All the Days After, by Sue Gunningham, Finch Publishing 2015, is a compelling story of a woman’s grief and journey of love beyond Black Saturday, the day when the catastrophic fires began in Victoria , 7 February 2009.
From the Black Saturday website:
The Black Saturday Bushfires killed 173 people, injured 414 people, destroyed 2,100 homes and displaced 7,562 people. 120 people were killed by a single fire in the Kinglake Area alone. It is estimated the energy released by the Black Saturday Bushfires, was the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. In total 1,100,000 acres were burnt.
One of those killed was Sue Gunningham’s partner, Barry, who was caught in the heart of the fire at their cottage. Sue spoke to him on the phone half an hour before he died (as was later established by forensic evidence from the site, including his remains found in the underground bunker he had built).
Sue is unable to accept that Barry is dead, and frantically tries to reach the site. When she finally does, she still has trouble accepting reality, and believes that somehow he will be found alive. Meanwhile, she has to go through all the long drawn out and tedious, often traumatic, processes of identification of his remains (over which there is a battle between her and his officious and possessive executor), the rounds of interviews with police, case managers, psychologists and the Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission. Many of the people involved are supportive and compassionate. She does ultimately reach a compromise with grief, in that she acknowledges his death, but keeps him alive in her daily life by rebuilding their cottage (which has to meet the requirements for safety and access brought in from the review process), keeping his ashes, some teddies he gave her, and a pillowcase of memorabilia. She also confronts his executor and tells him what she thinks of him. A year later, she has succeeded in having a large shed built to store her tools, with a stretcher and a small stove so she can camp there overnight; so now at least she can restore the garden. She has a life, transitioning to retirement, doing art classes, a member of a local writing group, travelling, going to the opera and theatre. Her life “still centres on Barry but it is a life of my own making.” Sustained by memories, she has learned to do many things she never would have considered possible before 2009, and her days at Waldene are joyful and peaceful. “Barry is always with me and I am grateful for every day that we had together.”
Grief is complicated, and the notion that the bereaved needs to let go of the loved one is challenged by this book. What makes it very readable and engaging is the author’s honesty. She is not ashamed of her refusal to let go, and wins for herself a life where her loved one is still the centre of her life. Some readers may not be comfortable with this. I had some qualms about it, but by the time I finished the book, I accepted that this is not a pathological state, it is one of healing and intelligent, brave love.