This post is about something that has been nagging away in my mind for a very long time. Like, I’m talking years, but particularly these last few months. Eventually, this morning driving along the motorway I decided I’d better just write a blog post and get it off my chest. And so here I am (no longer driving on the motorway, I hasten to add, but sat at the computer with a cup of coffee beside me).
You see the thing I want to talk about is grief.
Oh, you’re still here? Ok, well, I thought I’d better just put that out there as a trigger warning.
It’s come to my attention, that there is a commonly held belief in our society that grief is an understandable process. We have the Kübler- Ross stages, which almost everyone seems to be able to reel off, even if they don’t quite grasp the theory or know the name of the person behind it. Most people seem to see grief as an acceptable reaction to the death of someone close, so long as it predominantly looks like this:
(Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in Spiderman, I chose this because according to the internet he’s an ‘ugly crier’, and I sympathise because me too man, me too. Also I may, or may not have a bit of a ‘thing’ for Tobey Maguire, but shhh! And no that is definitely NOT why I named my son Tobias in case you were wondering and no Tobey Maguire does not bear any resemblance to my boyfriend of 10 years and stop interrogating me! Oh, you weren’t? Ok…ahem…where was I?!)
Now sometimes that is exactly what grief looks like. But more often it is a lot more complicated than that. And I mean, a lot more complicated.
Some people react to the bad news (and by bad news, yes in this context I mean someone dying, but it can really be any kind of loss- more about that later) by crying. That might be their first emotional and physical reaction to the information, but then again it might not.
I know this because one morning in December almost five years ago I received a phone call. I was in the middle of changing my newborn son’s nappy and I let it go to answer machine. It was my Grandma, telling me she needed to talk to me, but didn’t want to leave a message and listening to her message I got that feeling. The feeling you get when you’re in a relationship with someone and they say “we need to talk”, the feeling you get when you open a letter from HMRC, that sense of “this isn’t going to be good, is it?”
I handed the baby to my boyfriend and went upstairs to return to the call, because on some level, I knew.
At that point my Dad had been in the hospital for over a week, and I hadn’t visited him. I wanted to, but I had a 6 week old baby and his ward was closed due to a D&V virus. I had racked my brains for ways to introduce my Dad to his first grandchild but there didn’t seem to be one.
That phone call, on the 20th of December 2009 was to tell me I’d missed my chance. My Dad had passed away “peacefully” at 4am that morning, with hospital staff and this photo by his bedside:
(Our first family photograph)
I sat on the edge of my bed listening to my Grandmother’s words and stared out of the window at the back gardens and alleyways of Levenshulme and thought I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.
But I didn’t cry.
My Grandma told me to look at my newborn son, and think of how I felt for him, and then I would be able to imagine how she must be feeling. I looked at the empty co-sleeper crib attached to the side of the bed, and summoned every ounce of love I felt for our baby and I knew, in my mind that to lose a child must be the most terrible thing imaginable, even if that child is a fully grown man. But my heart wouldn’t feel it. It wouldn’t feel anything. And it was a while before it did.
Later that same morning Chris’s Dad and Stepmum visited with christmas cards and presents. I told them what had happened with factual and clinical accuracy. As I spoke I tried to tap into how I actually felt about the words as they left my mouth, but nope, nada…nothing.
This is of course, the widely acclaimed “denial”, except that for me, there was no denying it. My Dad was dead. I wasn’t having a difficult time believing that. I knew it to be true. I was just in shock. For me, denial came later, when I visited my Dad in the chapel of rest. As soon as I saw him lying there I thought “well, there’s been some kind of terrible mistake, because that is not my Dad”. Driving away from the funeral home as the relatives in my car debated whether or not hair continues to grow once a person has died (it doesn’t, but tip: you can’t argue with people in grief, even if you are one of them yourself), I recall thinking that maybe my real Dad was in a beer garden somewhere, enjoying a pint of lager and sea view, and that brought a smile to my face.
