What I’ve Learned About Grief — The Hard Way

It’s been two months and eight days since my father died. Two months and eight days since I watched him struggle to draw his last breaths; since I sat by his side and stroked his hands until his body turned cold.

It feels longer. It feels like a lifetime.

I’ve witnessed grief before. I’ve lost aunts and uncles and grandparents. I’ve watched loved ones buck under the pain of their losses. I know what it’s like to miss someone, and to know that they’ll never again share the air with you. I thought I knew about grief, about loss, about love.

I didn’t.

I didn’t know what it was like in the minutes, hours, and days after. After he was gone, I sat with his lifeless body for hours — staring, stroking, whispering, willing him to come back. After they took his body away, I wandered around aimlessly, trying to find something to do. Another cup of tea to make, another someone to console. Keep myself busy so I don’t have to think about the recently carved hole in my heart.

I didn’t know that there’s so much to do, so much paperwork to complete. When someone dies, they leave behind a mockery of ‘t’s to cross and ‘i’s to dot. It seems unduly cruel to make the bereaved deal with the pieces of the loved one that remain — the pieces that made up his life, but which aren’t him, and will never be him, and which only serve as reminders of who he was and what he loved and what he achieved. Should I keep the subscription for that magazine he loved, or will it mock me every time it lands on my mat? My sister kept his phone alive and still sometimes sends messages to it — I find even the idea of that unbearably sad. He’s not there, he’s not there, and it hurts to pretend.

I didn’t know that going back to work would be both a boon and a curse. That some people would look at you with sympathy, and others wouldn’t notice at all, and at any given moment it would be a toss-up as to which you found crueller. I catch myself staring out of the window more often than not, gazing at nothing in particular, just watching the world churn along in its usual way, while I feel like mine has ended. A thick fog has settled around me, cocooning me, and there are days when I find it’s presence almost drugging. It’s hard to break through that barrier, to really see and experience the world. I sit in meetings and let people talk around me, and through it all I struggle to find the words — and the will to care. “Who gives a fuck?” has suddenly become a war cry, and I envelop this feeling around me like an invisibility cloak, and I use it as a shield against the every day tragedies — who gives a fuck if this work doesn’t get done in time? Who gives a fuck if I eat one more slice of cake? Who gives a fuck if I stay at home all weekend and don’t answer the phone? Who gives a fuck? Who gives a fuck?

I didn’t know how easily the tears could come. I’m not a crier, and certainly not in public. That stiff upper lip thing was probably invented just for me. This person who tears up at the drop of a hat? I don’t know who she is.

I cry myself to sleep most days. Which is fine, because I sort of expected that. What I hadn’t anticipated was how quickly and easily my eyes could well up in public spaces. It isn’t just the concept itself — the big, bad inescapable truth that “my dad is dead” (which hits and hurts me anew every so often, and the pain is the same as if it were the first time I was hearing it) — but the small, almost innocuous things. Every time I see someone that sort of looks like him, or I eat (or think about eating) a dish that he loved, or someone mentions a film that was his favourite. The other day, I saw a frail old man walking down the street, carrying a hospital-issue walking stick, just like hundreds of people use. Just like my father used. That was all it took — a walking stick. In these moments the change in my demeanour frightens me. My throat closes up, feels heavy. My eyes well up. I look downwards to try and stifle the tears, or at least to avoid catching anyone’s eyes. I’m British, you see. Even in the midst of my own discomfort, my first instinct is to not make others uncomfortable with me. Whether I am just so good at deflection that they don’t notice, or whether they do notice and are freaked out at the sight of a grown woman crying on the morning commuter train — I don’t know. All I can concentrate on is breathing, slow and steady, pushing the panicky bile back down my body for another day. The sensation passes as quickly as it appears. I could be perfectly fine in one instant, and in the next, struggling to find purchase. Then it’s as if the clouds have parted and once again the sky is calm. For the next minute, at least.

I didn’t know that I would be constantly torn between wanting to display my grief, wearing it loud and proud, and to tuck it away into a dark corner of my mind, and mask everything with a brittle smile. I didn’t anticipate the continual war in my head — if I act like everything’s okay, is that a sign of bravery and “just getting on with it”, or are people going to think me callous and unfeeling? If I let my grief show on my face, will I get empathy or a silent chorus of “she really should be over it by now”? If I laugh, if I smile, if I cry — tell me how I should feel, tell me how you would like me to feel. Teach me the “appropriate” way to grieve in public. Alternatively, go to hell.

