Posted by on Sunday 30 December 2018

Diabetes and grief

I could have redrawn this, but I copied it from this article.
Rather than hastily cobble together a half-baked 'review of the year' for the past 12 months, I've decided to write something on a topic which is more or less constantly filling all of our minds in this house at the moment. I suspect this is more of a catharsis for me, than of any use to anyone else, but writing often helps me process things, so here it is.

I've often come across the concept of a relationship between diabetes (or any long term condition) and grief. I was born in the year Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first modelled the 5 stages of grief - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Anyone who has received a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes is likely to recognise all or some of those phases as you grieve for the loss of your health, perhaps for the loss of the life or career choices you once hoped for. My own experience of grieving over my type 1 diabetes is that it has actually rarely felt like grief at all. And yet I can certainly see those stages coming in unpredictable waves over the years. Not in the neat diagrammatic 'first you get this... then you move on to this...' way sometimes illustrated, but in more of a cyclic ebb and flow. Peaks and valleys. Dark and light. Some stages repeating and recurring, others barely registering.

I've lived with this 'diabetes grieving' for approaching 30 years, and once I'd seen the phases/stages model, I found it quite a helpful way to understand my erratic thinking from time to time. Over the past 12 months I've been very glad that I've had a bit of a practise at this grieving lark.

Almost exactly 12 months ago, between Christmas and New Year, Jane (my wife of 24 years and occasional co-author of this blog) fell down the stairs. She went to the Doctor's when the pain in her back wasn't seeming to get better and, along with the long queue of people who go-to-the-Dr-with-a-bad-back, went through the standard sequence of stronger painkillers, x-rays, scans, more painkillers etc. A different locum every time (at least initially), and each appointment a few weeks apart.

It never was her back.

One collapsed lung, significant weight loss and a "Hmmmm, that doesn't look right" about her pancreas later and she was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal, pancreatic cancer in May 2018.

I first met Jane in 1993. She was working part time in a framing shop just down the road from where I was working at the time, while she was simultaneously building a career as an artist, illustrator, dressmaker and doing a little soft-furnishing on the side. She remembered me because the mount I asked for was a peculiar size - I had mis-measured it - and as if heralding our future together she gave me exactly what I asked for, before gently letting me know I’d got it wrong and sorting it out for me.

I kept popping back to the shop hoping to bump into her. Browsing the greetings cards by the door, then losing my bottle. Eventually after buying more cards than anyone could sensibly need, I plucked up enough courage to ask Jane for lunch at Pierre Victoire. We had lamb.

We went to the Odeon and saw, ‘In the Line of Fire’. Clint Eastwood, John Malkovitch and just enough exploding helicopters for a perfect romantic evening. And then we walked and talked all around the city centre and harbourside long into the night. I think I knew right then. Perhaps we both did. About two weeks later we had a faltering conversation in the car about where we thought this might be going. We realised, of course, that any talk of engagement and weddings after so short a time would seem ridiculous to everyone else. So we vowed not to speak of it again and to review how we felt in 6 months.

6 months later we got engaged and were married in November 1994.

The way Jane responded to her diagnosis and coped with the following 6 brutal months was nothing short of extraordinary. She went from "come in to find out the results of the scan" to "palliative care" in the space of about 6 minutes. She amazed me. Heroic, feisty, hilarious, determined, positive and with a level of empathy that I cannot imagine many others on the planet would have possessed. We had an amazing last summer together as a family. We wept, we laughed, we talked, we shared, we planned. We ate lots and lots of cake. We were utterly humbled by the outpouring of love and support from friends, neighbours, family and professionals around us.

Jane died in October 2018, and Christmas day this year marked exactly 2 months to the day since she died.

Jane had always joked that she'd 'go first'. And the irony of her managing to do it with something pancreas-related was not lost on either of us. We laughed. There was a lot of pitch-black humour in those last months.

The immediate aftermath of a death seems to involve an extraordinary amount of admin. Honestly it just keeps rolling in. Quite how some people can navigate through those hoops while also dealing with the immediacy of the loss is beyond me. It does form a half-welcome distraction at times, but really - I cannot believe that this is the best way to handle and process a situation that is affecting hundreds of families today (whichever day you are reading this post). People who might have learning difficulties or other challenges to juggle alongside the need to suddenly make dozens of appointments and complete rafts of paperwork.

And the initial weeks, turn into a month. And actually, we'd all begun our grieving with the terminal diagnosis 6 months earlier.

