As a psychotherapist counselling bereaved people for a living, Sasha Bates thought she knew a lot about grief. But when her husband Bill died suddenly, could she find a way to cope with her own agonising loss?
I waited 35 years to meet Bill. Then one day, the man I loved more than anything in the world – a man training for his third marathon, a vegetarian, Quaker, non-smoking, moderate drinking, seemingly fighting fit and healthy 56-year-old with everything to live for – stopped living. A part of me stopped living along with him. I lost my partner, best friend, lover, soulmate, companion – and I also lost my future. I lost a huge chunk of myself. I lost the ground beneath my feet. I lost hope. I lost the will to live.
It’s two years ago, on an ordinary Sunday in November, and Bill and I are eating breakfast at our house in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. We are due to meet our friends for lunch and Bill has been training hard but still wants a bit of light exercise, so we decide to walk the couple of miles.
Such are the mundanities of shared life that seem so insignificant at the time but take on huge importance when you realise this is the last proper conversation you will ever have. They also deliver acute pangs of pain when you think back to how easy and comfortable life is when you get to share it with your soulmate. And how different life alone is; breakfasting alone is; planning your day alone is.
Bill is getting dressed when it happens. He suddenly screams and stands upright, clutching his chest. The look on his face is terrifying: he’s white, shocked, confused, frightened and clearly in massive pain.
‘Are you having a heart attack?’ I ask, not very helpfully but I am panicking. ‘Can you speak?’ Asking his opinion comes as second nature. We are such a good team, Bill and I. I take the decision that driving him to hospital myself will be the quicker option. I don’t know it then, but Bill will never again cross this threshold, will never return to this home we’ve created together.
Bill has suffered an aortic dissection: his aorta split, sending blood to other parts of his body. The surgeon tells me the operation to try to repair it is a very serious one, but the thought that Bill might not make it is a complete fantasy, like being told a meteor might strike the earth. At no point does it cross my mind that the doctor who says there is ‘a risk he may not make it’ might be telling me something that is important for me to hear.
Bill tells me he loves me as the anaesthetic starts to take effect. It is the last thing he will ever say to me. Just 36 hours after breakfast, I will hear the words, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.’
Bill’s condition deteriorates after the operation. His left side is paralysed, indicating that he has suffered a stroke. There is a lot of huddled whispering and a worried air about the doctors that I choose to ignore. If I believe it is going to be all right, it will be. It can’t not be. That is not an option. Amazing how convincing denial can be – I can’t imagine it, so it can’t happen. Not. An. Option. In psycho-therapeutic terms this could be termed magical thinking, the impossible belief that our thoughts alone can shape reality.
By late afternoon they seem to be saying that a blood clot, unleashed when the aorta first split, has taken up residence near Bill’s brain and is gradually starving it of oxygen. I hear the phrase ‘more serious stroke’. I phone my friend Julia and a friendly ear allows me to finally give voice to my fears. I acknowledge the previously unsayable, unthinkable prospect that he might not survive: ‘He’s all I’ve got,’ I tell her. ‘I can’t lose him. I’d have nothing.’
A few years earlier Bill and I had had to accept the fact that we couldn’t have children. A decade of trying and an unrelenting march towards my mid-40s, and we had finally accepted our fate. ‘That’s it, then – just you and me now,’ we were forced to acknowledge. It was awful and heartbreaking but, after ten years and five rounds of IVF, not surprising. We had no one but the other person as close family. We thanked God that we did indeed have one another; that we had such a strong, happy relationship; that we loved each other’s company and were confident in ourselves. So when I say to Julia that if I lose Bill I will be losing everything, I really mean it.
It takes three days for the last breaths to leave Bill’s body.
Even though he is brain dead and there is no hope for recovery, he cannot be officially declared dead until specific conditions, as set out in law, are met. I variously stand, sit or lie next to Bill in his bed or I cede the space to the others who come to visit him. I feel like the bad hostess of a weird and terrible cocktail party – greeting people, showing them to Bill’s bedside, leaving them there to say their goodbyes, offering bad coffee and chocolate.
I feel like I am now an actor on Casualty. It must be a set, it can’t be real, because another part of me is watching the actor me going through the motions that I’ve seen others do so many times on screen: playing the part of the grieving widow – greeting the visitors, talking gently to Bill, confusedly to doctors, now crying, now smiling as the next visitor arrives. I can see myself there doing these things, but I am also not there. Most of the time I feel nothing. I am numb.
