Grieving: “You never feel ok,” says Decca Aitkenhead

Two years ago, on a family holiday in Jamaica, Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead’s husband Tony drowned while saving their four-year-old son. A year later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She discusses survivor’s guilt, desperately grieving and not living every day like it’s her last… 

In the second of two interviews, Decca tells us about the moment she lost her partner – and the father of her boys – Tony on a family holiday in Jamaica. She also discusses life back at the farmhouse in Kent that she and Tony had relocated the family to just a year earlier, and how losing Tony – teamed with her breast cancer diagnosis – changed her perspective on life. She remains in Kent with their sons Jake, six, and Joe, five.

“It happened on 4th May 2014. I blamed myself in the initial aftermath, I couldn’t control it because while the rational part of my brain said it was raving gibberish, the irrational side said: if you’d never moved to that street where he lived, he’d be alive. Or if I’d swum back into sea, I could have got him before he drowned. Of course, it was palpable nonsense – the fisherman were in the water and they couldn’t save him. But logic goes completely out of the window; the brain has no interest in logic or reason.

I stopped blaming myself when I realised that what feels and sounds like guilt is actually your mind inventing alternative fantasy scenarios. Survivor’s guilt – if only I’d done this, that – is about inventing a new reality. You only have to twist the narrative a tiny bit so that in your head there’s a different outcome, where Tony doesn’t have to die. You’re happy to blame yourself if you get a version of events in your head that tells you he could still be alive.

Grieving starts with acceptance

I’ll never forget my brother holding my hand, and saying: there was nothing you could have done. I remember realising he was telling the truth, then thinking: where is the relief; I should feel flooded with it. But I feel much, much worse than I did 60 seconds ago when I thought it was my fault. Now I was having to accept that he was dead. And my mind went back to the scene on the beach, exactly like a stage set, with someone turning down the lights, to complete darkness. And the play is over. Survivors’ guilt is about saying: the story is still going! It just needs to be tweaked. It was easier for me to do this than for my son, Jake, because he was only four.

At the weekend, we were talking about Tony and my younger son said: “Whose fault is it that he died?”. Jake’s answer, for the first time, was: “Joe – it was the sea’s fault”. Instead of saying it was his fault. It was the most amazing, heart-stopping moment to hear him saying that so calmly, while sat in the car. Then the next second they were playing Batman. I don’t know if that will be his answer next time, though, as it’s always in flux.

When we returned home from Jamaica, two years ago, I really couldn’t cope. For the first five weeks, my brother Tom moved in – partly to help with the funeral plans. Then my friends and family organised a visitors’ rota so that we were never alone. It wasn’t until late August, three months later, that we had our first night just the three of us together without anybody staying.

People from the boys’ nursery were incredible. We hadn’t been here long, but people were amazing. All those clichés about the strength of rural communities were confirmed. It would have been easier to be in London where I’d lived for years, in some ways, but I don’t think someone from my local pub would have mowed the lawn, or left lasagne on the doorstep. London nursery owners probably wouldn’t have come to clean the house.

Our builders were also amazing. They’d been renovating for me and Tony. But suddenly we returned from Jamaica and everything was different. They were great: they got on with the project and made decisions. When I could barely clean my teeth, it was impossible to make decisions about architrave. One of the builders feels like part of the family; I felt so indebted to him, he now uses one of our barns as a workshop. It’s nice for boys to have a bloke around with tools.

I’ve always been a tomboy; I’ve never been very girly, and Tony – despite having the image of a tough guy – was the one in the kitchen making Sunday roast, bathing the boys, mopping floors. So I’d never thought of us as having defined gender roles. But once he’d gone, there was the horror of discovering that I didn’t know how to chop wood or mow the lawn – I didn’t know how to operate the lawnmower. There was a great big list of things I realised I didn’t know how to do. Blokey stuff.

And the boys want blokeyness in their life. For example, they really enjoy play-fighting. And what they really enjoy is hitting men… rough and tumble. There’s nothing rewarding about hitting your mum. They are experimenting with their own masculinity and I can’t perform that role; you can be the most tomboy woman in the world and you aren’t going to be able to satisfy that for them. So thank God for the builders who performed that function. And if anyone wants to come and teach them to ride a bike, please do.

