Grief: a light at the end of the tunnel
When my friend Jennifer contacted me about a piece she had written about grief and asked whether it might be something I would want to put out on the blog I wasn't sure. 'But it'll be sad' I thought. How narrow-minded of me. Yes, of course it's sad. But it's also real and true and uplifting. What Jennifer has written is so brave and it's such an important subject that we just don't talk about. Thank you Jennifer for writing this piece and for allowing me to publish it.
Over to Jennifer...
Grief. Grief! Any Blackadder fans out there?
Until you have it, you just can’t know it. I thought I’d experienced it when my Nan passed away in 2008, but no. That was ‘just’ sadness. When my Mum collapsed, and subsequently died, completely out of the blue on 1st Dec 2014 (it was Christmas ‘do’ day and I’d just dyed by hair red to celebrate), my life took a shift I could not have prepared for - even though weirdly, I thought I had.
2014 was an awesome year for me. I’d reconnected with old friends, was enjoying my job, I was even planning to host a family Christmas (though only Mum and Dad of the 14 people invited, had agreed to come over). I’d just had confirmation of a 12 month secondment, we’d just had our garden re-landscaped (sounds posher than it was… we paid someone to pave over the grass) and whilst we were still dealing with that last project (workmen: a whole other blog post!), life was good. I often used to think “Things are going so well - what is the worst thing that could happen? How will life balance this out for me?” and Mum dying was the absolute worst thing I could think of. I used to taunt myself with that thought as if to convince myself I would be able to cope. Little did I know.
I won’t go into a blow by blow account of what happened, but suffice to say, December 2014 was rocked. Christmas plans changed, I didn’t do any of the things in work that I’d expected to, I spoke to family more frequently than ever before, I worked out who I wanted (or needed) to see and speak to and whilst it’s a bit of a cliché, life was a bit of a fog. I found some of the best hugs that month, some in very unexpected places. I learnt what it meant to be talked about (since people reacted to seeing me differently) and also learnt that oobladi, ooblada, life goes on.
What I held on to throughout that period was that “everyone does grief differently” which therefore made me feel invincible. I could justify everything I did as being a result of my grief. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go on a rampage of smashing windows and knocking over Christmas trees, but over time I know I have done things that some people either won’t understand or might not forgive me for. My response? I don’t care! It’s my grief! I’ve done (am doing) what I need(ed) to do, and there have only been a few emotional casualties on the way…
The most significant of these has been my relationships with family members. I wasn’t close, or really in touch with my sister much beforehand, but now I really am not in touch with her at all.
My brother took offence when I said “please stop calling every day, it’s not normal and I can’t cope”. He later stopped using his landline (which I learnt from unsuccessfully trying to call him for a month) and since he doesn’t like email or text messages, letter writing was all I had (but he doesn’t do that either). He ignored my invites to visit and never returned any invitations, so that relationship has just drifted.
My dad has never been one for keeping in touch so that relationship hasn’t really changed. A visit to his house a couple of years ago and a return visit of him to mine a year later reassured me that we aren’t comfortable in each others company, and that’s fine.
And my cousins, whilst fabulous, were really close to Mum, and unfortunately I can’t cope with that. They want to grieve together and share how sad they are and try and be supportive, but that is exactly what I don’t want.
I also lost touch with someone who I probably used to think of as my best friend. She’d been away when Mum passed, so I didn’t see her until maybe six weeks afterwards. The first time I saw her, she was bright and bubbly and smiley and when she saw my reaction to this, she said “Oh - what’s wrong?”. Not quite the huge never ending hug I needed right then and I should have run away immediately. I can’t blame her for having no concept of what to do, but at the same time, I couldn’t put any energy into maintaining our friendship, which seemed to be the only way I was going to keep it (you know the ones - where you are always making the first approach to do something and plan a get together? When the boot is on the other foot, I’m usually trying to send that person a message…). We “broke up” by writing each other letters about how we felt. Non-confrontational and as such relatively amicable. Turns out, on reflection, she’s a bit of a weirdo. And whilst I’m sure we could all have that said about ourselves at some time, I have four different people in agreement on this one. So it’s relief all around I think.
I’ve also learnt/am still learning that grief isn’t a tick-box exercise, as much as I wanted it to be. As part of my original Grief Checklist, I signed up immediately for counselling provided by my employer. Within two weeks I was talking to a counsellor who was staggered that I was engaging with work systems and structures. When I went back a few months later, she reflected on how I seemed to have this imagined timeline of what should happen and when, to get an idea of when I’d be ok again. She made me realise that in grief, anything goes and it's not a linear process. So from then on, I let rip.
I say “let rip” but more accurately, I let go. I recognised much more easily what I found enjoyable and what I found quite stressful. I lost touch with several people who I realised being in touch with created a sense of anxiety. Some of these people noticed, others knew me well enough to just let me get on with what was going on (and actually those are the people I think I will gradually be able to reconnect with). My ‘letting rip’ meant I looked at what I wanted to do, embraced what I enjoyed and stuck two big fingers up at everything - and everyone - else.
My story isn’t particularly radical; I think most people go through something like this when faced with grief. But I am beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel and finding that there are some positives starting to emerge, which I wanted to share in this very cathartic and indulgent blog post. In doing so, I've also realised that far from a grief checklist, what I'm experiencing in having to go through grief, is actually personal growth. Check me out - I'm an adult!
So, what does grief do to you (or at least what has it done to me)?
1 - Your level of empathy for those that go through grief sky rockets. I literally want to hug everyone who has lost their Mum. Sorry to everyone who hasn’t experienced it (yet), but you don’t understand and you cannot imagine how we feel. I regret having said any of those words to others, before truly knowing how it feels.
2 - You learn so much about yourself, and your relationship with the person you’ve lost, because your decisions, plans and actions are magnified by the lack of them and therefore the apparent significance of everything you do from that point on. Why do I like these flowers? Why is my car this colour? When did I start dancing like this? How come I have so many greetings cards in this drawer? I’m really happy to acknowledge every day that I am who I am because of my Mum.
3 - It take time, but grief is actually a new beginning though perhaps a new ‘chapter’ is a more measured word to use. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, of course. It's one great big ending. I felt exposed and vulnerable in a world I didn’t understand. But as time passed, the feeling of things being different started to feel like there was something positive emerging. I've approached life slightly differently, feeling much more aware about what life is about and what I want to try and get from it. This 'new beginning' observation is probably stating the obvious to some extent of course, since at some point you have to start rebuilding your life which has totally fallen apart.
The ‘new’ perspective is something that is now what I'm trying to hold onto, a slightly different, feeling from the 'anything goes’ approach I took to initially, but equally liberating. ‘New’ almost makes things a bit easier. It’s a sucker punch to the chest when I remember that the new things are things she’ll never know (Mum has no idea of my secondment from 2015, let alone the new job I start in autumn; she’s never visited the house my husband and I now live in; she doesn’t know how much I love Tenby; and knows very little about my two fabulous best friends that have got me this far beyond 2nd December 2014), but it gradually gets a bit easier and life starts to glisten a bit, if not quite sparkle as bright as it did. Just got to keep polishing.