The main collage room (click on it to enlarge)
It’s one all, or most of us, have to make at some time in our lives, probably more than once. The journey back from bereavement when a partner, a child, a parent, close relative or very good friend dies. The most traumatic in my life so far was when my life-partner of 21 years suddenly passed away after a short illness. Two weeks prior to this I had little indication anything was wrong, so it came as a complete shock to me.
This was all over 20 years ago now, and the classic stages of bereavement have long since been completed, though I may not have recognized them at the time. For instance I was insistent that at no time did I feel anger, yet I realize I did feel this emotion against the hospital doctor who diagnosed what was wrong with him and told us in a most insensitive manner. So insensitive, in fact, that my partner signed himself out of hospital, refused all treatment and died at home 4 days later.
The first hurdle to negotiate after he died was to hang on to the tenancy of our council flat. Back in those days there was no such thing as civil partnerships and gay couples were not recognized officially. Luckily we had a joint tenancy, but it was not all plain sailing. Because civil partnerships did not exist we were assumed to be sleeping in separate bedrooms, so were allocated a two-bedroom flat which I was now occupying by myself. With so many families on the council waiting lists the pressure was on for me to move to a smaller flat.
This for me was completely out of the question. Bereavement and moving are said to be two of the most stressful things in life, so to cope with both within weeks or months would be terrible. Many gay couples faced this before civil partnerships as without a joint tenancy, a Will or joint ownership of the property you lived in the surviving partner could be left penniless and homeless within weeks of a bereavement.
I told the council my partner had died just days later when I went to pay the rent. I was told by a totally unsympathetic woman in the office, who did not know he was my life-partner of course, that since the joint tenant had died I was now occupying the two-bedroom flat illegally! Oh sorry – was I supposed to move out into the street before his coffin had even been removed to the cremmy?
Of course she was wrong – I was the joint tenant so had every right to remain in the flat, though I did need to sign a new tenancy agreement. This allowed me to stay on in the flat but with strict conditions imposed. The rent was increased, so now I had to pay more than double what I paid when my partner was sharing the old rent with me. Also I was told under no circumstances could the tenancy pass to anyone else. This meant were I to find another partner, or have my aging mother move in with me, if I died they would be homeless. I don’t know if things have now changed in this respect.
I resisted the pressures to move to a smaller flat even after getting over the initial stages of bereavement, and even now 20 years later would find it extremely traumatic to ever have to move. The reasons for this are simple. What do childless couples have to show of their lives together when one partner dies? Old photos, memories, and perhaps things they created together. The main thing we created in our 21 years together were various homes. The current one I’m now living in includes several fabulous collages which my partner created and constantly changed. So impressive were they that a month before he died one was featured briefly in ‘Out On Tuesday’, a gay TV program. They only showed a few seconds, including us sitting together on the sofa in the collage room, but happily I managed to obtain the uncut video footage which is much longer.
There are also all the little ornaments and souvenirs we bought together from all around the world on our travels. True these could be taken with me if I move, or most of them could, but the collages still tie me to this flat. It would break my heart to have to take them down or leave them for others to destroy. They could not be recreated anywhere else, though if I moved I would salvage what I could and perhaps try to create something similar.
Other people do not always understand why I keep up these collages and tenderly repair them 20 years later. They say it belonged to another era and I should move on. We had no children of course, but his collages are something my partner created for us both to enjoy. Neither of us were any good at decorating, and they brighten the place up and make my partner feel close to me.
A friend lost his life-partner a few years ago, even more suddenly than my loss. They’d been together about 40 years. His partner felt unwell one morning and died of a heart attack. The surviving partner still keeps the other one’s room (they had separate bedrooms) as a shrine, with the TV on most of the time. This made no sense to me at first, but then I realized as long as the TV was on in the other room the surviving partner did not feel so alone – he’d been used to hearing the TV in the next room for so many years the flat would seem empty without it, even though he had his own TV in his room. The room kept as a shrine contained all his partner’s things, and as they too were of course a childless couple, were all he had left, apart from photos and memories, of their lives together in the shared council flat.
It took me about 18 months, including a lot of counseling, to accept the death of my partner and what caused it, and in fact it was not until two years after his death that I finally accepted the cause. I apparently was then in some sort of depression for years, feeling my life was over and I didn’t care if I lived or died. This is what friends tell me, and I’m sure it’s true. All I wanted at that time was to join my partner. I believe in an afterlife, but even if there wasn’t one I wanted to join him in sweet oblivion.
I not only believed in an afterlife, however, I had overwhelming evidence for it. Within hours my deceased partner was sending signals to me and all his friends that he was still very much alive in the Spirit world. Some of these are documented in the last chapter of my biography/autobiography ‘A Gay Tapestry’ elsewhere on this site. Suffice to say here that I was told things telepathically I could not possibly have known – only my deceased partner could have known them. He also answered by various methods questions I asked him the very next day or even sooner. These two-way post-humous communications have gone on, in various ways, up to and including the present.
The thing that really helped me move on and feel my life was worth living again was when I met someone and, dare I say it, fell in love again. It was not to be a partnership for us as he was already married (to a woman). Not a particularly happy marriage apparently, but this guy came on to me and made all the initial moves, and though a full physical relationship never developed, he made me laugh and there was a strong emotional bond partly expressed physically. This love affair, for that’s what it was, and occasional meetings (he used to come round my flat for lunch when he worked on my estate) boosted my self-esteem. I was, after all, only 46 when my life-partner died.