Later, Chris had to work the night shift and I was home alone with our baby. For the first time, in a long time, I felt scared. Every time I closed my eyes I saw my Dad in his coffin, and because I wasn’t 100% sure it was him, the image unnerved me. I felt a wracking guilt of being afraid of my own father, because denial is tricksy, and even though I told myself it wasn’t him, of course I knew underneath that it really was. I was jumpy, and kept half expecting him to appear behind me, or at the top of the stairs as I climbed them to go to bed.
By the time of the funeral, 10 days after his death I had managed to access my tears, which was a relief, because who goes to a funeral and doesn’t cry? I clung to my baby and cried, and hated everyone else for crying because, really who the fuck were they to be crying?
Yep…I was moving into anger. This was apparently going to be Grief 101: A Whirlwind Tour.
After the funeral though I found that life moved on very quickly. People stopped asking, I stopped telling. Things went on without my Dad and because he’d lived some fifty miles away and I’d visited him sporadically, on a day-to-day basis, not much was different. But boy was I MAD. Let’s not forget I’d also just had a baby. Like, a minute ago. So I was learning how to be a parent, having just lost one of mine. And sometimes that really sucked.
“SMILE, it might never happen!” a stranger heckled me on the street as I pounded the pavements with my son crying in his pram.
“My Dad just fucking died and my child won’t sleep and my Dad just fucking died, and oh my god did I mention that he fucking died ?!?!” I wanted to scream back, but of course didn’t.
Actually I didn’t so much want to tell people, as have a t-shirt screen printed with it on, so that people would just know. I don’t know how I thought that would help, I don’t think even I knew what I actually wanted from people at the time: More sensitivity? More hugs? To constantly bring it up and mention it all the time? How would any of that’ve been helpful? I don’t know. I didn’t know. I just hated that it had happened and that I was having to deal with it.
The one day, out of the blue, I started crying.
I was walking to the post office, pushing the pram, with parcels in the basket underneath to post. Across the road I saw a man, in his forties, shuffling along with the help of a walker on wheels, the kind that have a little built in shopping basket. From his stance and his gait, I guessed that he’d had a stroke at some point fairly recently. As he came nearer it was like someone started a projector reel in my head, but on fast-forward. My life with my Dad flashed before my eyes, sitting in his greenhouse with him as a little girl, being carried on his shoulders, him teaching me how to write with a fountain pen, him making me solemnly swear not to tell my Mum about the hidden cans of lager in the boiler cupboard, saying goodbye to him the day my parents broke up, and later on- when he had his stroke, being the first one at the hospital to visit him when he couldn’t speak, and travelling there at least twice a week every week for the 3 months he spent in rehab, and believing, really believing him for the first time ever in my life, when he told me that he was giving up “the drink”.
The man with his wheely-shopper passed us, and the dam inside me broke and I just cried, and cried. Because really, when you think about it, life is fucking harsh, right? I mean, let’s not beat about the bush here, it just IS.
So I cried all the way to the post office, sniffled my way through the encounter, and cried all the way home. And so began my period of crying. I was about to go back to work as my maternity leave was almost over. I tried and failed to negotiate returning on reduced hours on nights. I cried the entire way home from the meeting with my (ex) manager. My thought process went something like: I can’t go back on 2 nights a week/I will have to hand in my notice and find another job/I both love and hate my job/My Dad is dead/My Dad is dead/My Dad is dead…at which point I’d get stuck on a loop.
It was the same every time something bad or sad or unfair happened. First up I’d be upset or annoyed about the original event and then straight away afterwards my brain would be like “Hello! Know what else is really fucking sad and awful? Yep…you guessed it”
So for me, I felt like I didn’t properly start to grieve for my Dad until I saw someone who reminded me of him, walking up Stockport Road and realised that it wasn’t him, couldn’t be him, and never would be him and that my Dad, the only Dad I’ll ever have, was actually gone. Forever.
I am telling you all this for a reason by the way, not just to make myself cry. It’s because I think that my grief process for my Dad was hard for people to understand. They expected tears from me in the initial period, and I couldn’t perform. They expected some bargaining or denial later and all I could muster was pure hatred for the world and everyone in it. Then months down the line when society suggested I ought to be “moving on” I was instead paralysed with sadness.
