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Life after death

Bebhinn Ramsay on how she learnt to challenge thoughts about her partner's death

Alastair shouldn't have died. One month has passed since the first anniversary of his death.

If the time since his death was a baby, it would be walking now. The sharpness of the pain has subsided into a continuous dull ache.

Despite my many efforts to keep Alastair close, I have come to accept that the day-to-day life of our family will never go back to how it was.

The boys and I are doing okay and life, on the whole, is manageable. I am a survivor of his death.

After too many glasses of wine, though, I cry for Alastair, and for me and for the boys.

The painful mantra that burns a hole in my stomach continues to be: Alastair should not have died; Alastair should not have died.

My world has calmed down, but it is still a place of quiet chaos, a pit of random indifference. I have fallen out of love with God and I feel He can never make amends.

I sign up for a nine-day spiritual retreat in Germany. I feel so much stronger now than I did when I went to the Buddhist retreat. I am more ready to face myself.

The retreat is with Byron Katie, with whom I had done a one-day workshop about 10 years earlier. When she was 43, she woke out of a stupor of depression to a whole new way of seeing life around her.

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She discovered that the source of her suffering was not what had happened to her in life, but what she thought about what happened.

She found that by questioning her painful thoughts, she became free of them and she stopped suffering.

To help others to question their own painful thoughts, she devised a simple worksheet called 'The Work', which I have been using now for 10 years on and off. It is made up of four questions and turnarounds.

I have always loved the straightforward logic and the ensuing relief of 'The Work'. What I have used most are the turnarounds.

If I had a thought such as, Alastair isn't being fair to me, then I would turn it around to 'I am not being fair to me' or 'I am not being fair to Alastair'.

The turnarounds put me back in the centre of the universe, where I like to be, and give me things to work on within myself, rather than waiting for others to change.

'The Work', for me, was an easy, enjoyable self-help approach. Only later would I realise how much I had underestimated Katie's work.

I fly to Germany to take part in the retreat and find myself sharing a twin room with a German woman. We exchange niceties and then agree that we will be silent with each other for the duration of the retreat.

More than 200 people file into a big conference room to meet with Byron Katie. I sit at the back of the room, battling with waves of hope and scepticism that Byron Katie will be able to help me fall in love with life once again.

As an introduction, she invites us all to write down the thoughts that are causing us suffering. I write down in capital letters: 'ALASTAIR SHOULD NOT HAVE DIED.'

"Your painful thoughts are your story," she tells us gently. "You are probably very attached to your story and even believe that it is true. I am not asking you to drop it."

She continues, "I invite you, at this school, to simply investigate who you would be without your story, who you would be if you did not believe that thought".

Isigh, discouraged, and later go to sleep, awarding scepticism the upper hand.

The next morning, I pair up with a middle-aged woman and we are invited to describe our worst experiences. I recount the well-worn tale of Alastair's death in concise, staccatoed sentences.

She listens silently, showing empathy with her eyes and facial gestures.

Then it is her turn. She confides to me haltingly that she has a fear of spontaneous combustion; she is afraid that she will suddenly burst into flames.

I almost laugh. Even as she talks of the torment this thought has caused her, I dismiss her fear immediately as irrational and ridiculous.

Her situation really is a story in her head, I conclude to myself.

Is it true?

We are in a group session with Byron Katie and, one after another, a series of people stand up to speak about their situations.

This ranges from a young mixed-race woman who feels that people judge her because of her skin colour to a man who is consumed by his inability to love.

As each person stands up, I judge their situations. They are so attached to their stories, which are not even that bad. Nothing irreversible like death has touched them.

A fifth person stands up and cries into the microphone about her diabetes. As Byron Katie challenges the truth of her story, she angrily defends how bad her life is.

I sigh. Alastair would do anything to be given the option of staying alive through daily insulin shots.

I move forward in my back-row chair. It's exciting -- I am really getting this. I can see what Byron Katie is talking about. Each one of these people is so blind. It is so obvious that they are clutching on to unquestioned thoughts.

It seems as if they almost want to suffer. How they whine needlessly! How they hold on to their stories!

I sit back in the chair again, satisfied. It is true, then; I am more perceptive than those around me. I am finally learning something.

As I relax into the chair, a thought slips casually into my mind, sneaking in from a blind spot backstage. It is more an after-thought than a thought.

I nearly miss it: Not one of these people has a real problem, like I have.

I sit bolt upright. Oh my God! Hah! Where did that thought come from?

I look up towards the front, where the young woman is still talking about her diabetes. I see myself in her. I am her. I am just like everyone else too. I am tightly grasping a narrow, unquestioned thought.

My story seems more real to me than the others because it's mine. It is me that is blind. It is me that is whining. It is me that wants to suffer.

I am so convinced that Alastair should not have died that I have not allowed even the tiniest sliver of space to question it.

So, who am I? The knower of all things? The one who knows when everyone should live and die?

I glimpse my arrogance, and that glimpse is the sliver of space that I need to doubt the veracity of this haunting thought.

Is it true that Alastair should not have died? Yes. Can I absolutely know that it is true? No.

I sit in this chink of doubt for days. I do not try and convince myself that he should have died or that I am wrong in thinking that he shouldn't have died. I merely sit in a state of not knowing.

Peace. Blessed, blessed peace after 13 months in a dark, foreboding world.

Unassuming, world-shattering insights come to me in the space of not knowing. It is not the fact that Alastair died that is making me sad. If I did not love Alastair, then his death would not make me sad. Hey, I could even be relieved to be without him.

Then, if it is not his actual death, it is what I believe about his death that is making me sad.

Thoughts such as: death is bad; Alastair misses out on everything when he is dead; Alastair would be better off alive than dead; my life and the boys' lives are worse off without him around; there is no justice, no rhyme or reason to life.

These are all summed up in the thought: Alastair should not have died.

I cannot absolutely know any of these things. They are not facts, they are ephemeral beliefs or thoughts. Alastair's body died and I cannot change that. It is a fact. I cannot change facts, but I can change thoughts.

I have often changed my mind and changed beliefs. Heck, I used to believe absolutely that a bearded man in a red suit slipped down my chimney to deliver presents at Christmas.

I can weaken the hold that thoughts have on me by simply admitting that I do not absolutely know that they are true.

The thought arises time and time again: Alastair should not have died, Alastair should not have died. But now I know what to do.

Instead of following the thought to the 'poor Alastair', 'poor me', 'horrible world' thoughts and feelings that it leads me towards, I simply hold it in my mind and ask it straight out: is it true?

'Love's Last Gift' by Bebhinn Ramsay is published by Hachette

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