The First Year Without You

aIMG_3583IMG_0105 copyYou died a year ago today. I could feel my life splitting into two parts. Before and After. I hoped I might get back some of the things I left in Before, but I am not sure how it works. I saw your Dad this morning. He said, this last year has been a bit of a blur, mostly focused on surviving. He’s right. It has.

People say you know you’re getting old when your friends start dying. That means I got old last year. It was the year of death; I lost childhood friends, family friends, treasured mentors and worst of all, you. I’d been having a whale of a time being young, being happy, inching towards success when suddenly cancer, suicide, accidents, funerals, eulogies, graves and cremation threw themselves into my path unexpectedly. I think a lot of me is still mourning. My dreams are filled with all the people I’ve lost, even the ones still alive, the ones that got away. Sam told me, Will told me, my Dad told me: you need to get over this and move on.

But I can’t get past it. I don’t have the right coping mechanisms and I’m scared of going forward without you jumping through the same hoops with me, as you always have done. And besides, you’re everywhere; you’re in my lyrics, in my playlists, in my wardrobe, in my Favourite Contacts, in my stories and anecdotes, in my inbox, in my cat ears, in the colours of the leaves, in pumpkins, in the names of all our unborn children, in Will’s stupid jokes, in my harddrive, in unedited photos and hours of rehearsal footage I cannot watch.


People say that when somebody dies young it can remind you how precious life is, and how important it is to live every day to the fullest. This is a nice sentiment, except that is how I lived my life anyway. It turns out that there is a limit to carpe diem; if you push it too far it’s dangerous. It’s reckless, it’s breaking into where you shouldn’t be, it’s fooling around, losing things, insulting friends, drinking too much, staying out too late, worrying strangers, horrible, messy, not giving a shit about waking up tomorrow. It’s just easier.

You would hate this, you would hate me worrying about it, throwing so much away and taking the time to write this. What confuses me most is this: how far away are we going to get? You were 25, and I’ve caught up, as I normally do. Except next year I’ll be 26 and you’ll still be 25. That’s all wrong. What about when I’m 30? It’s so much time to miss you. What if I get all the way to 40?! What then?! We were all so young. What happens when we grow again? Will we think, oh, we were so young when we were 25..? What does that mean for you?

You would not be at all happy with me this year. I’ve done all the things you told me not to, and I’m far quicker to get angry about things: boys, money, not being white. I’m either tired and lethargic, or restless and wild. I’m evasive and avoiding us. I mention you a lot – subconsciously, I catch myself after and feel stupid. I’m scared of our stories continuing without you.  My Dad’s brother died when he was 27. I didn’t even know my Dad had a brother until I was about 12. I asked my Dad, why don’t you talk about your brother more? He looked at me kind of blankly and said, well, it was a very long time ago.

You and me won’t be like that. I’m so grateful, I’m so happy you were here – and you were here, you were here, YOU WERE HERE. You were here with me, you chose to spend your time with me, you chose to support me, you chose my projects, my gig, my shout, my birthday, this, us. I am so lucky I got that. If you were here you would probably choose all those things again. I have to think that. And sometimes, for a moment, the sun shines and makes everything golden, and the leaves are orange, orange everywhere, and I turn the volume up, and I remember that YOU WERE HERE and you chose this, and it makes me so so happy. And it is just for a moment, but it is a moment more than I had a year ago.


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PeteFest orange festival pete handley ginger music bodle street greenPeteFest orange festival pete handley ginger music bodle street greenPeteFest orange festival pete handley ginger music bodle street greenPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestPeteFest is a festival which was created in honour of my friend Pete who died last year. I’ve posted quite a lot on Pete so long-time readers (thanks both of you) will be familiar with this part of my life, and if you’re following me on social media you probably saw me posting bits last weekend.

Pete’s wonderful parents had already told us: no sadness. The weekend was not for mourning, for grieving, for tears and choking up. The weekend was for celebrating, for smiling, for fun. For embracing and for making a lot of noise. For beer, for sunshine, for cake and for getting involved.

Everything there has said repeatedly; it was awesome. The music was diverse and interesting, the sun was shining, the people were friendly, the pints were flowing. The theme was orange; orange bunting, orange shirts, orange and ginger cake, ginger beer, orange balloons, orange ribbons. Even on an aesthetic level it made the whole weekend brighter; my camera got confused by the higher than usual levels of orange and tried to contort everything into being sepia. 