Almost inevitably, people have been asking me, "How are you doing" quite a bit. It's not unwelcome, but it's also not always an easy question to answer. Not always easy to say, or describe - or even understand yourself. I've come across various metaphors and illustrations of what grief is like that I've found helpful. Grief as a rollercoaster. Life growing around grief. Grief as a box-ball-and-button. And me being me, I've been trying to understand my experiences with an analogy of my own.

Original photo by Sam Howzit. Creative Commons 2.0
The Frozen River
I woke with this picture in my mind very clearly one morning. I'm not sure if it was left over from a dream, or arrived just at the moment of waking. I've thought about it often since. I am standing on the bank of a frozen river. The sun is shining, the river is vast and wide. I step out onto the surface. The sunlight catches the frozen surface glittering and shining. As I cautiously take more steps I am aware that beneath me there is a dark broiling current, swirling and eddying. At any moment I might fall through and be plunged into the inescapable blackness. As I shift weight stepping forward the ice is creaking and giving off little pings and ringing chimes. Utterly beautiful, but they only serve as a reminder of the precariously fragile nature of what separates me from the churning depths below. I cannot go back to the shore I have left - I have to keep going. I cannot clearly make out the far bank ahead of me, though I know it must be there. The ice reaches out into seemingly infinite distance with no way of telling how far I must go. Sometimes the mist blows in and the ice beneath me feels so thin, so fragile that I can barely risk it. Other times it feels more sturdy, the sun cuts through and feels warm on my face, the sparkling chiming surface transcendently beautiful. I must keep going to get to the other side. Keep focussed on taking gentle step after gentle step. Trust that the surface will keep supporting my weight. Somewhere up ahead, even though I cannot see it, will be the far bank, and warmth, and safety. I just have to keep going.

Sadness and sorrow
I've always loved carefully chosen words (not that you could tell that from my barely coherent ramblings here!). Poetry, and especially song lyrics, that express deep truths with beautiful economy and precision. Really good advertising copywriting too. Saying a lot with very little.

I had an 'Ahhhhh! Yes that's it...' moment earlier this month when I realised that what I was feeling was sorrow and not sadness. Sadness has happened too, of course. Sometimes sharply intense. Other times just gently lapping at the edges of my mind. But for me sadness has a more fleeting, temporary quality. It is the stuff that comes in waves. Sorrow is deeper, further down in the geological centre of me. A seam of it running deep, underpinning everything. No matter how enjoyable and lively my days are, how much laughter and fun I am having, there is always the sorrow running underneath. Occasionally the seam of sorrow breaks up to the surface and emerges - obliterating everything else - before eventually receding back down to the depths.

Jane always said that life comes in chapters. And 2019 will see the kids and me gingerly embarking on a new phase. I am incredibly proud of the amazing, talented young people they already are, and are continuing to become. I am staggered by their gifts, their resilience, their abilities, and their nature. The next 12 months could see some amazing changes for us all as they both launch into whole new young-adult chapters, and I know that Jane could not have been more proud of them.

Here's to an amazing, fun-filled 2019 whatever you are planning, and whatever you have to face. And thank you to everyone who has helped and supported us as a family over the past year. It means more than we can say.


  1. Dear Mike,

    I am so, so sorry to hear about Jane - what a tragic loss at such an early age. Your story of the frozen river is beautiful and emotive - don't lose faith - carry on and you'll get to the other side.

    With very best wishes,


  2. An incredible read. Thank you. The sorrow - so well described - you understand and I empathise. Take care x

  3. Dear Mike I am so sorry to read your news. Very best wishes Sally

  4. I've just read your blog just now when I was remembering my father who passed away just over a year ago. I still get caught out, just about to tell him something. Nobody seems to talk about grief or the stages of it weirdly. Whilst this is a sad and challenging time for you and your family, I'm glad you have been able to share your experience. It helps everyone in the same place. Thank you and here's to a different kind of 2019.

  5. Hi Mike. I'm Alex from Oklahoma. I'm sorry to hear about you losing Jane. You have an awesome gift of describing the various technical and experiential sides of diabetes; that gift did not fail to give us a beautiful tribute to Jane. I really appreciate your blogs, bro. I wish you and your family a prompt and resolute recovery.

  6. Hi Mike, I'm a mum to a 12 yo just diagnosed with type 1 in November 2018. We lost my husband in January 2016. The similarities between grief and T1 are huge and what you say about sorrow is so true. You will keep going though. I joined Widowed and Young, the support and friendships have been amazing for both me and the kids, from people who just get it.

    Hugs and strength. Lxx