A year or so after he died I helped to form a social group for gay men who’d lost their life-partners. At the back of my mind I felt not only could we visit pubs, cinemas, etc. together, but I might meet a new partner this way. This never happened, but we did go on some outings including a weekend in Blackpool together.
With my married guy the highlight I suppose was a rock’n’roll Weekender we went on together. Friends there were treating us as a couple, and he did the cooking. His wife, by the way, knows about our relationship and her reaction was ‘if I kick the bucket you can have him all to yourself’. It seems a rather sexless marriage since they’ve had separate bedrooms most of the time and still do apparently, but he is certainly emotionally attached to her. Later a daughter came along, so they must sleep together occasionally, and then they moved away from Battersea to the South Coast. I now see him very infrequently indeed, though my heart still skips a beat whenever I meet him or hear his voice on the phone. He is, after all, the only person outside my family I felt emotionally attached to since my life-partner died, and I know the feeling was mutual. He once said if he weren’t already married he’d be my life-partner. That was nice, though I never held up any real hopes. The fact is he can’t come to terms with being gay. He had an affair with an older man when he was in his teens, then the older guy died. They never lived together, and with all his friends getting married I guess he felt that was the thing to do. I don’t think he could ever fully accept the gay thing and living with another man, though in his case a few beers help him to lose some of his inhibitions. That’s how he came on to me in the first place – in a straight pub!
Anyway, this rather strange love affair is what got me out of my depressed state and made life seem worth living again, since you never know what’s around the corner or when the unexpected might happen. Now I’m so glad I survived my bereavement, as my aging mother (now 97) needs me to look after her. I’m her main carer, and without me I guess she’d have to go into care and would probably soon give up.
It’s been a long journey since my bereavement, and I know I’ll have another to face if my mother dies before me, which I hope is the case. If I went first she’d be completely helpless, though as I said above she’d probably go downhill very fast and soon follow me.
This happened to my paternal grandfather. After an accident in which my grandmother broke her hip she deterioted rapidly, despite a successful operation, and died on my birthday. About a month later my grandfather said to my mother (who had moved in following the accident to look after them) ‘I think I’ll go and find Edie tonight duck’. He died in his sleep. They’d been together nearly 60 years and he just couldn’t go on living without her.
I was, of course, much younger, in my 40s not my 80s when my partner died. So just dying in my sleep of a broken heart was not really an option. But there was something else that kept me going, a tremendous comfort to me along with the communications with my deceased partner. This was the last pet cat we got from the Blue Cross animal shelter together about 10 months before he died. Tibby was a tremendous comfort to me, and she lived to the ripe old age of about 22. As she was only 6 when we got her, I had her forÂ a full 15 years after my partner died. In the days and weeks after he died whenever I was in bed upset at being physically alone, Tibby would come up and nuzzle me. She seemed to know I was upset, and I’m convinced at times the Spirit of my partner came into her or at least spurred her on to comfort me. Tibby has now joined my partner and most of our friends from the old days on the Spirit planes, very few remain here on Earth.
I’m now pushing 70. The main old friend I still keep in touch with (he and his new partner help maintain my allotment) will be 73 later this year, I’ll be 67 and my mother 98. What concerns me now, apart from wanting to outlive my mother so I can continue to take care of her, is who will look after me if I survive to be like my mother, who is fairly lucid but cannot do a lot of the things she used to do? There are no close friends or family to help, to push me in a wheelchair if I’m unable to walk far, to deal with my finances and mail as I do for my mother, to do shopping and cook my meals as I also do for her, to remember medical appointments and take me to them as I also do for her.
The gay community is not organized to help those on their own in their older years. I’m reading an autobiography of Graham Norton, and his mother once told him that she was upset when she found out his sexual orientation because the gay life is a ‘lonely’ one. Graham disagreed with her, and he was right at that time. In your younger days there’s no need to feel lonely, especially if you are lucky enough to have a partner. But it comes home to you in old age that the gay life can indeed be very lonely without a partner and without children when nobody on the gay scene wants to know anyone who’s well beyond retirement age, at least that’s how it seems.
There are no Care Homes for gay people, and an old friend of ours ended up in a Care Home where he had nothing at all in common with the others. He mercifully passed away after a year or so in totally unsuitable Care Homes. Not that they were that bad, just that he was forced to mix with straight people who wouldn’t have understood his former lifestyle. Also he had to mix with women, and all his life he’d hardly ever had to do this, sharing his life with his male life-partner for 40 years till he died. The surviving partner couldn’t function without his life-partner, who did all the cooking, etc.. Fortunately a friend helped him till he had to go into care, but dementia set in and he followed his life-partner into the Spirit world a few years later.
The gay community really should set up Care Homes and support networks for older gay men and women, many of whom have no life-partners, family or children to help them and care for them in old age. I just trust in Spirit that they’ll find someone to look after me when I finally reach my dotage, or that I pass on (hopefully peacefully in my sleep) before I reach the stage when I’m unable to look after myself, as the gay community seems unlikely to rally round.
It is summed up in the song an old drag queen ‘Auntie Flo’ (the late Marc Fleming) used to sing in The Black Cap, Camden Town on Sunday lunchtimes: ‘Nobody loves a fairy when she’s 40’. How very true, and even more so when she’s pushing 70 or even older!
High time the gay community did something about this. They had buddy networks and all sorts of support groups during the AIDS epidemic – how about some similar buddy networks, support groups and Care Homes for elderly gay men and women? After all, if you survive that long, you’ll all be old one day yourselves and will be glad of these services.