship, death by suicide, death after a long illness or a sudden death – grief comes calling in many different guises. 

I found I was able to be present with my clients without trying to fix anything but to be a witness to the suffering.

I considered myself to be a competent, compassionate, empathic and knowledgeable grief counsellor.  

Unfortunately, none of my professional skills seemed to help me when my partner of nearly 30 years and the love of my life David died suddenly and unexpectedly while we were overseas on holiday. 

We were in southern Italy after spending a magical Christmas in Salzburg, Austria and New Year in Venice.  It was the trip of a lifetime to celebrate our mutual 70th birthdays. 

Gay and David together in Italy the day before he died
Gay and David together in Italy the day before he died.

The previous few days we had spent exploring Matera, an amazing hilltop town.  We clambered over rocks and up and down steep stairs.  There was no warning anything was amiss.  None.  We had a few drinks with fellow travellers in the hotel in the evening then retired to our room.  At 3.00am, the dreaded 3.00am, David woke me complaining of chest pains.  At 2.20pm the following afternoon he was pronounced dead.  

Thus began my own journey into grief and loss

Thus began my own journey into grief and loss.  
I used to tell my clients who were grieving the loss of someone near and dear not to make any big decisions during the first year following the death. 

You simply had to get through all the ‘firsts’.

The first birthday, the first Monday, the first Mothers’ Day, the first Easter and Christmas, the first of any day that had some meaning.  What did I do? 

I started to immediately look at different housing. I roamed streets looking at places and searched online. When well-meaning friends and family kept telling me “now is not the time”, I felt they just didn’t get it.  They didn’t get me!  Fortunately, their wisdom prevailed but it was a desperate time.  

I used to tell my clients that they would feel they are going crazy.  That this feeling is normal. 

When I received a letter addressed to my David, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with it.

We had never opened mail addressed personally to the other; I was paralysed with the letter in my hand as I didn’t want to invade his privacy. 
My brain literally was not working. 
I was going crazy. 
But I also had a revelation – this is what going crazy feels like! 

I used to talk the talk; the reality is very different

I used to talk the talk; the reality is very different. I used to tell my clients that they would feel like their stomach has dropped out of their insides and goes ‘splat’ on the floor. I was crazily surprised when that very visceral feeling happened to me. 
Ah there it is. 
That’s what it feels like.
Not nice.  

When you have lived with someone for many years, your brain chemistry literally gets in tune with each other. 

When one is suddenly no longer there, no wonder the brain doesn’t work properly.  And changing brain chemistry takes time – there is no quick fix. 
I knew this intellectually, but I was not prepared for the ‘relentlessness’ of the grief process.  
I now know that grief will be a lifelong companion, an unwelcome one at that; but more than three years on from David’s death, it is not in the driver’s seat all day, every day.
It is becoming Good Grief.   

Gay and David toasting the good life together.
Gay and David toasting the good life together.

Here is another reader’s story.

Good Grief! hopes to help you with your grief. You may find these other articles helpful. Each yarn leads to resources.

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