Our tiny family of two has just lost half its number, leaving me exposed and vulnerable. The momentary relief I felt when the hospital part of the ordeal was over is now replaced with the prospect of a different and far more long-lasting type of ordeal. How do I continue without him? Life as I knew it has imploded. A bomb has detonated, blowing to smithereens our supposedly safe ship. Now all that remains are shards of wood, currently raining down and spearing me as I flail around helplessly in the middle of a stormy dark ocean. I had wanted to leave the hospital, but now that I can, where am I to go? Am I really meant to go home? Does home exist without Bill in it? Or am I returning simply to four walls and a roof, a shell with no heart, as I too am now just a collection of skin and bone holding together an empty void within? What am I without him? I am nothing, and I have nothing, and I do not want to live.
Bill and I met in Skyros, Greece. I was 35 and he was 42. We were both holidaying alone. I was in a bad place after a terrible break-up. Within a week, and way out of character for both of us, Bill had scooped up the broken specimen I had become, declared he knew how to love me and look after me, and brought me back to life. Even more surprisingly, I allowed and wanted him to. This was a version of myself I had never met before and it was very disorientating. From that initial burst of unexpected laughter, via a rapid, reckless romance on a Greek beach, we knew we were in this for life. And what a life of travel and exploration we proceeded to have: a lifestyle symbolising our relationship – unconditional love and respect, combining stability with adventure.
The circumstances of our meeting always felt written in the stars. As if it was ‘meant to be’. Not being a romantic person, I struggled with this interpretation, yet it felt hard to contradict the signs. Right now, however, in my current bereaved state, that notion of fate has changed from being a rather romantic, comforting thought into something more sinister. If I believe that our meeting was predestined and right, then how can his death not also seem meant to be? For many months in the wake of Bill’s death, my mind grappled with conundrums like this – was this all foretold? Why give him to me, show me a glimpse of happiness, then take him away?
I found myself relentlessly questioning and seeking nonexistent answers. Why, how, who, what did this? Who am I without him? The spiralling down mental wormholes was unyielding, tying me up in such knots of confusion that I often wondered if I was going completely mad. I felt I was losing my grip on reality and sanity. Rationally, of course, I knew grief came in many guises so maybe this was all part of it?
Of the many theories about the grieving process, the most widely known is psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance], which she identified in 1969. This theory has so successfully found its way into common parlance that many grieving people take it as gospel, worrying there is something wrong with them if they don’t experience each stage, or if they can’t ever get to acceptance.
There are other, less widely known theories too. But not many of these addressed what I was experiencing – madness. I thought I was losing my mind. And if I consult fictional literature I’m not alone – just look at Hamlet and Ophelia. Or Demi Moore in Ghost.
What I do is, I continue ‘to do’. That is, in this time of crisis I regress to old ways of coping. I ignore my body, engage my brain, I keep busy, and I deal. I work hard on the mounds of admin that a death produces.
Of course, one part of my brain knows that Bill is dead and I will never see him again, yet the reality of what that actually means and feels like in practice is taking a while to catch up. This is a strange and disconcerting feeling – a feeling of living two parallel lives at once. There is one where I know he’s gone, then another, far more pleasant one, where he’s just not around at the moment. He’s away on work. Or he’s in another room. And it’s not like I’m telling myself that to make myself feel better – one part of my brain really does believe that to be true, that he has just popped out and will be back soon.
In those moments, when one world crashes through into the other, it’s devastating. It’s like hearing the news for the first time all over again. When an unbidden realisation such as ‘I’ll never hear his voice again’ pops up and crosses the great divide from the believing brain to the nonbelieving brain, it is like being punched in the stomach. I somehow feel the truth of it viscerally in a way that I just couldn’t before. I want to throw up. And give up. So the cushion of shock steps back in to save me, wraps itself around me again for a while until the next thought, phrase or image punches me again. And again. And again. It’s exhausting, painful and destabilising.
From the deep recesses of my brain I dredge up the knowledge that journaling is meant to be a good resource when in emotional distress. I decide to write my way through the pain, and in doing so I realise how much anger is fizzing off the page. I have a lightbulb moment – oh, so this is what Kübler-Ross meant when she described anger as one of the stages of grieving. Now, I understand it. It’s not just that you are angry that the person has died, you actually are anger. Your whole body is full of it, anger, rage, resentment, hate, all of it steaming out of every pore. I hate the world and everything and everyone in it, myself included.
It is extremely hard for the brain to process the stark fact of death, to catch up with reality, so the denial helps us survive the loss by pacing the grief, giving us only so much to bear at any one time. I had to continue acting as though Bill was due home at any time because him being gone for good was not an acceptable state of affairs. He had to be coming home because life was not worth living without him. Denial is a much more comfortable place to reside than reality so we do whatever we can to remain there, defending ourselves against feeling the pain of loss.
I do know he’s not actually here, of course I do. It’s not the same, and it’s not enough. But it sure as hell is something. It’s all I have now, and I am not letting it go.