The worst is having to sit through the deafening symphonies of other people’s ideas of consolation. There were those who took up the cries of “At least he’s free from suffering now” pretty much minutes after he was gone. I know, because I timed it. They have continued that refrain every day since — “Be happy he’s in a better place”, “he was in so much pain and now he’s free”. Yes, yes, I know. I know you’re right and I know you’re only trying to help and I know it’s hard to know what to say but for the love of God please stop telling me to look for the fucking silver lining. There is no silver lining. My father was in pain; my father is gone. Those two statements will forever co-exist but one does not subsume the other. Let me grieve, please. Let me be angry and sad and heartbroken for just one minute — one single, solitary minute to make up for the twenty-nine years of the life I shared with him.

Of course, the ‘silver lining’ crowd has nothing on the other kind of person — the one who’s apparently running against you in some bizarre competition for “Most Grief-Stricken”. Yes, it’s lovely that you shared such an amazing friendship with my father and that you considered him a mentor; it’s great to know he touched your life in a profound way. What’s less great, my friend, is to have you visit for three days a month and tell me how much it hurts for you to be here, how everything is pointless, how you just can’t stand to be in the same room/house/country without him. Gee, I feel bad for you; but hey, at least you get to go back home to your family for the other twenty-seven days and be free of the oppressive silence that surrounds my life. What should I do, when I have to be here every day and face the empty spaces where my father’s life used to be, and know that there’s no leaving for me, there’s no escaping the facts of my life? I can’t even walk into “his” room anymore. Are you seriously asking me to console you?

I didn’t know how angry I would be. Which, as I write this piece, seems hilarious to me. I’m here because I’m angry, and because I have nowhere but here to direct that anger. Who can I legitimately be angry at: the man who died, or the people he left behind? The thing that I’m really angry at — the cancer that ate him from the inside out — went with him. It’s gone, the slippery bastard, and even when it was here my anger couldn’t make a dent in it. It laughed at us, mocked us with every hospital visit, every blood test, every chemotherapy treatment that failed, every day that was wasted waiting around for test results that didn’t change a damn thing. It revelled in its triumphs, rejoiced in our losses. How can I be angry at something that isn’t tangible and has no sentience, but is a malevolent evil nonetheless? No, really. Tell me how to direct my anger to its rightful place; because right now, it’s destroying me from the inside.

I didn’t know how how hard this would be. You can read all you want around the subject, speak to as many people as you like, be far too practised in losing people, but you’ll never really know what this feels like until you do. That sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it to be. I consider myself a fairly empathetic person, and have over the years witnessed friends and family lose loved ones in this way. I’ve also always known that this day would come — not least because it’s the natural order of life, but also because I’ve been preparing for it since his illness was discovered. Even so, I couldn’t have known what this would feel like, how much it would hurt, until it happened. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through — one of the hardest things that most people will have to go through — and as connected as the human experience is and can be, this is one thing we’ll all have to go through alone. Nobody can know my father the way I know him, and nobody can miss him in exactly the ways I miss him. Nobody can live my grief for me, no matter how much it hurts.

On the day of my father’s funeral, a friend — who’d lost her own father five years ago — told me that from that day on, I would carry my father with me wherever I went. I would see him in other people’s parents, I would hear his voice in the words of others. I would go to funerals and weddings and parties and only see my parent. I would empathise with others and tear up at their losses in part because I would be remembering my own. It was as if I’d suddenly become part of some club, one whose membership was a price too heavy to pay.

Is there such a thing as buyer’s remorse for death? And if so, who do I call for a refund?

There’s a lot I don’t know about grief. This is one of the lessons in life that requires practical application, and every day there’s something new for me to learn. I suspect this will be a lifelong process, and while logically I know the old adage ‘time heals everything’ is technically true, at the moment the only thing I know for sure is that grief is not linear. That old Hollywood idea of numb grief followed by one big, long cathartic cry from which the bereaved emerges strong and whole again, is, well, Hollywood fantasy. There’s no single moment of catharsis, no big hearty sob session. You don’t just grieve for some time and then you’re ‘over it’. There are days where I think I’m fine, that I’m doing well, that things are looking up. Then, in an instant, the clouds gather again and life becomes very difficult. Sometimes I long for these months and years to pass so that I can bypass this fresh cut; so that the first sting of grief has had time to settle into something more mellow. But then I think about how, with each passing day, month and year, I move further and further into a world so ostensibly away from my father. How can I go from two months and eight days to two years, two months and eight days? To beyond even that? The very idea of leaving him behind in my past is repulsive to me. I’m tearing up now at just the thought of it. How can I leave him behind? How can I move on without him? He’s been by my side my whole life up to this moment. How can I even imagine having a whole other life without him?

As I said, there’s a lot I’m still learning about grief. How I wish I didn’t have to.

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