Since then, I’ve had the misfortune to lose two other family members and a friend, as well as experiencing those ‘other’ kinds of less-recognised grief when something is lost, but it isn’t a person’s life. Maybe just a potential life, as with the two miscarriages I’ve had since, or the loss of mobility and health that I experienced last year when I was diagnosed with CIDP, or the loss of a person that is still alive, because they’re not a part of your life anymore, either through choice or because dementia has taken them away.
Each and every time I have reacted differently, because grief is a strange and unique experience. Everyone brings their own shit to it.
For me, I am a coper (and it’s a fucking good job really given some of the shit that’s gone down over the years) so initially I just don’t. I mean I. Just. Do. Not. Feel. Or. Do. Anything. At. All. I watch other people have their reactions and I feel bad that I’m not having my own. Then later, when others rally, all be it briefly, in order to organise x or deal with y, I wobble. Then much much later it hits me, and usually it’s completely out of the blue and unprecedented. I’ll just be in the middle of doing something entirely mundane and ordinary and the switch will just flick, and off I go.
One thing which does reliably affect me is technology. I wonder how much the age of smart phones and online life has affected grief. For me, every time I see Joy’s name in my google hangouts history it’s like a punch to my stomach. There’s the last IM conversation we had, verbatim, for me to read. A permanent reminder that I can open that chat window as much as I want, I’m never going to get a reply.
Or my friend Nic’s Facebook page, which pops up on my newsfeed daily when people write on there. “Dear Nic…” they begin, and I wish I could write to her, or anybody I’ve lost, without feeling like I was writing to myself.
It took me three different mobile phones and four years to delete my Dad’s mobile number from my contacts. I used to have his messages saved too, but I backed them up and got rid. It was too much to have to scroll past his technologically-challenged telegram-style text messages: “REBECCA LOVE, CONGRATULATIONS, I LOVE YOU. LOVE DAD” The message he sent me after the birth of the grandson he never met.
I’d definitely be interested to see how living in a time when almost everyone has a mobile phone and/or internet access has altered the way we grieve for and remember our loved ones. There’s the support of sharing the experience, but there’s also the constant reminders that you’ll never get a phone call or see a status update from them again.
Last week we scattered the last of Joy’s ashes in Llangollen and I prepared myself for an inevitable tidal wave of emotion that never came. Yesterday though I emptied a storage box of hers and found the pictures the boys drew for her when she was in the hospice and burst into tears, so I squirrelled them away somewhere where Chris wouldn’t accidentally find them, lest he have the same reaction.
It would be easier for everyone if grief followed a set course with an estimated time scale but it just doesn’t. There are times when it would be really appropriate for me to feel sad and display my grief but I don’t and can’t. There are times when it’s really inconvenient and there’s nothing I can bloody well do about it.
If someone you know has experienced a loss, regardless of if it was yesterday or last month or last year or ever in their entire existence, (because heads up: grief doesn’t have an expiry date) then be prepared for them to feel any emotion about it, at any given point in time, and for that to be okay.
It might not sit right with you :”They’re happy when they should be sad!” or “That was a hundred years ago, why are they so worked up about it today of all days?!” but you’re just going to have to deal with it. Because they’ve got to. And if they can, so can you too.
And please, believe whatever you want, but don’t assume someone else shares your vision of harps and clouds, because as much as I would like to leave religion out of it (and I’m not just referring to this blog post) one of the things I have found least helpful in times of loss is people telling me it is “for the best” under the assumption that through my tears I will nod in agreement, when in reality it only ever serves to make me want to punch them in the face.
I think that pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter, so I’ll leave you with a few photos now, of grief in it’s various forms.
(Joy, holding Toby, her first grandson, at the funeral of her only sister)
(My Dad with my sister and me, on our first visit to stay with him following my parent’s separation)
(In hospital, waiting to miscarry, on Rudy’s 2nd birthday)
(20th December 2009- the day my Dad died was also the day Toby first smiled)
(A cloudy day in Llan, scattering Joy’s ashes on what would have been her birthday)