Living with grief.
A reflective account of unspoken truths surrounding death.
I’m on countdown mode. It’s been almost a year without my Mum. In my head, this breaks down into the hundreds of phone calls, cups of tea and hugs and kisses that haven’t been exchanged, and crucially a landmark birthday of mine – all missing from my 2013 memory log.
For a while I’ve wanted to write about my experiences of the last year, particularly what a winding road grief is, and continues to be. You may think this is too sobering a subject to enjoy reading, or too depressing. You might be right, however, I also think it could be one of the most important things you force yourself to read.
Death, and everything that surrounds it, is full of clichés.
“They wouldn’t have known anything about it. It would have been quick.”
“Anything I can do, just call.”
“They’re in a better place.”
“They’re not suffering anymore.”
“They’re with Grandma and Fido now.”
Good intentions and well meant words, dissipate into thin air and after a few weeks, you’re left with a lot of empty promises – no doubt a byproduct of everyones ever increasing busy lives. You start to rank your friends by those who pick up the phone and those who “like” a Facebook status to show they’ve read a post that hints at you being sad.
I always thought I would be able to recognise unhealthy behaviour or changes of the mind. I always thought I was acutely aware of my own mental health as well as those around me. I wasn’t. Looking back, I spent a lot of time in the denial phase. I’d been taught that if I worked hard enough for anything, I could achieve the thing I strived for. I struggled with the notion that I could work myself into the ground, but not inch myself a step closer to my goal of having my Mum back. It took me a long time to deal with that.
I also didn’t cope very well with change; certain that change would be unfamiliar to her should she return and make it uneasy for her to slip back into life as she knew it. I even convinced myself I was part of the most cruel reality TV programme ever. I had visions of a camera crew arriving at my doorstep and me running back into my Mums arms, vowing to spend more time with her and undo all my wrong doings I’d stupidly convinced myself I’d made.
The brutal sights of what happened the day I lost her snap me back to reality, and I am back at square one.
I was unprepared for the sleepless nights and the feeling of wanting to walk around in a protective bubble. For someone who’s spent an entire life proud of the strong facade I could switch on should I need to, I wanted people to know what had happened to me, so it would excuse my quietness at times. I didn’t want them to make a fuss, just hold the knowledge. The biggest security blanket I’ve craved for is for people to not expect too much of me.
I yearned to spend time with people I could be myself with; always having valued a smaller group of close friends than a large group of friends, paid off. Airs and graces were not an option. New friendships or friendships that always bordered on your outer circle of friends became a struggle, and unless I feel instant warmth from someone, I held them at arms length and rarely let them into my bubble.
I’ve seen the way England deals with grief. Our stiff upper lip culture simply sends the grieving person underground. I found myself wondering how I’d never heard of some truly terribly things you have to go through, logistically, when I knew so many people who had lost loved ones. I promised to write about them so no one, especially at my age (then, 29), would be in the dark surrounding some of the tougher questions death puts to you, and often within hours of losing a loved one. These may be tough to read, but I’ve always thought being well-informed is better than having something emotional sprung on me, especially in difficult circumstances — when the consequences of each, will haunt you for life and can’t be reversed.
1) If the circumstances are right, you’ll be asked if you wish to see the deceased. I’m glad I did in the hospital (as disturbing as it was) but I didn’t want to see her in the funeral home, for reasons I’ll document later. They also rarely look like they are sleeping. I’d always assumed they would look nothing but peaceful and twice now, have been caught out by the Hollywood mirage.
2) When you register the death, in the UK you are required to take their driving licence and passport to the registry office. They will cut it up in front of you, with a degree of empathy council officials have when they do this day in day out; scissors through your loved ones face a few days after their death, isn’t something I was prepared for. Nor the hundreds of questions they had to ask.
3) If you’re asked if you want to see them in the funeral home, there’s a level of preparation that has to be done in order to make it safe and pleasant for you to do this. Read up on what this preparation entails, as graphic as it was, I’m glad I did. I made an informed choice and chose not to. Individual situations and beliefs prevail here, naturally.
4) If the loved one has to go for a post-mortem due to unexpected death, this can take weeks and delay the funeral. Expect to be dealt with in cold, callous language throughout your exchange — “there’s a backlog at the moment due to the cold weather” was my favourite.
N.B. I found anyone who deals in funerals as a business (florists, caterers, and so on) can be quite absurd and removed from the situation.
Sobering. Yes. Horrible to read. Probably. Something everyone has to go through and no one talks about? Without doubt.
Dealing with a someone who is grieving.
On the flip side, if you’re dealing with a friend experiencing grief, you can make their journey a little easier along the way.
1) Don’t say “Anything I can do, please shout/call” or similar. Offer to do something, anything. Real tangible things. “Can I come over for a coffee?” — “Can I bring you anything from the supermarket?” — anything that’s an actual do than hot-air coming out of your mouth. You learn to hear “anything I can do, please call” as “I have no idea what to say and have no intention of doing anything”. Don’t put yourself in that bracket.
2) Understand you’re now dealing with a muddled mind. The person grieving needs help making decisions, but gently. Clarity of whatever you’re offering, is imperative. Simply just deciding a meeting place and time for that promised coffee was (and still is) enough for me and lessened the cognitive load just that bit more. I’ve heard the words “I’ve told you before” more times this year than I have in my life, and each time, it’s a bittersweet reminder of what happened to cause the memory lapse in the first place – be a little more patient.
3) Everything and anything can set the griever off on an emotional downward spiral, but often, talking about the lost loved one is the thing that brings the most peace; yet the one thing people skirt around.
4) Speak about any triggers. Often the griever has triggers associated with death. Mine is ambulances on sirens, amongst other things. This is not so you can tread on eggshells around the griever nor baby them. It’s so that you can understand a change of behaviour if in the presence of the trigger.
5) If the griever tries to tell you of a change in behaviour, or something they’ve noticed as being different about the way they cope. Listen. Intently. Read between the lines, schedule a cup of tea and go and talk about it — they could be trying to tell you they are going downhill and need a shoulder, without wanting to appear weak or startle you.
6) Understand they can function perfectly normally too. My job was the one thing I never struggled with, because my Mum was never really part of my job. When it came to my job, I was able to focus, deliver great projects and do good work. The minute 5pm hit, however, I’d be exhausted and often a bottle of emotions, but I’m proud to say, my clients along the way would have been unaware of what had happened to me.
7) Tears. They make almost everyone uncomfortable don’t they? I’ve had one person shake me, physically, and tell me I had to get a grip and move on (it had been three weeks since my Mum had died). While others have sat and quietly listened and passed tissues. Knowing how you deal with people who are crying before you enter yourself into a situation where it’s likely to happen, will help.
To finish. The biggest fallacy statement that gets bounded around is “time heals” – while I’m left in no doubt, you don’t. You learn to live with it. It’s very different. One of the worst pressures was thinking that by a certain date, I should have been healed. I got worse. Progressively worse over the year, not better. Time lessens the sting; but for the griever, it’s almost a prison sentence without parole. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to get up each morning and hope something gives you a glimmer that gets you through the day.
That glimmer for me has been in the shape of good friends, new friends, family, and the small things they’ve done along the way, to show me they’ve realised they’re dealing with someone made of glass – a reflective glass, which means one day, I’ll repay the huge favour of kindness they are showing me, when sadly, their time undoubtedly comes to tread the same road.