Pete’s family are to be hugely commended for the festival as a whole. Their attitude and determination really dictated the whole festival; I don’t think a single minute passed without seeing smiles and hearing laughter; people dancing, joking, making friends, catching up or sharing a moment. To have a space to meet people we otherwise would not have met without having to outright make a big emotional deal out of it, is amazing. The organisers put in months of work and it really showed.IMG_0063james and laila WOLF PACKPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefeststeph laila tapeparade petefest pete handley blog festivalPeteFest orange festival pete handley ginger music bodle street greenPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestI lost 3 people close to me last year, all unexpectedly and all in their 20’s. Pete’s passing is the only one that has caused people to come together; creating festivals, awards, legacies. I’m not done posting about it or figuring it out (will I ever be?) but that’s not what PeteFest was for. PeteFest was for being happy.

For me, it was a weekend of confronting truths and being surrounded by friends. I intersected with the festival in a lot of ways and it was hard not to see what was happening through those multiple filters: I attended the festival, I played a (small) part in organising it, I performed several times under several guises, I helped promote it, I manned the social media and I made a small attempt to document it with my camera. I was a weak link; I turned in some truly awful performances which I subsequently felt disgusted about, and I also got very drunk. Luckily I had all my friends around. Besides, any festival that ends with the barmen buying you a pint is a success Pete too would have approved of.

I wrote so recently about my wonderful friends and they were all there at PeteFest. I had my closest friends from school days. I had James and Danilo, the remaining pillars of my personal and irreparably broken triumvirate. I had the people I think of as family and I had my actual family, however that goes down. I’m perennially the one with my crap least together, but for my part I fell asleep surrounded by all my oldest and dearest friends; all the people who know me best and care for me most sleeping in the same tent. I remember thinking as I fell asleep; if I don’t feel safe here and now, where and when will I? And that was PeteFest.PeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefestPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefest

Alongside the festival there is also an award set up in Pete’s memory. You can read more about it here. I know a couple of you have written to me in the past that you were so moved by previous blogs that you decided to donate, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. That I have readers I have never met who are so kind and generous and giving is really incredible. Thank you so, so much for your support and for your love.

Pete further discussed in these posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

I’ve shared mostly photos of my friends and myself on this blog as I thought it would be weird to share photos of people I don’t know on a personal blog; but it’s weirder I feel that way as a) all the photos are mine and b) they’re all publically on the internet anyway. So if you’d like to see more they are all up on this page. If you’re in one of these photos and don’t want to be – please let me know and I shall remove it immediately. steph laila tapeparade petefest pete handley blog festivalPeteFest party band evening saturday performance at petefest

The first month.

I’ve not spoken to you for a month. That in itself, is not so hard to take. I also didn’t speak to you for a month in July when I was abroad. I didn’t speak to you for a month last year when you were away. And so a month without speaking to you is not, historically, that bizarre. But this month is different, because I can get over not speaking to you specifically for a month but I’ve spoken to our gang far more, almost daily. And we’ve always all been tangled together, so why is your voice not chiming in? Where are you on the Facebook threads and group texts?

Part of me imagines that maybe we’ll catch up in a couple months. That still seems likely, though somewhere I know it is not. I can accept you’re not here right now, and we had this big goodbye and all these associated emotions and feelings, but I cannot accept that it is all over, I cannot accept the never-ness of death. And by “never-ness” I mean I can accept that you haven’t spoken to me this month, but I cannot accept that you will never speak to me again. Or that I will never see you again. We will never hang out again. That stupid “never” bit, that’s the bit I can’t make sense of. Those statements simply don’t seem possible; rather than solid fact they are incomprehensible theories I’m trying to digest.

Progress, if it can be called that, has been slow. I hesitate to use the word “progress”, are we progressing? Most of the time it just feels like the world is hurtling forwards into the future whilst I stand there mutely, gaping; as if time had become a spectator sport and I’m on the sidelines trying to work out the rules. But I guess I am slowly progressing. I’ve stopped crying so much. I’m sleeping better, even if just from exhaustion. I regained my appetite pretty quickly and have actually put on quite a lot of weight. Walking around and being active seems to take more effort, so I’ve been sat down more, and eating later in the day.

Really I’ve been coping better then any of us would have guessed, all things considered. And even though you’re not here now I can imagine you, and it’s like there’s enough of you here being worried about me reverting to my Laila coping mechanisms of the past for me to avoid them. I know you’d be worried, like James and Will are now, so my mind is supplying my old habits but I, crucially, am not doing them. It’s funny, because you’d think if any of us would die early it would be me. But for some reason that hasn’t happened, and I am still here and you are not, so maybe there’s something I still need to do, or maybe these things are just random, or maybe somebody somewhere is laughing at us, or maybe fate screwed up and that’s that, “oops sorry guys, can’t go back though, better luck next time”. Fuck off, fate.

