It’s taken me approximately four months to gather up the courage to open my laptop, click on a document and start typing this piece about grief. It’s not for lack of trying, or not wanting to talk about the subject that it’s taken me so long. Since I was, in March of this year, metaphorically slapped around the face with this previously alien feeling, all I have wanted to do was write about it. Writing helps my mind make sense of messy emotions, as it always has. I’m no stranger to pouring out my emotions on a page – writing melancholy tweets, an article about depression or a letter to a friend going through a hard time are all things I’ve done to help me manage the tangle of thoughts and feelings in my head. But this is a topic I’ve wrestled with internally for so long, purely because I don’t know what to say.
When someone you love goes through a bereavement, we all have this innate longing to find the right words to say. We try and alleviate their pain in some way by stringing together a sentence of well-meaning words.
“At least they had a lovely, long life”
“They’re looking down on you, you know”
“They’re at peace now”
But when it comes to yourself – when you’re the person on the other end of the well-meaning phone call, those words barely register. That’s not to say that they aren’t needed, as they most certainly are. Any light relief from the pain you’re feeling is welcomed, even if we both know that it’s something said out of a sense of duty, that neither of us is sure are true. But it’s purely time, and knowing what helps you personally, that’ll see you through the shitshow of losing someone you love.
Some context: previous to this year of my life, I’d been so incredibly lucky to not experience the gaping hole that grief leaves in a person’s life. I’d attended funerals, of course: distant relatives, a friend’s family member, the usual, but never someone I truly, wholeheartedly loved. Earlier this year, my Grandad died from complications conceived of having cancer. In summer, my wonderful Aunty, from an unexpectedly short run in with the same disease. I was, for want of better words, absolutely fucking floored.
Having never dealt with grief before the tender age of twenty-three, I was so incredibly unprepared for the sheer impact that the death of a loved one has on those still living. Watching my mother prepare herself for losing her sister and best friend was the hardest thing I have ever witnessed. Watching my Grandmother staring into the middle distance at my Grandad’s funeral was excruciating. I found myself sobbing uncontrollably for my wonderful family losing their mum, their wife, their husband, their father, their best friend. I felt sad for myself, of course, but until recently, any hint of sadness for what I’d lost felt selfish. I’d berate myself for crying about my Grandad, reminding myself that my Grandmother that lost her soulmate. I’d catch myself tearing up when I saw an archived WhatsApp message from my Aunty, then mentally scold myself because I still had my mum and my cousins didn’t. The fact that guilt could be so intertwined with grief is something I was so totally unaware of before I felt it myself.
The thing I’ve come to realise is that grief isn’t measured by how close you were to the person that died. Perhaps that’s an obvious statement to make, but it’s something I’ve really struggled with in the past few months. It doesn’t matter how many years I had with those people before they died, or how close in the family tree I am with them. Grief is grief is grief. The very act of loving someone means that we’re setting ourselves up for unimaginable pain should the worst happen. It’s a risk we all take every day when we cultivate new friendships or relationships, but losing two of the closest members of my family hasn’t made me scared to connect to others, though in theory, it should. I’ve realised that I can’t live my life with the fear that everyone I love will someday be gone, because I wouldn’t live at all. If I adopted that mentality, I’d probably lock myself in my flat and have no one but Jeremy Kyle on the TV for company. Losing my loved ones has taught me, in a completely cliched way, to appreciate what I have. That’s not to say that I am now a happy-go-lucky girl who wakes up singing, or that I’ve morphed into George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. I still cry at the drop of a hat. A thought will cross my mind every time my parents end a phone call that I don’t know if there will be a next one. I’ve broken down on my kitchen floor when my flatmates were out, unable to breathe because something reminded me my Aunty was gone. When it was her birthday, for five days in work I had to run to the toilet to have a secret sob at least once a day. When I see my Grandad’s jumper hanging in my wardrobe, my eyes fill with tears. But I don’t let it stop me living. I’m not the perfect model for dealing with grief, so if you’re looking for guidance, speak to a counsellor who’s trained to give advice. But for anyone in pain, or dealing with death, here are a few nuggets of wisdom that have helped me through.
Cry until you can’t cry anymore.
In recent months, I have become shockingly accustomed to my eyes becoming tiny mincers. In the beginning, when things were raw and rough and horrible, I’d try and stop myself from crying, feeling embarrassed. Once, I hurled myself out the bus doors about 3 stops early just to go and cry under a tree, so as not to inflict on anyone sitting nearby my embarrassing tears. Now, with a bit of experience in dealing with utterly, unequivocally horrendous pain, I’ve learnt to let the snot-filled, ugly crying happen. Thus far, I have cried in the window seat of a Caffe Nero, in front of my family at the kitchen table, whilst walking down the middle of Oxford Street and alone in my bed at night. Tears are soothing. They are exactly what your body needs to purge itself from some of the misery. Let it happen. And maybe apply an eye-mask after you’re done.
Laugh as much as you can, especially at death.
Immediately after my Grandad died, I felt it so hideously inappropriate to feel happy that when I laughed I felt like a terrible person. Hindsight has taught me that actually, it’s the thing you should do the most of. No one is going to judge you for being happy after a death. Your friends and family are willing it with every fibre of their being, in fact, because how miserable would it be if we all decided to pack up our pleasant-emotion shop and resemble Eeyore all the time? When I remember my Aunty’s last days, I laugh at the fact that she told me my new tattoo resembled a cannabis plant. Even on her way out, she was still the hilariously sassy, loving, bubbly person I knew and loved. And that’s how she’d want me to remember her. Each time I’m home visiting my mum, her name will come up in conversation and we’ll cry for a while, and then we’ll remember the time she asked my sister if her cardigan was from a ‘tat shop’ – translation: charity shop – and we’ll laugh until we cry again. Oh my god, it helps the pain. Find laughter and joy anywhere you can, be that from reminiscing about the good times, watching Friends, or because you tried to make some toast and burnt it. Any and all moments that make you happy are valid, and medicine for the pain.
Talk. Talk about death.
I know it’s not just me that finds talking about death uncomfortable, but talking about it is the only thing that makes it easier to deal with. Having never really discussed the ins and outs of death before I was faced with it, I struggled for so long to even say the words “they died”, instead opting for “they passed away” or “we lost them.” I’ve definitely used those phrases within this article because coming to terms with death and its inevitability is something I’m still training myself to do. De-mystifying this painful, natural thing that’ll happen to all of us at some point is the most important thing we can do for ourselves. While I’m not suggesting you drop it into conversation with the barista at your local coffee spot, it’s been really helpful for me to talk about the subject with my friends. If it’s too painful to talk about death as if it’s not the worst thing in the world at the moment, don’t push yourself. Podcasts like Griefcast and You, Me & The Big C are great starting points. If we all talked about it a little more, I’d bet that death would be easier to deal with.
In writing this article, I’m by no means saying that I am fine. I’m also not saying that I’m completely broken. The thing I’ve found to be true about grief is that it is messy, and most certainly not linear. There’s no set date in the future that I’m suddenly going to feel ok about the things that have happened, but that’s not to say there won’t be a day that I feel at peace with it eventually. For now, all I can do is muddle on. I will continue to cry on the bus to work, or when a song that reminds me of them plays, just like I’ll continue to smile when I catch sight of my tattoo or laugh when I find something really, really funny.
Life is messy, death is messy, and so is grief. We’re all just doing our best.
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