Andrew Marshall says he is campaigning for a mourning year to be recognised as the amount of time during which the bereaved need extra support. His new book, My Mourning Year. A Memoir of Bereavement, Discovery and Hope, shows that he doesn’t mean support as in being cocooned; he means a more realistic understanding of grief so that the bereaved can be supported in living their lives while experiencing grief.
I think the drive he shows indicates that if anyone can bring about such a change, he can.
The book is a series of diary entries charting the first year after the death of Andrew’s lover Thom. At the time of the diary Andrew was a counsellor for Relate, a television agony uncle and a freelance journalist. A combination of his work assignments and enquiring mind led him on an eclectic quest.
He discusses the meaning of life and death with, among others, the polymath Sir Jonathan Miller, rock star David Coverdale, the actress Ingrid Pitt, who as a child had survived a Nazi concentration camp, and the actress Annette Crosbie, most famous for her role in the comedy, One Foot In The Grave.
There is a lot of travelling. Thom was German and died in a German hospital so after the arduous journey home to England, Andrew returns to spend time with Thom’s family and friends, and later visits places from Thom’s early life. A few weeks after the death he takes himself away for a few days to Seville and explores what healing properties are to be found in art galleries, bull fighting and a brief meeting with a new man. The holiday shows to him that: “I was just camping out in the ruins of my old life.”
Currently the phrase, sense of entitlement, is a broad insult used against a type of obnoxiousness. But there’s a very healthy kind of sense of entitlement too: the one that makes us apply for a job, ask for a raise or simply eat when we’re hungry. The diary entries show Andrew’s unwavering sense of entitlement to both an enduring connection with Thom and also an understanding of and deep engagement with this new, unfolding part of his life. He meets with plenty obstacles along the way but he tackles them and in the space of that year he doesn’t always win but he backs himself anyway.
It is a heartening read for anyone exhausted by long-term caring or dazed by the stun grenade of grief and thinking maybe they should just step down from life for the foreseeable future.
The book has a constant sense of movement. At home he is regularly commuting for work, away weekending with friends and twice a week stepping and twirling across the floor of a line-dancing class in Brighton.
He strives to heal some long-standing divisions in his family, because he knows that he needs their support and is willing to fight for it. At other times he allows himself to be carried along by chance, like joining a friend to attend an event with a spiritual guru, or trying out the possibilities created when visiting new people and places.
It is good to see a therapist following their own advice that you should tell people what you need. If we balk at plainly expressing our needs it is because that has not gone well before. It’s quite a privilege to see someone be so vulnerable with friends and family alike, over big and small matters and sometimes the other person is supportive but certainly not always. Yet he continues to stand up for his right to be accepted in his grieving state and to be too tired to host a party and also do the catering and to just want to enjoy reminiscing about Thom. For anyone who’s ever been told, you don’t have to do everything yourself, these real life examples are far more useful than being told what not to do.
And we also get to see his difficult encounters with bereavement counsellors, where he finds some of the techniques he has used on others really don’t work for him. There is an amusing anthology waiting to be made of writers discussing their therapists. In the bereavement section, Andrew joins Carl Gorham and his inscrutable counsellor and Becky Aikman, whose book starts with her being ejected from her bereavement support group.
As this is a diary, rather than self-help book, there is some delightfully off-message advice, such as: “If I have any advice for the recently bereaved it would be this: invest in satellite television”
Five months after the death of Thom, Princess Diana’s death temporarily plunges Andrew back into the first shocked days of grief. Towards the end of the book, Andrew and his colleagues lose their television job. Throughout he wrestles intermittently with the everyday stuff that the dead leave behind. At one point he says: “Previously I’d followed Thom’s house rules because it made him seem more alive”. A few months later: “I feel audaciously brave, I might be the curator for Thom’s life but at least I can choose my own filing system!”
He tries theatre, religion, alternative religion, a new relationship, being a dog owner, ceremonies, pilgrimages, napping on sofas and just about anything else that life offers him that year. And from each thing he draws something to inform him on how to rebuild his life and shape his future.
It’s a compelling counter to the advice that you should do nothing in the first year and then when you’re feeling more stable, timidly venture back into the world in years two and three. How much of that is about protecting the bereaved and how much is about easing the discomfort of those around them? And if it is genuinely about protecting the bereaved, does it not suggest the misconception that when you’re feeling more like you used to, you can rebuild something like what you once had? A double false hope to keep you stuck, in case one wasn’t sticky enough.
Andrew’s approach has more of the Marilyn Monroe quote about it, where she says, “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” The tears and fears of the bereaved are as much a real part of life as their joys, hopes and strengths, so taking all that out into the world to explore what to do next, seems like a much more realistic approach. Maybe it’s an approach that requires a certain foundation of courage and good support network in place first, but reminding the bereaved that they still have a right to life is definitely something we could do with hearing a lot more often.
You can visit the book’s website here
And see Andrew’s books on relationships, mid-life crisis and his counselling practice here
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 16