Elinor met Michael when she was 19 years old. It was while working together at a christian organisation that they first ‘noticed’ each other. They spent some time getting to know each other outside of work and built a relationship from a solid friendship with lots of talking and good fun. Michael was Elinor's first relationship and they dated for two years before he proposed in February 2005 and they got married in May just after Elinor’s 22nd birthday.
Elinor describes Michael as fun to be around with a random cheeky sense of humour and a knack for connecting with people. He was a talented musician and was very good at his job as an editor in the tech industry. He was a good guy who everybody loved.
Soon after they got married Michael started feeling very tired but just thought he was being lazy and enjoying his new wife’s cooking and company a little too much. He had previously been diagnosed with asthma so assumed that his breathless moments were just that, however 18 months into their marriage he had his first admission to A&E because he couldn’t breathe properly. A few months later he was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis - an auto immune disease that was doing damage to his heart and lung tissue. By the time he was diagnosed Michael had lost 40% of his lung function and couldn’t do much activity before needing to take a break to catch his breath. He was 27 years old but had the stamina of an elderly person. Elinor remembers the ‘dirty looks’ from people when they would park in the disabled carparks (even though they had a pass!) as people would make assumptions based on their age and mobility. As you can imagine this disease changed their life considerably, they were having to look at moving out of their apartment on the 2nd floor because of the 2 flights of stairs, Michael could no longer bike to work so they had to purchase a wee car for his three minute drive to work, and as the disease progressed Elinor began to look for another job that was part time so she could care for Michael. Even down to the small details, sacrifices had to be made, Elinor wasn’t able to wear perfumes or use scented moisturisers and even aerosol deodorants caused issues because they couldn’t have any smells in the air that would take away the oxygen.
Although they were under the best specialists and had access to the latest treatments and drugs, Elinor remembers when the conversations with the professionals started to include the word ‘terminal’, but they had hope and a 'never give up’ attitude which got them through. It still came as a shock when on one of Michaels stays in Intensive Care the doctors said “There is nothing more we can do” and 7 days later, 18 months after his diagnosis and just before their 3rd anniversary, Michael passed away.
Elinor remembers on the day that Michael passed away in a particularly difficult moment she had her arms around him and closed her eyes, she was encouraged by a very vivid picture she saw,
“I saw Michael sitting in the hospital room, and then me with my arm around him and then there was an arm around both of us, it was God holding us. There was an incredible tangible presence of God in that moment that bought such peace. That stayed with me.”
In the moments of his passing although it was difficult she had a decision to make,
“I’m either going to freak out and have a cry in the corner or I’m going to be present in this moment.”
She stirred up her courage and chose to be present in the moment. At the tender age of 24 Elinor became a widow. The battle was over. But that thick tangible sense of peace stayed with her and carried her through.
Elinor is not someone who enjoys being in the spotlight or public speaking but she chose to speak at Michael’s funeral. She chose to rise above the situation and not see herself as a young widow and a victim, but to look at the honour and privilege she had of knowing Michael the best and being able to pay tribute to the good man that he was and the God that he served. She knew she had one opportunity and she knew that God was calling her to it and He would get her through it, so she stirred up her courage and did the best job she could.
The day after the funeral she woke up with two big questions hanging over her:
“What do I do now?
Who am I?”
For so long she had been caring for Michael and had happily laid so much of her life down to do that, but to begin to pick up the pieces was quite daunting. She didn’t even know what she liked to eat because they had just been eating what Michael could. She didn’t even remember what deodorants and perfumes she used to like. So she did what she knew to do,
“The very next Sunday I was in church, and I never left, because that’s home for me, it’s where I needed to be to have my faith and life rebuilt and restored.”
She describes the weeks that followed as waves of intense emotion and then feeling numb for the rest of the time amidst the physical exhaustion. Even the simplest tasks of daily life were a challenge so one of her good friends moved in with her to care for her, keep her company and make sure she was doing important things like eating, drinking and showering. She gave herself plenty of time before she went back to work but she knew she couldn’t wait until she ‘felt better’ or ‘pulled herself together’ to go back because that day probably would never come. She worked on staff at her church at the time and they were absolutely amazing walking her through this time. The journey with Michael’s health was a ‘public' one in the church with a lot of people praying and supporting them, so when it came to Elinor’s grief there was a lot of well meaning people wanting to support her and check in with how she was doing. This made Sunday services quite a challenge emotionally for Elinor so she learnt to put boundaries in place for what wasn’t helpful and made sure she had what she did need. She chose the people she surrounded herself with in this season, people who were life-giving and not draining, people who believed in her and spoke strength and courage into her life rather than sympathy and sadness, people who would help her rise up rather than sink down into her grief.
“It’s learning to be ok with making the wisest decisions for yourself in your healing process.”
Elinor learnt to have grace for well-meaning people who would say some pretty dumb things. She found it helpful to have a safe place and good people to process those things with and figure out how to respond when people were unhelpful. She also had to learn to have grace for herself and the expectations she had for herself. Learning to be self-aware was key and deciding in advance how she would handle situations and triggers to big emotions. As the months went by she had to ask herself the questions: At what point do I stop wearing my wedding ring and his around my neck? At what point do I stop going to the cemetery every week? Once she was out of the intense immediate grief it became about figuring out at what point does she move forward, at what point does she bring change to her life? After the first year of significant events like birthdays and anniversaries she remembers consciously thinking about how she wanted to celebrate those significant events from then on and making a decision about what place they would have in her life moving forward. She explains that God gives you grace for every season and she has clung to Him in every season over the passed nine years of her grief.
'Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!' Deuteronomy 30:19
Elinor chose life within her experience of death. She chose to get up each morning, she continued to choose God and nine years later she continues to choose life with God. She has walked the journey with grace and dignity, honouring what was and embracing what will be.
Her advice for supporting people through grief is just to be there for them. Be available for when they need you. Don’t ever say “I know how you feel….” because everyone’s experience is different. Just let them know that you are there for them and encourage them to tell you what they need.