Conversation with Laura Kwiecień from Poland
Joe Webb- Lit up 2021
Kasia - What would you say to your 4 year younger self, knowing what you now know about yourself and your experience?
Laura - You know what, this is a difficult question and it is difficult to answer it. I will start by saying that whatever I said to myself, it wouldn't matter much anyway. I was very closed in my own world and totally derailed from reality. However, if now, from this perspective, I had to stand in front of myself and say something, it would be some total cliché, which, unfortunately, are often right, like: 'You can't even imagine how great everything will turn out to be, that you will be happy and that you will make it, girl.’
Kasia - Would you hug yourself?
Laura - Oh yeah. Very, very much. And I think I would cry with myself. I would cry, stroke my head and say that everything will work out and that everything will pass.
Kasia - Do you think you would believe yourself then?
Laura - No. I am convinced that I wouldn’t. And I would probably get pissed off at myself.
Kasia - We get angry when other people tell us: 'it will be fine', 'it will work out', 'time will heal the wounds'.
Laura - True. That's why I would get pissed off at myself and I wouldn't be able to tell myself anything wise. Simply put, I would try to be with myself as much as possible.
Kasia - What support do you need now and what do you appreciate in conversations about K.?
Laura - I still need and find it very supportive when I am close to people who are related to K. His friends, the whole family, sister and parents are still very important to me. These relationships have evolved, because at the beginning it was K.'s mum or K.'s sister, and now they function by names and I am no longer called K.'s girlfriend. I am just Laura. Since K. died, to be in contact with them has been crucial to me. Recently, when I had less contact with his sister or mother, I noticed that my mood related to my loss got worse. The longing returned as well as many thoughts or dreams about K.
It would help me a lot too, but it doesn't happen very often, if someone asked me about him and I could tell them about him. Recently, I took part in a documentary about grieving and at one point I was asked to talk about him, what he was like, what he liked, etc. I felt my eyes open and sparkle, and I started talking about him with passion and a smile. I realised I needed it badly because nobody asks me about such things normally.
Kasia - What helped you in the worst moments after his death?
Laura - It turned out that there were a lot of things that helped. During the first month, I spent my days with his family and friends. His sister's house was a place of gatherings. People came from other cities to his funeral and passed by her house to say hello, and I was just there. I didn't know everyone, but they always hugged me and were very sympathetic. I didn't always want to talk to them or didn't know what to say, but I was in a place where there were people who knew and loved K. and that was enough for me.
I would get there in the morning and at 10 p.m. I would go home, then take some sleeping pills and go to sleep. The next day I would wake up and go there again. At first it was a bit weird. K.’s sister and I didn't know each other that well, so I would ask her: 'Hey, can I come tomorrow?' And she would reply: 'Yes, yes, come over.' After a while I said to her: 'I come here every day, but I don't know if it is okay for you' and she said: 'Laura, I'm begging you. Come every day! I am so happy that you are coming’. I think she needed it just as I did.
I also felt very attached to his friends. Before his death I had had more regular contact with some of them, and less regular with others. But after his death I made friends with everyone, suddenly, no one knows how.
Writing, since always, has been very important to me. Ever since I can remember, I have been writing: a diary, poems, song lyrics. In many difficult moments, I just wrote. It was not for anyone to read it, it was just helping me. At the beginning of my grief, I was writing letters to him. I also wrote down our entire history since we met. I didn't write everything as I got stuck at the end point which was very fresh and I couldn't get through it. I also set up an Instagram account where I wrote letters to myself. So I wrote letters to K., letters to myself, I wrote about our history, and in the meantime I wrote more stories. There was a lot of writing. When I couldn't be with anyone, which was extremely painful for me, I wrote.
I also travelled a lot.
Kasia - Alone or with someone?
Laura - Never alone. I wasn't doing anything on my own. I travelled mainly with my friends.
I am religious, so at critical moments I prayed to survive. I also had a lot of suicidal thoughts, which were rooted in a desire to the leave the world. On the other hand, I realised that if I had committed suicide, I would have left at least 10 people in the same situation as I was back then. I was suffering so much and feeling so bad that I really didn't want anyone in the world to experience the same. It was probably the only thing that discouraged me from this idea.
Kasia - Did you have someone who you could talk to about your suicidal thoughts?
Laura - Yes. I went to therapy. I had gone to this therapist for group therapy earlier, and after his death it turned out that she was a widow and she suggested that I come to see her for free. I ended up going to her for free for a year. It was like a gift from heaven. It was very helpful that she knew me and my story, and I had a built-up relationship with her. I also went to a psychiatrist and took medication. So as you can see, there were a lot of things that helped.
Kasia - I'm glad that you were not alone with your suicidal thoughts and that you gave yourself space, with your therapist and psychiatrist, to talk about it.
Laura - I've already learned that if you don't talk about your problems, it doesn’t get better. It gets even worse. Even when it's hard, it's worth talking.
Kasia - And what questions from others, in the context of support, would you appreciate?
Laura - 'How can I help you?' And then I say: 'I don't know'. But the mere fact that someone asks is a lot for me. At the beginning of my grief, I did not know how someone could help me. I did not know how to help myself and until now sometimes I do not know how to do it, but the mere fact that someone asks about it means that they want to help and there is some willingness to offer support.
‘How can I support you?’, ‘Can I do anything for you?’ , ‘Hey, maybe we'll meet up?’ , ‘I was thinking about you, how do you feel?’ The fact that I am not alone with this, that someone is worried about me, noticed that I am suffering and that I am not invisible was very important to me. Maybe I didn't quite make other people feel that I needed it, but in retrospect, I can see that I did.
