Grief has many faces

For several years I’ve been grieving, although at first I didn’t know my feelings could be described as grief. No-one close to me had died in the recent past and grief is usually associated with the death of someone you care deeply about.

My friend recently lost her husband to cancer. Memories will pierce her consciousness and grief will be overwhelming, but I hope in time my friend will remember, without pain, the joy they shared and the stable home they gave their children. Her large family and circle of friends will help her to recover. Over time, I hope my friend can heal.

I too have lost those close to me, but in a different and less obvious sense. I’m not sure how to heal. My grief is a scab, picked away by an event, a conversation, a memory… until I bleed regret.

Twelve years ago, we emigrated from England to New Zealand. At the time, friends said it was brave, but with hindsight it was naïve. We wanted to give our children a better life, one where they would be safe from crime and terrorism. We were looking for education that valued individuality and excellence. We thought New Zealand would be a home from home, a country we imagined to be like the England of our childhood, with fewer people and unspoiled countryside.

I misguidedly created a picture of happiness in another location, not realising that contentment isn’t something to be chased. Contentment comes from taking stock and being grateful for what you have.

I realise now that friends whose children I watched grow up are hard to replace. I cared about them all. I was foolish to think my parents could make the long trip each year — ill health has since cut short mum’s plans to travel. I miss her. I was foolish to think our friends would visit when there’s so much to see closer to home. Foolish perhaps to think we might settle here having spent our formative years in a different culture. Beautiful though it is, New Zealand isn’t the country we had imagined it to be.

A place can’t make up for people not being there.

Our son left New Zealand to follow his dream of studying at university in the U.S. After two years of further study in London, he’s looking forward to starting his career. Public policy is his passion and I support him in his choices, though it has meant a long distance relationship for me. I follow news via social media, comforted by snippets on Philadelphia and London as I yearn to feel closer to the young man he has become.

Through Skype we’ve glimpsed each other’s lives for the past six years. With the backdrop of curtains and wardrobes that could be anywhere in the world, our conversations have lacked context. In different time zones, we’ve not known if the sun is shining or the snow is falling on the other side of the world.

Two years have passed since I was in Philadelphia for his graduation. I saw him last, standing outside the hotel as the taxi pulled away, both of us smiling as best we could. Glass buildings that dominate the city skyline quickly diminished as we sped along the freeway to the airport, my chest tight with grief, my face wet with tears. Skype isn’t the same as watching my son run or catching up over coffee, but it’s all I have.

Our daughter is torn between working with native wildlife she’s spent years studying, or returning home to a culture she still identifies with and family she’s missed. I understand her confusion, but she’s silent in her struggle. I feel shut out. The close relationship we once enjoyed is left on a beach where red-billed gulls wade in the shallows as we sip coffee from Paper Moon. It hurts to remember.

Before we emigrated, my husband and I were strong like an oak against any storm. But settling in a new country has battered us. Work pressures, relationship problems, financial ruin, and the mental health breakers that followed have left us washed up like driftwood.

For me grief isn’t so much about death. It’s about loneliness and loss.

Image credit: London Eye via Pixabay

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