Paint it Black

CW: grief, death

If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes

When Karl and I were first dating, we spent a lot of time in rock and metal clubs in the south of the UK. If there was one song that could drag us back to the dance floor even if we were already at the door of the club, it was Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones. We’d race back, go crazy and sing along before finally heading out with that great feeling of a good night out. It’s a track that’s been part of my walking music for the ultra marathons I did last year and it’s always evoked warm feelings of those early days.

Two decades later and I’m hearing the lyrics properly for the first time.

Last Wednesday, I came home to my red front door a widow. My beloved Karl had died after weeks in intensive care. I was with him in his final hours, holding his hand and talking to him. I was there when the doctors called time of death and for hours afterwards sitting alone with him. And yet it still doesn’t feel real. Even though I have his phone, part of me is still waiting for a text asking why I haven’t come in to see him yet, or to berate me for not fixing the blind in the kitchen, or to encourage me to plan a trip for us as a family, or a million other things I’ve been meaning to do but have neglected since he started getting ill back in January.

I am alternately numb and inconsolable. Sometimes I forget and then I get consumed with guilt that I have forgotten. I am surrounded by friends and family but feel completely alone. I am bombarded with phone calls from people who want to talk but don’t know me well enough to know that I hate phone calls at the best of times. Other people who knew and loved him will be going through their own things and that will be different to my own experience.

We don’t talk about grief enough and as a result people don’t know what to say to anyone who is grieving. They think they are trying to be helpful and encouraging but they really aren’t and with the best of intentions they are making things worse.

It’ll get better with time – this assumes I want it to get better. As many have pointed out over the years, most recently to my mind in the MCU – “what is grief if not love persevering?”. Right now I don’t want to stop grieving – don’t try to rush me through it because it makes you feel better to say something.

It’s great to hear you laugh – there’s no faster way to put me back into despair than to remind me that I should be sad all the time, and add guilt for finding something funny on top of it. Laugh with me and cry with me.

Is there anything I can do? – this puts pressure on me to think of something and then feel bad when I decline. Worse is when there is something I need but the person offering can’t do it. It’s much easier if you can offer things you can do, whether that’s picking things up from the shops or finding sound clips of his voice for me.

Oh don’t worry about X – if I’ve asked about something then it’s on my mind – dismissing my concerns or changing the subject doesn’t help. Answer my questions and ask if you can help.

Making assumptions about what I do and don’t want to talk about or changing the subject when I get upset. I want to talk about him, I’m happy to talk about him. I’ll probably cry but that’s okay. Your role is not to prevent me from grieving but to support me in that. Ask me whether I’m okay to talk about it and give me the time to do so. If you need your own space then it’s okay to say so but don’t just change the subject to make yourself feel better.

I could go on about this all day. Now when people are asking what they can do to help I’ve robotically answered two things:

  • Donate blood (Home – NHS Blood Donation) – Karl was O negative and received at least 12 units of blood during his stay. I’d love at least 12 people to become new donors in his name.
  • Read Listen by Kathryn Mannix – I was reading this while Karl was dying – I wish I’d read it much earlier so I wouldn’t have dismissed his worries and carried on with naïve optimism that he’d pull through and I would have actually talked to him more deeply before he was unconscious.

Today would have been his birthday and it’s a very difficult day for me, his children and the rest of the family. I miss him with every fibre of my being. My front door is red but I’ve no wish to paint it black – he wouldn’t want me to.

Karl, Ruby and Janet Bastiman smiling happily the day before Karl's surgery - the last time we were all together
Karl Bastiman 16th May 1974 – 10th May 2023

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.