Poorna Bell’s Chase The Rainbow tackles three of widowhood’s biggest taboos and shows they don’t have to destroy you or your love for your partner.
Around the middle of the book Poorna points out how friends talk in endless detail about their relationships but once they marry they say much less. There is a similar thing with widowed people and lies. Anything a person might choose to conceal from another is among the inheritance discovered towards the end of a life or after death but we don’t talk about those things because it’s just too… complicated.
Our tabloid-addled friends, who we were just like, just a moment ago, will imagine infidelity, second families and scandal. Widowed people discovering infidelity, second families and scandal say Back off; don’t use me as your worst case scenario. But secrets like Why didn’t he tell me he was so unwell? can feel like no less of a betrayal than hidden gambling debts or a second career in crime.
Only after their marriage does Poorna begin to get a sense of the scale of her husband’s depression and drug-taking. His personal and professional achievements and open warmth with friends and strangers alike, run contrary to the struggles he has worked hard to keep concealed. There are layers of misdirection, avoidance and unexplained acts that seem so out of character. When he dies Poorna is still in the midst of trying to make sense of it all.
The how-to books on bereavement don’t have a section on trying to excavate who your partner really was or how to deal with the feeling that you might never find the answer you’re looking for.
The other main subjects in Chasing the Rainbow are depression and drug addiction. Again these things are so common in our society and yet we tend to act as if they are rare and alien.
The agony of choosing to be bound to someone who is deeply depressed, and, or, in the grips of addiction, are placed alongside the words of experts and Poorna’s growing understanding of what it is like for people caught in depression and addiction, who have to live inside these conditions. We see how our collective lack of understanding is integral in creating many of the extremes to which people feel driven.
If this makes the book sound like a grim, heavy read, it is not. Poorna’s innate optimism helps, even when the reader doesn’t share it. Her writing style is uncluttered and often playful, allowing a sense of airiness and warmth to flow through the pages. As one of the UK’s leading journalists, she knows how to look after her reader, lightly but attentively.
Poorna and her husband, Rob, were both successful, well known and living a fashionable and exciting lifestyle. The problems they get caught up in are more commonly associated with much less successful people but while Poorna’s job gives them access to some of the best treatments available, none of it proves to be enough to save Rob.
I am a little in awe of Poorna’s ability to show more love than rage; to remain loyal to the good in her husband while under the heaviest of fire from all the bad stuff that is thrown at her. As the reader’s outrage grows that she was denied a choice in any of what happened, she reminds us that blame does not apply; that her husband’s life was far from how he chose it to be too.
He died after they had agreed on a separation. With relationship breakdown a common event preceding suicide, this book is a much-needed ally for those feeling blamed by themselves or by others, unsure if they’re even allowed to think of themselves as widowed. On the added guilt that bereavement by suicide can bring, Poorna says: “People never get to choose how the ones they love die, but suicide will fool you into thinking that you could have done.”
The day before I sat down with this book, I saw someone on twitter say about the film, Call Me By Your Name, that they had never felt more seen. I mulled over this new expression. Of all the magical things that a film can do, being cognisant of its audience is not one of them. But in Poorna’s book we see how her husband is decreasingly able to see the impact he is having on her; that she could not allow her reality to be seen by most people in her life, and that our world mostly won’t see the problems endured by the couple as part of problems that affect us all. Despite all that, she asks us to throw off our shame and blame. She challenges the judgmental and the haters to show themselves and be prepared for defeat. And in doing so she allows the stigmatized and shamed to feel accepted and understood.
This book allows a person bereaved by suicide, addiction or bogged down in a sense of betrayal to hold their head high if it was stooped before or to feel part of a positive change happening in the world, right now, if they’ve been feeling isolated. It shows you how to reconnect with love, for yourself, the people around you and for those of us, alive or dead, that are caught in the hardest to reach of struggles. If that’s what the kids today mean by being seen then this book sees all of us, sees the best in us and urges us to see that in each other.
You might also like…
Amy Biancolli writes with great warmth and humour about rebuilding a life after suicide (actually more than one) in Figuring Sh!t Out
Karen Green’s poetry collection, Bough Down, is about the aftermath of her husband’s suicide.
Joan Rivers’ husband died by suicide and she talks some about it in her self-help book, Bouncing Back.
Matt Lucas says at the start of his memoir, Little Me, that he’s not going to go into details about his partner Kevin’s death, and besides indicating that drug addiction and suicide were factors, sticks to a few pages on his experience of grief and then moves your attention along.
Decca Aitkenhead doesn’t suggest drug use was a factor in her partner’s death, in All At Sea, but she does discuss it as an aspect of their life.
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 17