Warning: potential grief triggers!
Grief is a touchy subject. Not only is it a deeply personal and unique journey for everyone, it’s hard to confront and to talk about. It’s hard to read about too. But since I’ve been through my fair share of loss, the latest being my dad, I’m going to talk about it right here right now.
I know it’s hard just reading about loss because I’ve spent countless hours over the years looking up a ‘cure’ to take away the gut-wrenching heartache, only to realise time and again that all there is is time and whatever beliefs and experiences we hold. There is no secret cure or life-hack when it comes to grief. Deep down we know this, yet still we search.
Nobody likes staring death in the face, and once you’ve lost someone dear to you, everyone is terrified of saying the wrong thing. Sometimes they mean well but end up simply projecting their own experience of loss, or fear of it. That’s when you get comments like “You’ll get over it”, or “it’ll get easier”. I’ve said similar lines to people in the past, and I can tell you that when I reflected on my words, they were nothing more than an unconscious attempt at convincing and comforting myself. “It will get easier, because if it doesn’t, I probably won’t cope when it happens to me!”. They were also a result of simply not knowing what to say, before I understood that actively listening and simply being present, sharing and stepping into their feelings is the most precious thing you can do for anybody.
People may also react by fading out of your life once you’ve suffered a loss.
If that’s happened to you, it most likely isn’t personal, but the other persons’ fear of death or grief and the need to escape from it in any way possible. Survival at all costs is programmed into every living thing, and fear is a natural response to death and to the unknown of it all.
I lost my dad in November to a late diagnosis of COPD. His decline in physical health was so sudden and fast it was like jumping out of a plane and free falling without a parachute. The week he got rushed to hospital for the final time, I fully expected him to come back home just like he had all the other times.
The shadow of mum’s frame slumping against the frame of my bedroom door at 3:50 in the morning just before she weakly told me ‘he’s died” is still haunting me as fresh as if it had only just happened. It still feels unreal. The weird thing is, I jolted awake like a bomb had gone off and started wailing with grief before I’d even fully registered she was there and before the words left her mouth.
My experience of grief is that I have an initial reaction of despair which feels removed from my actual self, then my heart and mind seems to close off from it like a shutter to a condemned building.
Emotions have always been dangerous territory to express for me, so I understand it as a protection mechanism. An inbuilt survival tactic. Unfortunately, sometimes that shutter malfunctions and rustily grates open a sliver every so often, and when that happens the results aren’t pretty. Then just as quick as it opened, it crashes shut again. I’m left with memories and impossibly heavy feelings of guilt and exhaustion.
The same thing happened with the loss of my beloved nan and Uncle Gordy, with my friend, Doris, and my dog I grew up with. The pain is there, it’s simply contained like a rusty old chest of painful memorabilia.
Admittedly, grief is my weight. While I’ve shed the weight of physical clutter and regularly partake in Swedish Death Cleaning, grief is the thing that while I’m overly familiar with it, I can’t seem to get behind that shutter and expose it to the light. It’s raw and full of cobwebs.
Despite that, I can say for certainty that each experience of loss has challenged and changed me layer by layer. Because that’s what grief does. It forces us to confront the passage of time and our own mortality. It makes us consider what we’re doing with our own lives and whether we’re headed down the path that’s aligned to our values.
If you’re reading this after suffering a loss, I’m not going to tell you that it gets easier. It might well do, but there’s no real way to tell because you just walk your own shadowy, uncertain path and every so often a sliver of light might cut through. You may laugh during these times and feel guilty for doing so (please don’t feel guilty for experiencing joy in your own life!).
Gradually, there’ll be more light than shadow, but there’s no telling when that might be, what it might look like, or what support you might need before you reach that point. When it comes to grief and loss, we’re all in the same sea but in different boats, heading to different islands, and we all need to be so much kinder to ourselves and to each other.