Kasia - I like these questions because they don't suggest fixing your situation, but show, as you said, a willingness to support, even though someone doesn't necessarily know how to do it.
Laura - Yes, exactly. These questions are not overbearing, they provide space and a choice. They are not the hopeless advice that is usually given, such as 'Go for a run' or 'Smile'.
Kasia - What should be absolutely forbidden to say to young women whose partners have died?
Laura - 'You'll find someone else.' This question raises a thousand thoughts and questions that the person who said this is not aware of. It reminds me that he is not here and that I won’t be with him. It also shows that I have to look for someone else, establish a relationship from the beginning and that I can be with someone else. And I didn't want to find anyone, I wanted him to be here.
'He wished you had been happy'. I thought then: 'No, he didn’t. How do you know what he would have liked? He is not here and we cannot ask him’. This question immediately made me think that I would like to ask him about it, but I cannot.
'He is well in heaven now.' My answer: 'Well, he is not because I'm not there. If I were there, he would be happy, but he's not because we're apart. And even if he is happy there, so what if I am not?' But then the thought that he was in a happy place began to be very important to me. It appeared frequently in my prayers and in my understanding of life and death.
So the questions I mentioned are the forbidden ones. They did not mean anything wrong, but they make thoughts go the wrong way.
Kasia - You recently told me that when you wanted to join a widow support group, you asked the facilitator if you qualify, because you are not a widow. The word ‘widow’ describes a woman whose husband died. In Polish we do not have a name that you can identify with after your partner's death. I wonder if the lack of nomenclature and the lack of socio-cultural permission to be a widow touched you in any way?
Laura - I remember that when I was on this retreat for widows, I envied every girl that was a widow. They suffered so much because they were widows, and I wanted so much to be called a widow. I would love to be a wife, but in the situation in which I was, widowhood was associated with the privilege of getting married and being a wife. Later it stopped bothering me because K.’s family had to deal with a huge amount of paperwork after death, and luckily I didn't have to participate in it.
Bearing in mind that I did not become a widow, I associate it with a privilege. I was neither a widow nor a wife. When I say that my boyfriend died, people say: 'I'm sorry, I would never have known'. And when a husband dies it's like, 'Oh, that's terrible' and people seem to care more. This was quite difficult for me, although I still called myself a widow and I felt like a wife.
Kasia - On your Instagram account in one of your posts you mentioned an extremely important and rarely discussed topic: sex and new relationships in the grief context. You gave me permission to bring this up today. What are your reflections around this topic and the story behind your post?
Laura - I was lucky that the process of opening up to other men was very slow and totally in line with my inner me. Immediately after K.'s death, my libido was very high. I needed closeness, hugs and physicality so badly, and I had many sexual fantasies with him. I really wanted to go to bed with someone because of the high sexual tension, but it was totally blocked by my head.
At first, I made a decision that I wouldn't sleep with anyone ever. I would be faithful to my fiancé to the end, and I would never be with anyone again. But there came a moment when it started to get warm and sunny and the sunny weather somehow always opens us to others. I had a friend who knew about K. and was very supportive. Somehow it happened that I started spending a lot of time with him, and after a while I felt a kind of tension. He was my friend, so generally it was not a good feeling, but I remember thinking to myself that it would be nice if I hug him like more than a friend. I wrote to him about it and it happened. I hugged him. He knew exactly what situation I was in, that I didn't want to have sex with him and that I wasn't ready.
The first time I was physically intimate with someone was difficult for me. I wasn't necessarily kind towards this man. The next time I had sex with someone, I had thoughts that I was cheating on K. The second thought was: 'Hey, but he's not here. If he had been here, I wouldn't have to do it.' Then I felt angry with him that he was not there. It was very difficult for me to deal with. When someone was touching me, I thought that K. should be touching me, not that person, which immediately caused some kind of barrier and inability to be close with someone else. Each intimate touch caused a huge flow of thoughts related to K.
Kasia - I can only guess that there were probably some comparisons as well.
Laura - Of course. The more similarities, the more I liked someone. But I think it's natural that we like similar character traits.
In my early relationships with guys, it felt like I was going through a sexual initiation. With the first guy, we only kissed. When it got too close, I stiffened and I couldn't go any further. But my first two partners knew about my situation. They knew it was my first time, that I wanted it very much but I was afraid and I could cry or scream. They helped me get through it together, even though it was hard, but that's what I needed.
I was able to have sex for the first time with someone else one year and a half after K.’s death. It also happened with a friend who I knew and who himself was grieving his mother's death. We had a shared starting point. I received a lot of support from him even though I cried after we had sex. And it helped me to open up a lot. Later it got better.
There are moments when closeness to others brings me closer to K.'s presence and increases my longing for his touch, which I will never feel again. But I had to learn so many things, so I learned that too. Now, at this stage of grieving, I would like to try to start a new relationship, but it is difficult for me, although four years have passed since his death.
Kasia - Thank you for sharing such an intimate experience with me.
Laura - I told you about my experience because that's how I dealt with it and I have the impression that it was the best option for me.
Kasia - I am glad that you had the opportunity to experience and learn about this in your own way, without forcing yourself to do anything or doing anything against yourself. I see curiosity and tenderness in you about how you have been experiencing K.'s death.
Laura - K. taught me this. He was very tender and didn't criticise anything I did. Sometimes unnecessarily, but as I remember it now, it's easier for me to be kind and tender to myself.
Translated from Polish by Kasia Borowczak
Proofreading by Laura Westwick
Laura Kwiecień runs Instagram accounts @nie.spie.wiec.jestem, where she shares and talks about her grief experience.