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Column: 'I'm facing my second Christmas without my partner, Patric'

Grief doesn’t define who I am but it’s shaped the person I’ve become, writes Jenny Gilleece.

Jenny Gilleece Writer and digital media enthusiast

CHRISTMAS IS SUPPOSED to be a time of year spent in the company of loved ones, but for those in grief it also highlights the absence of the people they have lost.

This year, I’m facing my second Christmas without my partner, Patric. He passed away in December, so the festive month is a particularly poignant time of year for me.

My first Christmas without him – he had died two and a half weeks earlier – was a complete blur – essentially another day of mourning with a fancier plate of food in front of me. Although I’m still coming to terms with my loss, I hope this year to be able to enjoy Christmas day and fill it with warm memories of Patric.

Christmas can seem insignificant when you’re grieving

The first Christmases following the death of a loved one can be challenging. The manic rush of gift buying, the fuss over food, the inevitable familial squabbles all seem insignificant when you’re grieving.

The pressure to partake in festive activities or even to pretend like you’re enjoying yourself can be very overwhelming. Even though I feel a lull in my coping at this time of year, there have been unexpected moments that lift my spirits such as receiving a thoughtful card or a phone call from an old friend.

I try to remind myself that it’s just ‘one day’ in the calendar and as with birthdays and anniversaries, it’s only natural that I am going to feel my grief more intensely than usual.

An unlikely pairing

I met my boyfriend Patric in 2012 while living in London. What seemed initially the unlikely pairing of a Swedish man and a Limerick lady became a solid, loving relationship, and we couldn’t have been better suited for one another.

Having both become weary of London-living, we moved to Limerick in 2014 to settle into quieter lives. I abandoned the security of a 9 to 5 job to start my own website business and Patric was offered an IT infrastructure engineer position. Our plans were slotting very nicely into place.

Diagnosis

On 4 June 2016, we sat at a table and we were told he had colorectal cancer. Patric, ever the pragmatist, paused for a few moments and replied “What do we do next?”

The tumour was to be removed a month later and in August he would begin 12 treatments of bi-monthly chemotherapy sessions. Adversity will quickly teach you what really matters in life. It only reaffirmed that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Patric persevered at every step, the prospect of death was diminishing from our minds.

On 5 December 2016 Patric became wheezy so we headed to the hospital as a precaution. After a day of tests, the doctors suspected it was a chest infection and decided to admit him overnight for observation. The following morning I received a phone call from the hospital. They said Patric was in difficulty and that I needed to go to the hospital immediately.

I sprinted to the ward. Food trolleys barricaded the entrance to his room. A nurse, waiting for me, froze in silence. She gave a nod to the head of the ward. Without saying a word, I knew he was gone.

Shaking, she took my hand and led me to ‘The Room’. Patric had died from a pulmonary embolism at 35.

Cocooned by shock

I could have never imagined losing my partner at 28, let alone fathom how I would deal with such a sudden, tragic event. Choosing a coffin, flowers, photos, music – I look back in awe as to how I made these decisions in such a short space of time.

In the initial weeks of grief I was cocooned by shock, something most new grievers will be familiar with. The human body’s mechanisms for dealing with certain emotions is phenomenal, shock quickly insulates you to protect you from the raw, cutting emotions following an enormous loss.

I still experience momentary flashes of disbelief that Patric is no longer here.

The world outside isn’t the environment with which you were once so familiar. It’s a crueller, more fickle universe. You fail to comprehend how everybody can go about their daily lives as if nothing has happened. You also realise that there could be 30 people within feet of you who are going through the exact same thing but you wouldn’t know.

It’s not something my friends can relate to

Losing a partner young comes with its own set of complications. It’s not something any of my friends can relate to. It can be a very isolating place. I also never realised how often the subject of relationships can come up in everyday conversation.

Lines such as “Are you seeing someone at the moment?” or “You must have a boyfriend!” are innocently uttered by strangers and thinking of an appropriate response on the spot without delving too much into my story can be an emotional minefield.

Six months after Patric passed, I decided to go to counselling. I had heard mixed reviews about seeing a bereavement counsellor, but I thought I’d regret it if I didn’t find out for myself. Patric had a brilliant sense of emotional intelligence and no longer being able to confide in him, I found counselling very beneficial.

The road that once seemed so clear was reduced to rubble and devastation but counselling has helped me to create new building blocks.

No handbook exists

Unfortunately, there’s no such handbook on how you’re going to deal with grief. If only I could find the chapter that reads “In Month Three, you should be feeling this and in Month Six, you should feel like this…” What’s helped the most is learning to be kind to myself and not weighing myself down with any unnecessary pressure.

The kindness of others has been absolutely extraordinary. My inbox is a continuous stream of supportive messages sent by people from all walks of my life, from all around the world, even people that I’ve never met – I had no idea so many people cared.

Compounded by the relentless support of my friends and family, I consider myself very fortunate in spite of all that I’ve lost.

Patric’s legacy

Maintaining Patric’s legacy has given me a new found sense of purpose. It would be easy to slip into the shadows and become paralysed by grief. I know Patric would hate that.

In April 2017, I organised a Viking boat burning ceremony using some of his ashes and had his blacksmithing teacher create a hammer using a portion of his ashes. I donated Patric’s forge to his blacksmithing school, which will enable others to practice the craft that Patric loved so dearly. I plan to continuing fundraising for the Irish Cancer Society. There’s so much work left to be done.

A motto of Patric’s was to be a ‘net-positive’ in the world, to make the world a better place than when you found it. I plan on continuing his mission for the both of us.

Although grief lasts a lifetime, it does get easier with time. It’s an adjustment to a new life after you’ve been thwarted into new, unwelcome circumstances. Grief doesn’t define who I am but it’s shaped the person I’ve become.

I’m far from unique in my experience – after all, it’s not the case of not if we die, but when we die. My time has just come a lot earlier than planned.

Jenny Gilleece is a writer and digital media enthusiast based in Limerick. She founded Word.ie in 2014 and worked in market research in London prior to that. 

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About the author:

Jenny Gilleece  / Writer and digital media enthusiast

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