“What next?” This far & onwards in grief

A reflection on the onward passage of time as we journey through life and grief.

I often encounter people who are in the agonising throes of bereavement, struggling to find any possible answer to the question of ‘What next?

This is not uncommon, but it seems to be particularly difficult for who have lost a partner, a child or someone they cared for. When we experience this type of bereavement, our life circumstances can change drastically. This might lead to both profound and practical questions about our lives in the future. The sense that the future looms dark and unknown can increase as time passes, as the permanency of our loss becomes more real.

It is for people who are struggling in this way that I dedicate this post.

Getting from there to here

I definitely was amongst those who had no idea of any answer to ‘What Next’ after my children died, particularly after Catherine. I look at where I am now, though, and I wish that somehow back then I could have had a glimpse of the future. Because instead of the utter despair that engulfed me for several years, I could have had a little bit of hope.

I wrote awhile back about the concept of time changing following bereavement:

“I think we sort of change time zones when we lose someone who is important to us. Our sense of time can be different. Sometimes it feels to me that Catherine died yesterday, other times it feels like tens of years ago. The only thing I can be sure of is that there was BEFORE and now there is AFTER.” (Original post here)

I measure time by my children’s deaths, particularly Catherine’s in April 2011.

We moved into our house BEFORE. I stopped teaching AFTER.

We went on holiday to Tunisia BEFORE. All other holidays have been AFTER.

The ‘AFTER’ time is ever expanding, literally, day by day with the rising and setting of the sun. I find myself in places that I have only ever visited in the AFTER. It causes me to reflect on the relentless passage of time onwards. Sometimes I feel quite astonished at all that has happened in the years since Catherine’s death, not least that I am still here and have managed to build a new life , which I certainly didn’t expect at first.

I learned to drive. Imagine that.

I run a project that’s helping people. Imagine that.

I discovered a greater love for walking, bird-watching and gardening. Imagine that.

I have met so many lovely people, both in social settings and via my work. I have new friends. Imagine that.

I could go on.

There have been other sad and tragic events too, includes illnesses and deaths of relatives and friends, which would have been a great burden if I’d known about them in advance. So it hasn’t been all positive, but neither has it all been bad. Overall my AFTER life has turned out to be liveable and at times enjoyable. In the months after Catherine’s death, I would not have expected nor believed this to be possible.

Maybe you can relate. I often hear beautiful accounts of what people are doing now – memorialising and remembrance activities, new friends made, new holidays, new experiences, which are making life easier to bear.

On the other hand, maybe you’re feeling angry or filled with despair that you haven’t yet experienced anything remotely positive. I am sorry if this is how you feel at this moment; I too have been in that place for longer than I wish. Hopefully you too will eventually look back to find that there was cause for hope, although you can’t see it now.

Coming through


This is a bit more about my experience. Here I am in September 2019 on a long walk in the Peak District, and once more at one of the tunnels on the Monsal Trail. This is a place in my journey of grief that I wrote about in my book A Valley Journal, worth revisiting in the context of this post. Here’s an excerpt.

I’ll finish here with another episode in my own story, about 13 months after I lost my daughter. I live with my husband on the edge of the Peak District National Park. We often explore new corners. Around six months earlier, we had gone up to the Monsal Trail, a scenic path along a ridge that follows the route of a small railway line that was closed years before. Down below, the river weaves through the valley; up on the path the birds sing and flit amongst the wildflowers. The hills are covered with trees and lush grass; in the distance are meadows with lambs bleating.

But at times the trail leads through the dark tunnels that are part of the former railway route. Just a hundred feet of tunnel was an insurmountable barrier for me on that occasion, a relatively short time after my daughter’s departure. I simply could not step into the darkness; I was overwhelmed with the feeling of uncertainty and claustrophobia. I could not walk through and had to turn back. Yet, when I tried the same walk seven months later, I entered and walked through the tunnel with no real difficulty and was able to complete the walk.

How symbolic! Just so, I discovered I had actually progressed on the journey of grief, despite not feeling like much had changed. This is my story.

It happened to me yesterday.
I realised for the first time,
I might just survive.
So believe it or not,
On this occasion I think
I’ll write something a bit upbeat.

Up in the Peak District hills
Weaves the Monsal Trail
Formerly for trains
Now it’s an eight mile path.
You can walk, cycle, enjoy the view
On a sunny day, it’s nice to do.

My first visit last year
Was a very short walk
Coming to a tunnel
Peering into the darkness
I couldn’t go in, turned back,
That was a step too far.

My second visit was yesterday
Started the walk, all went fine
Arrived again at the tunnel.
People were walking out;
They’d been through, and then I knew
I too could venture inside.

One foot in front of the other
I walked into the cool shade
Overhead lights, not total darkness
Breathing deeply, not sure I could
But those others had come through
Surely I could make it too?

I called Catherine’s name.
Her voice echoed in the shadows
I kept walking, step by step.
The tunnel curved, then I saw
Light at the end of this path
I was coming through.

Back in the light, I felt quite proud
I had managed the route
A path so many trod with ease
Had challenged me on my road of grief
Yet I had come through
I will come through.

And so can you.

How about you?

Living with loss – surviving grief – is step by step, day by day. None of our lives are standing still. We don’t know ‘what’s next’ but sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a quick look back at where our steps have taken us so far.

Assuming that most people reading this are bereaved, I invite you to ask yourself –

  • How long has it been since your bereavement?
  • What are some of the good things that have happened to you since then?

If you’re struggling to think of anything, consider: Have you experienced any kindness from anyone, a friend or a stranger? Have you enjoyed the taste of a meal or a drink? Have you engaged with a film or programme or book or piece of music? Have you been able to show kindness to someone, in any small ways, even an encouraging word on a Facebook post or a tip in a restaurant? Have you learnt a new skill or made a new friend? Have you visited somewhere you enjoy?

These things might seem small but life is made up of lots of little things.

Time moves.

You’re moving.

You’re moving with your loved ones, holding their memories and love in your thoughts and heart.

It’s not as good as having them here and it doesn’t remove all of the sadness and anger and whatever else is bothering you in your grief journey. But I hope and pray that as you reflect back, you will find that your grief journey has not only been sadness, but there have been some better moments.

The experience of better moments in the past can help give us hope for the future. Hope won’t answer ‘what’s next’ but it does support us on the journey forwards.
You are most welcome to post your thoughts in the comment section – it would be great to hear from you.

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The experience of better moments in the past can help give us hope for the future. Hope won’t answer ‘what’s next’ but it does support us on the journey onwards.

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