What I have learned about grief (so far)

I thought it would be noisy.

In the preceding years I feared it, the maelstrom malevolence, jaws awaiting me, to swallow up identity and reason. I watched it approaching, week by week as my mother’s health waned. The diagnosis gave us the end point, though not a timescale.

After two months living in the front room beside her hospital bed and going through the gut-wrenching vigil of watching her make her final journey the initial forty-eight hours after her death were heady. There was a sense of great sadness but also so much relief, she was, after all, free of the pain and challenges which had been limiting her for years. I imagined her smiling, on a sunlit beach in foreign lands in the sixties, like those in her photographs of pre-marriage travels, waving to us with glee, mischievous, fun-filled grin in place.

There is much to do after a death, organising is a great refuge from the chasm of loss.

I am rational, like Elinor Dashwood my default it to “think”, to reason around life’s challenges, to grab a book or Wiki page and learn. In the beginning I reasoned that to keep active was a good way to start. I also reckoned that to deal with the milestones in the journey of being “without” her would also be helpful way to manage the sense of loss. We took charge of planning and leading the funeral, sending out death certificates, notifying authorities, I am a natural administrator so this is a comfortable place for me.

Weeks passed, things took much longer than seemed “normal” in lockdown and it was four months before we were finally able to bury Mum’s ashes. We stood together in the garden of rest, parakeets chirping and wing-whirring among the yews, and I was washed by a wave of emotion, until this point I had cried very little. I am not great at crying, I do not enjoy or allow myself strong emotion readily and fear that should I let it in it will wash me away entirely. People used to talk about children this way when I was younger “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”, I am the same with emotion. You shall not pass.

I had begun writing a book I had been planning. I work well with deadlines and the busy-ness of the project (and associated terror of the creative, fearing censure, or success) filled me up. In the aftermath of the publication I began to unravel.

Nothing “felt” right. I was uncomfortable, emotionally dissonant. We had lived with my parents throughout the final three years of Mum’s life and in a bizarre accident of timing – and over three months later than expected – completed on our flat in the week of her death. We moved house, became “empty nesters” and lost my Mother within, in the end, a space of forty-eight hours. The structures which had kept my identity throughout my life, the roles which defined me – daughter, mother, carer – vanished.

I retreated into my head, it is my safe space. I could not allow myself to feel because there was too much.

I began to unpick creations, long worked-at and hoped for, I made changes to the things I could control. I came up with plans one day and took them apart the next. Physical symptoms began to emerge, chronic pain, blood pressure issues, as though my body was working out my emotions when my mind and emotions wouldn’t. I observed, as though an interested observer, that my diagnosis of insanely high blood pressure, showed that my heart was not happy. No shit Sherlock.

Yet still no storm, no tirade, no Ophelia wanderings in the local park, scaring off the school kids and causing ructions on Nextdoor.

Summer passed in a blur of unseasonal dampness and grey days. I had blogged about life and musings throughout Mum’s final five years, but this experience took me into silence. I could not explain it and each time I tried to fit it to words it was as though mental shutters came down, officious and grumpy. I was on one side of a glass wall, the world wandering by, lion in the zoo, watching dull-eyed.

I felt trapped. I knew other people experienced grief. I knew many had faced loss, more so during life in the time of Covid. I tried to tell myself that these experiences were “normal”. They didn’t feel normal, what seemed most strange was the lack of feeling. Surely there should be something? I was moderately depressed, disinterested, but the expected drama failed to materialise. After eight months it felt too late to Mrs Bennett my way into my bed and stay there demanding smelling salts. Life inched forwards.

In the end I arrived in the reality of my sadness in a counselling session. I hadn’t been able to admit that I missed her. It seemed selfish, and pointless, to do so, when it was much better for her to be free from the pain and challenge which had marked her final years. I had felt that to say I missed her was in some way to wish her back, to hold her responsible, somehow, for leaving us. I went to church for the first time in five years and cried into my mask, unable to sing the words of familiar hymns because they reminded me of Sunday evenings in our childhood home eating home-baked scones and watching Songs of Praise.

I do miss her. But the missing will not change the fact that she has gone.

Death is the strangest thing.

What I have learned about grief is that you can read articles, listen to talks, engage with therapy, exercise, act practically, eat sensibly, try to sleep and it will still happen, keeping you company like a too-chatty stranger on a train.

It took me much of a year to realise that this is not an experience I will ever “get over”. Maybe I will learn to live with it. Maybe life will begin to coalesce into new patterns and pathways. Death is not a stone in the water; one disturbance, ripples and then stillness, as if it had never been.

We are unmade by it. Entirely. And in their leaving our loved ones gift us a final gift. A new life. Stumbling in an unfamiliar world, all the stranger for its external sameness we walk slowly, feeling our way forward, dazed and dazzled by the bustle and normalcy.

There is no going back.

4 thoughts on “What I have learned about grief (so far)

  1. She will always be with us. My going to places is to try to sense her presence and relive events we shared. There is a dull ache in my chest where my heart is.
    Thank you, you have expressed it well and it’s eased the pain a little. Now I must be up and go to it. Life is to be lived !
    Bless you.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this. It is strange, no keening or tearing your hair out like in the movies or books. I just have moments when I know I’m her daughter and that is something. It’s a process that will continue and you have to keep making room for it. I’ll keep you in my thoughts.

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