When it comes to grieving, you never feel ok

When it comes to grieving, you never feel ok. What you have is varying degrees of being able to disguise it. People want two conflicting things from you. On the one hand: it’s a human truth that we find other people’s despair unbearable. If you don’t, you’re probably a priest. So I was very aware that I needed to conceal how I felt from people. In order to make social relations possible, you can’t turn up at nursery showing how you’re really feeling.

On the other hand, and this is quite complicated, when strangers feel sorry for someone it’s heartfelt and lovely but by feeling sorry for a stranger, and I include myself in this, we kind of want them to conform to our expectations. You’ve then found yourself unwittingly obliged to all sorts of people you’ve never met. If you inadvertently do something they don’t agree with, you haven’t honoured the bargain.

I was reading about Lucie Blackman, who went missing in Tokyo, and there was this public outpouring of sympathy for her father when he flew out there; they were on his side. But he failed to present himself as appropriately grieving in press conferences and so the support curtailed; it turned to disgust. It was the same with the McCannes, which – as a journalist – I’d witnessed firsthand.

So for months, I was too scared to swear. And then there was the time when the boys wanted to put a Labour poster in the window but we live in a Tory part of the country and I didn’t want the local farmers to disapprove. When events turn you into a local spectacle – it was reported in local news, on the radio – you feel skinless and exposed. But also, when you lose your partner, you realise that when there were two of you, you had that outer shell that all couples have that no one can penetrate. When you’re alone, you’re suddenly very naked.

So all these things made me incredibly self conscious. Almost to the point of becoming agoraphobic. But then I worried I’d turn into a bore – never swearing, never going out. So that was another bewildering experience to manage and negotiate. How can you make sense of all this when you can barely get dressed; when you’re at your least capable?

It may well have been very different if I was 80, Tony 85 and he’d died after a short illness. Maybe we’re good at death under those circumstances, I don’t know; I haven’t had those experiences. Because most of us will live until 80 – we have the first world luxury of longevity – we assume we’ll live to an old age, and because sudden accidental deaths are so rare in our culture, it explains why people literally don’t know what to do or say and can’t make any sense of it.

The grieving process in Jamaica

Contrast this with Jamaica: people do die unexpectedly, in shocking circumstances, all the time. As a consequence, people were deeply saddened and upset about Tony but not dumbfounded, so they could still talk. People here are so unsure of what to say, they pretend not to know. In Jamaica, they don’t worry about saying the wrong thing.

In Jewish culture, apparently, people only say one thing at the funeral: I’m sorry for your loss. I’m not sure if that’s true but it makes sense: everyone can say something and it won’t be wrong. Everyone wants to say the right thing; something profound, but I’m not sure what that is. And actually, I just wanted people to not say anything.

People would apologise profusely, as if they should know what to say. So to reassure everyone: you don’t need to say anything. Maybe it’s part of our first world culture where words are the answer for everything. In Jamaica they don’t think about a verbal formula that will make the pain go away. But because deaths aren’t part of our daily lives here, and yet we think we should know what to say, embarrassment and awkwardness prevails.

What I was most profoundly grateful for was just to be able to talk about Tony, in front of the kids, not in a ‘let’s talk about your dad dying’ or in a hushed, reverent voice – Jake couldn’t bear that voice, it really upset him – but in a normal way. What was most useful was someone talking normally saying: remember that Tony had three sugars in his tea – something irreverent. Or: Tony would have been thrilled to see Arsenal won today. Keeping references about the boring stuff alive. “I’ve gone and burnt the Yorkshires, Tony never would have done that.”

Grieving isn’t about ‘looking on the bright side’

For me, there’s an odd thing that people do when confronted by the horror of someone they love in despair. There’s a strong impulse in people – though this really came to the fore when I was diagnosed with cancer – when people would try to find a ‘bright side’ to look on. Try and find something to say to cheer you up. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there are humans who cheer up because someone says ‘things could be worse’. But for me, what made me feel better was when people said ‘what happened was catastrophically, unbearably horrifyingly terrible’.

