After the shattering pain of bereavement, Colin Leslie tells how he took ownership of his grief and began to cast off the ‘Handle with care’ label
WHILE Scotland was immersed in one last full day of campaigning ahead of the independence referendum, I sat 450 miles away, alone on a hill in Wales. Kilvey Hill overlooking Swansea is an ideal place to go for peace and quiet, and I needed solitude more than ever. In two hours’ time, I was due to say a final farewell to my fiancée, Sharon, taken from me, her family and friends by secondary breast cancer.
As I steeled myself for the funeral in her home town, I needed to gather thoughts which had been spinning in a vortex since she passed away 12 days earlier. Death may be one of life’s few inevitabilities, but to be confronted by the loss of someone cut down in their prime is a particularly brutal assault on the emotions.
I had been on the outside looking in often enough, sympathetically but clumsily trying to say the right things to friends who have lost loved ones in similar circumstances, but never truly understanding the depth of their pain. Now, here I was, on the receiving end and desperately trying to figure out how to cope. And therein lies the question: how do you cope with grief? Guessing the length of a piece of string is easier. It is an experience unique to each individual.
During my hilltop pep-talk to myself, and armed with a timely text message I had received from a friend who had suffered a similarly tragic loss, I urged myself to be strong at the funeral, not to cry, to remember her radiant smile and the many good times I will forever treasure.
Later, during the eulogy, I encouraged others to do the same – to remember Sharon’s life not her death, to stay positive. I somehow succeeded with my gameplan to get through the day. The tears were only in abeyance, however, and would catch me off guard on numerous occasions.
I may have stopped myself from crumpling into a gibbering wreck in front of hundreds of mourners, but I had merely taken the first baby step on a challenging emotional journey ahead. I felt like a jockey at the starting post of the Grand National – a row of intimidating hurdles stretched out in front of me, with a couple of Becher’s Brook-sized tests of character lurking out of sight. Unlike the Grand National, however, if you suffer a fall you can at least pick yourself up and have another go. And fall I did.
You could even say I fell at the first. Returning from Wales to the flat we shared in Edinburgh, I opened the door to a hallway strewn with sympathy cards, and missed visit notifications from florists. I found the outpouring of love and kindness enormously reassuring, but it couldn’t stem the waterworks.
Within hours of losing a loved one, pamphlets and practical advice on how to deal with grief are readily available to the bereaved. These are without question invaluable resources built on solid foundations of experience. But the bottom line is that whatever help and support is at hand, there would still be times I felt locked in solitary confinement within my own personal hell.
On a subconscious level, defence became the best form of attack, and ‘putting a brave face on it’ became my default setting. Fronting a brave face is easy enough, but I would wince if someone praised me for being ‘brave’ – after all I had seen genuine courage first-hand during Sharon’s inspiring battle against the cruel disease that prematurely ended her life. I also had to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one in pain. I could only guess at what her parents were going through, losing their eldest daughter, and the pain her two sisters would be feeling, not to mention my own two children who had deeply loved Sharon as a stepmother.
I was fortunate enough to have support available in abundance from my friends, family and colleagues, whenever I sought it. My employers were also highly supportive, giving me ample time off for compassionate leave as they had done throughout Sharon’s treatment and illness. I recognise that not everyone is so lucky.
Returning to the office wasn’t easy. The day I went back, I took an age to force myself out of my front door and behind my desk. I felt like I had a neon arrow above my head screaming ‘Bereaved: handle with extreme care’. It certainly beat moping around at home, however, as there is nothing like a heavy workload to occupy the mind.
There was little time for moping in those first few weeks anyway. Practicalities take over. There are bank and mobile phone accounts to close, insurance policies to deal with, a mountain of paperwork and complications to sift through. It’s got to be done, but companies have trained bereavement teams and keep any upset to a minimum.
Counselling is a popular option, and when I was offered and accepted a one-to-one session at the hospice at which Sharon passed away I grasped the opportunity to be able to talk freely and openly, not only about my feelings but more importantly, Sharon, and it was a worthwhile exercise.
I consider myself a reasonably private person, but social media provided comfort for me also. Sharing pictures of a smiling Sharon on Facebook allowed me to relive the good times and keep her memory alive. I signed up to do a couple of charity runs for Macmillan and Breast Cancer Now which gave me added focus, a sense of purpose and an outlet to think things through. It was also a good to keep the body and mind healthy.
Others are guided by their faith, professionals or support groups. Grief is a truly personal experience, and one you are entitled to take ownership of. Do whatever helps you negotiate ‘the process’.
For me, that process is ongoing, and has been firmly based on taking one day at a time. I’ve first dreaded then dealt with anniversaries, Christmas and birthdays in my own way. I’ve felt my sadness is magnified and wounds reopened when hearing of others affected by cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
I accept these occasions will roll round each year, but I also put faith in the likelihood they will get easier. Grief is with you for life, but so too are positive memories and the happiness you once experienced with the loved one you have lost. Manage the former, embrace the latter.
• Colin Leslie is a former sports editor of The Scotsman. He will be taking part in the Great North Run for Breast Cancer Now on Sunday: Justgiving.com/CLESLIEGREATNORTH