Grief, my other new pal, has been taking it’s toll. I’ve got 12 grey hairs now instead of 2. My eyesight has continued getting worse. My short-term memory is completely fucked; this would be terrible in any line of work but is particularly bad for rehearsals and teaching. And my focus is mostly gone; I feel overwhelmed by what I was doing before. E-mails are just stacking up; how was I running a business and teaching 80 kids and being part of other ensembles and doing all this other stuff? Just getting to work on time is an effort. Just waking up is a boulder.

I say that, but somehow stuff is still happening. I went to Isle Of Wight as planned, just 4 days after you left. I had 5 planned gigs this month; I did all of them. I went to Frankfurt. I threw that party. I went to Thanksgiving with my family. I organised a Christmas concert for my private pupils; it’s next week, you probably would have come if you could because it’s in your neck of the woods. Biggest of all I rehearsed the band for Quizcats, staged the show, presented the quiz, ran the whole thing; it felt like a Trojan effort. I had to summon every potential drop of heroism I had to succeed on that day. I’m not sure I’ll have to work that hard for anything ever again.

People have been trying to help. People often try to offer help they can’t give; my Mum for example. If I want to talk she’s there, but like she said, what does she know of this? She’s never lost a friend, not even a family member, with their weird survive-y genes. It’s weird, the things I need help with are the things you can’t ask for. I don’t need help processing my thoughts about you, but I do want help in that I want to see a friendly face at a gig, because it’s taking all my heroism just to turn up. But you can’t ask people for that kind of help. You ask them to a gig, they think it’s just the same as all the other gigs. It’s looks just the same as it was before, except it is not, because nothing is the same. And thus I wander on.

I’ve written a couple of lengthy posts; not for you or about you but about this weird alternate reality, this vortex-like cavern of grief that I now exist in. I’m not sure why I’m sharing them, but often somebody recognises something in it and momentarily, we can feel like this together. The togetherness helps with the neverness. Most of my usual blog readers have deserted my blog. What is there to entice them now in these essays of grey? It’s hard to be the person I was, remembering, organising, cooking, the one directing the nights out, the one sorting the rehearsals, the one posting the event. The little everyday things. With the big things like processing death and dealing with it and thinking about it, it’s easy, because survival instincts kick in and force you to process, which in my case is just to write it all down, maybe turn it into a song. I’m about 40% present at any given time, my survival instincts clouding my brain, my mind a constant showreel of our million moments together, my ears constantly ringing with the sound of your voice. You’re so clear to me. How can you be gone?

And so, it has been a month, and whilst I can see evidence that time is passing I’m not sure I believe it. The leaves are still orange; I’m not sure they believe it either. But it is, time is passing, and so we go on, we go on, it goes on, days ticking by in a constant rhythm. And even though you are not here, I am somehow keeping in time with everybody else.

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birthday time birthday girl
Happy birthday to me! I absolutely love birthdays! Parties, presents, being the centre of attention and getting older; I love it all. My Mum made me some gluten-free granola and some vegan peanut butter snaps which was the best start to the day and also got me such a gorgeous card. My Dad paid for my car to get serviced which was my main present but also loaned me his amazing Canon camera for the day for all these photos! On my actual birthday I met some of my best friends and we spent the day at the Natural History Museum before going to the pub. I wrote a song about dugongs last year hence all the photos with the dugongs!

I also went out the week before with all my friends and was honoured that the lovely Jess from Jessthetics could come too! It was such a fun (and particularly bleary) night and it felt like Jess had been part of our gang for ages. I felt very loved by the amount of birthday gestures I received this year; flowers (in the photos!) and cake from the charity shop, more flowers and cake from my theatre group, cake and wine from work, homemade vegan birthday cake from Jess, cuddly wolves, polkadot dresses, posh glittery things, LUSH goodies and headdresses from my friends and an animal safari t-shirt (!!!!!!) (amongst other things) from James.

It sounds cheesy but the nice thing about growing older is having people to grow older with! I don’t have much family  or many friends from childhood so it’s fairly recently I’ve been able to appreciate how wonderful it is having close friends who you’ve known through multiple stages of your life. Pete (the tall ginger one) for example has been at every single birthday I’ve had since we met and we’ve gone from being two awkward teens to being two successful musicians running creative businesses (although still awkward every now and then!). I’m very grateful to grow up surrounded by inspiring and brilliant people every day and so lucky to call them my friends. :)

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Morning After


Who doesn’t love a house party? During my teenage years, there weren’t many Friday or Saturday nights that didn’t involve drinking games in somebody’s kitchen, but in recent years house parties seem to have been replaced with pre-drinking and going out.  Last night was a welcome reminder of the fun of dancing on sofas, trampling in gardens for private conversations and waking up disorientated, squished next to friends.

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