People worry that they’ll make it worse by saying this, thinking that trying to find a bright side makes it better. It doesn’t. In the same way, they say: I didn’t want to mention Tony’s death in case it upset you. It won’t make you feel worse. There is no danger you’re going to remind someone that they’re grieving, as they are feeling terrible all the time. I was always open to talking about it. I’m yet to meet someone grieving who isn’t thinking about it all the time.

We want our loved ones to be happy and feel better but it’s a mistake to think you’ll catapult them back to the tragedy by bringing it up. I worry that it sounds as if I’m being judgmental. But I would be exactly the same. Everything has come as a revelation to me – so I would hate anyone to think this sounds like criticism. Everyone is trying their best; nobody would ever be callous or deliberately hurtful or insensitively crass to someone they’re close to or even a complete stranger. We all want to do our best but often don’t know quite what that would be. Being English, and completely unfamiliar, often we think the safest bet is to retreat when actually what people need is the truth to be discussed.

On telling Jake and Joe that it was all ‘bad luck’

I don’t know what I should have said to the boys, to be honest. It’s difficult because the honest truth is that it is just pitifully bad luck – there isn’t another explanation. If I believed in God I would say we were being tested – there’s a whole religious narrative available for these situations. If I were superstitious, I’d say we’d floated the wroth of the Gods. But not subscribing to either belief system, all that’s left is that we’ve been really unlucky.

But bad luck is a close neighbour of victimhood. And I think this is the most toxic, undesirable mindset – invariably self-fulfilling and also what comes with victimhood and self-pity is thinking everyone else is alright so you become bitter. People think it relinquishes them from any responsibility; that they are uniquely unlucky victims of circumstance, therefore that licenses them to act how they want; a get out of jail free card to be inconsiderate. But strike me down now if I raise children with that attitude, because I’ll have failed catastrophically.

So I don’t really know. How do we incorporate into their sense of their lives that they’ve been incredibly unlucky while not raising them to be self-pitying? So far, all I can come up with is that however horrifying what they’ve been through is, we discuss how lucky we are to have our family and friends, this house, the cat that walked into our lives two years ago, friends in Jamaica in this other world, Treasure Beach, where we still go. If they grow up with a sense of having had such good fortune, I’m hoping that will mitigate against the perils of victimhood. Because victimhood is the total opposite of Tony. The start he was dealt with in life would have otherwise exonerated him but he had a refusal to succumb to self-pity.

Grieving makes you aware of your own mortality

I no longer have this subconscious mental template which says you’ve got 80 years. It turns out Tony had 49 and although I’m currently cancer-free, I have no idea what I’ve got. I certainly don’t have the old 80-year subconscious framework any more. But on the other hand, the concept of living every day like it’s your last, cherish what you’ve got, I don’t know how it translates into the every day. You have to do the laundry, my younger son’s sheets smell like wee – he must have wet himself – I can’t say: I’m not gong to wash them because I may not be here tomorrow.

So it would be a lie to say I live each day like it’s my last. But what is true is that if you and I had bumped into each other and had a chat two years ago, I’d have felt like all the big decisions in my life had been made: the house we’d live in, money I’d have to pay for it, the childhood our kids would have, the lives we would lead. I don’t know the answer to any of those questions now. In the time it takes to wash my hair I might have appraised the possibility of relocating us all to San Francisco; giving up my job; becoming an earth mother, living in a yurt; moving back to London; giving it all up and homeschooling my children. And I haven’t even dried my hair.

So what’s changed is that I now live as somebody who has no idea what’s coming or how life’s going to be. The truth is I didn’t know any of that two years ago, but the difference is I thought I did. You could look into a crystal ball, tell me anything and I’d say I can see how that can happen. Two years, ago, I saw me and Tony living in this farmhouse bringing up our kids together.

Now, I’ve no idea where we’re going. I’d like to tell you it’s thrilling and liberating and maybe, in time, I’ll come to think that it is. But the honest truth is that I fucking hate it. I loved my old self-deluded fantasy that I knew what was coming. Maybe you gradually put it back together and again think you’ll know what’s coming. I hope so, because it feels nice – and is certainly preferable to this alternative.”

All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead is published by 4th Estate, price £16.99