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I’d experienced grief before in my 39 years but nothing like the pain I felt as I watched my seemingly healthy Dad, my hero, depart the world in just nine short days.
The sheer helplessness, the injustice, the physical pain that threatened to engulf my entire body watching the doctors and nurses taking away life support, knowing what it meant but having no idea what was going to happen. The fear. For him, for me, and for what would happen to my life after that day. The only thing I knew for sure, at that moment, was that nothing would ever be the same again. I would be forever changed.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day, except the minutes afterwards when it was all just so quiet. The days afterwards are a blurry tearful space of nothing. I think your body has ways of shutting out certain events to protect you. What I do remember, however, is the people who stood with me, right there in the weight of my pain, who didn’t ask questions of me or expected anything. I came and went, I was there and I wasn’t, I cried and I went quiet, and I watched the entirety of “Breaking Bad” (again) front to back for days on end.
There are days when grief is messy. Very messy. Tears that feel like they won’t ever end, physical pain so prominent you wonder if you’re going to have a heart attack or if your bones will break from holding yourself together so tightly. I have had physical muscle ache from sobbing and googled if you could form abs from grief. I have studied the afterlife on every platform available and found that everyone believes in something different. I have prayed for signs, collected feathers, and gone to church. I have lit candles, meditated, and forgotten to eat until someone forces me to drink Lucozade for fear that I will just run out of energy altogether. I have cried over the fact that my clothes no longer fit and wore wigs to disguise the fact that I haven’t washed my hair in weeks and I have sat in nature and cursed every living thing for being alive when my dad wasn’t. I have also found myself unexpectedly laughing at something on TV or the cat racing around the house chasing a spider and then spent the next half an hour wondering how it was possible that my body was even capable of that emotion still. It felt so alien.
There are also days when grief is quiet. The days when you wake up and forget for the briefest of moments what happened. Then it comes flooding in and the only way to cope is to shut it down. To sit still and barely breathe, too frightened to make a sound in case it hits you harder than before. Maybe it will go away if you sit still, eyes closed. It can’t see you if you can’t see it, right?
I know, I sound like a crazy person, but I’m willing to take the risk for those of you nodding along like, yes! I’ve done that too! You are my people. You see, grief makes you this way. You find yourself part of a club that no one wants to be in, a world after death where things change, you see the world through a different lens, slightly duller and a little bit blurred in the beginning then painfully crystal clear. It’s a bit, I would imagine, like having corrective eye surgery only to find the brightness too much and the clarity so sharp it burns into your retina. Grief burns into your very being and it hurts like hell.
Over time I have learned that grief is not uniform. I’ve read the books (too many to count, and by the way they all have grey or dull blue covers) about the cycles of grief, and in some way or another, they all apply. Sometimes in order, usually not. Sometimes all in one day or one hour. I liken it to watching a hundred different genres of movie all at the same time. Who knew your emotions could be split so diversely all at once?
One of the things I have learned is that emotions are transient. They pass through. A great friend said this to me in the absolute thick of my grief, one of the true warriors who stood right in my pain unflinchingly as I acted super weird, and it was one of the few messages that stuck with me. I found myself repeating the following, sometimes hundreds if not thousands of times a day.
“It will pass.”
“This feeling will come and it will go.”
“This won’t last.”
Sure enough, given enough space, the emotion will pass, it will subside and eventually go. It will be back, of course, but the spaces between eventually become longer and you can get more breaths in before the next wave.
The other thing about grief is people. Can we just take a minute to talk about the people aspect?
Let’s be clear, we know you mean well. Maybe not at the beginning, sometimes we won’t even hear you talking to us, to be honest. There’s a lot of nodding and thank yous exchanged, but are we taking it in? Not really. Our brains are consumed with our pain and confusion and crap like “what now if my car breaks down” or “why can’t I remember what your laugh sounded like or where we went on your last birthday?”
As time begins to pass and you start to take information in again you notice more. Things like the way people tilt their head to the side when they ask how you’re doing (when you know, you know); it’s meant as a kind gesture, but the weight of that statement is often just too much to bear. How do you even answer? It would send me into a state of panic, how do I answer that? Truthfully? How long have you got? Where can we go so that no one sees what becomes of me as I try to give you a semi-honest answer?
So what happens is that the answer tends to be a quick and generic “Yeah, I’m getting there, thanks” with a subject change faster than the speed of light before they catch a glimpse of the tears pricking the back of your eyes or detect the lump forming in your throat from a mixture of sadness and sheer terror. You know it’s a well-meaning and obvious opening question. You know they are enquiring because they have an interest in your well-being; you see it in their eyes and the weird neck thing, but the range of emotions it brings up are as wide as the biggest ocean. Also, depending on your level of grief that day (or my level of crazy as I came to lovingly refer to it) you may want to scream, ask what’s wrong with their neck, or throw yourself on the floor, angry-toddler style, and sob.
So what to do?
My suggestion is something like this. If you’re trying to help someone who is in extreme pain, let yourself off the hook. Seriously. You can’t fix this, even with the best will in the world, this is not fixable. We know this, as much as we wish you had that magic wand or a time machine (another reason to curse at the universe, where is the frigging time machine! We can put people in space for goodness sake!) we know you aren’t going to be able to make this better. You feeling bad about us feeling bad and looking for fixes isn’t going to help.
What you can do is be there.
This is a battlefield for us and we need our men and women. Armour up and stand by our side as we face the pain. This is love. We feel you there, even when you’re not in the physical space; knowing you’ve got our backs makes a difference. Do you know what I’ve come to realise is truly brave? You standing in this place by choice, just to be with me when I’d rather be anywhere in the world than be here. I don’t have a choice, but you do and yet here you are. You are the warriors.
Help where you can. Asking us what we need probably isn’t going to work out; we can barely remember to eat or brush our teeth, so rather than asking try offering instead.
I brought you dinner, just in case you didn’t feel like cooking (we don’t).
I put your bins out this morning and brought them back in (you don’t need to mention that environmental health was going to make a citizen’s arrest if I didn’t clean it up soon).
I made you coffee.
I brought you some flowers.
I brought you some food shopping (and pretend not to notice that there are cobwebs on the cupboards and mould in the fridge).
All of these seemingly small gestures are reminders that you’re there. That’s all we truly need. Practical help is the most overlooked of all the ways to help someone who is grieving and suffering a loss. We may not even realise at the time, but when we look back, it’s immeasurable. I had a friend bring me flowers just days after my dad passed away; I couldn’t tell you what else happened that day but I remember her walking across the street to my door with beautiful flowers covered in glitter. She didn’t say much that I remember, but she smiled, she hugged me, and as I walked back into the house all I could think of was that they got me. They chose those flowers not because they were sympathy flowers but because they were “me,” and I felt that love. In that very moment, that was what I needed.
So, if you’re reading this as someone looking to help a grieving friend or relative, know this. Your words, even when they seem to bounce right off the recipient, are heard. Your gestures matter, and just being willing to be vulnerable alongside that person is more than enough.
People say that grief is the price we pay for love but I don’t want to believe that. Love doesn’t come with a price, and it doesn’t end when life does. Love goes forward in many different forms and you get to make space for it—in time and in your own way. To love is to look around again and recognise all that you can be grateful for. The people still standing, the cooked for you meals, and the empty bins. It’s all love, and as I continue to journey through my own grief cycle, I see that everywhere I look.
One day you will too. Just keep looking.
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