A slight departure from the norm of this blog but I needed to take a moment to talk about grief. I wanted to put things on a page that are inside my head and hope that by doing so perhaps I could help them rest.
I lost my dad nearly a year ago now, that in its self is phrase I have come to hate. Lost him? No I didn’t, I wasn’t wandering around and accidently misplaced him or temporarily forgotten where he is. He died. There is no way to sugar-coat that or make such a visceral loss seem socially acceptable and the phrase ‘lost’ doesn’t come close to the feeling it leaves behind. I did not lose my dad, he was taken. I will say it early on as I know you are wondering, we all wonder how when we are told somebody died, death is the one thing we are all guaranteed and fascinates and horrifies us all in equal measure. My father drowned. He was not an old man, it was not expected.
We had had a turbulent relationship; it wasn’t a cosy father daughter relationship. He spent massive chunks of my childhood absent from my life and my entire adolescence. We had spent the years preceding his death tentatively building up our relationship, we perhaps wouldn’t talk for a month or 2 although we would email, sometimes I would see him every weekend, sometimes I wouldn’t see him for 6 months. He was married to a woman who could never really gel with any of his children and he lived a balancing act between us and her. But he was slowly becoming my dad again and I took each moment I could.
Because of this is took 3 months for the news of his death in England to filter to me here in Canada, 3 months where I hadn’t been suspicious or worried, 3 months where my email had gone unanswered but I hadn’t questioned it. 3 months where I had been out with friends, I had laughed I had joked and I had lived. 3 months in which time his wife took him, cremated him and said nothing.
I not only had the news of him being gone to deal with there was knowing there was no funeral, no closure, it was done.
I can remember the day I found out. A text from my sister, where are you? I was in the park with friends, we were having a picnic with all the kids, it was a beautiful day, there was a van handing out free coffee and cupcakes it was perfect.
But that text came and I knew something was wrong; every single part of me went to high alert. My phone rang and on instinct I began to walk away from the children.
I don’t think I got far, the words were spoken, your dad is dead I’m sorry. My head couldn’t understand because I hadn’t spoken to him you see, I hadn’t said things I needed to recently so it couldn’t be true. The words came again, he’s gone. My legs buckled and I fell. I’m told I screamed, I can’t really remember that part. I just remember the feeling that every part of my body had shut down, that I couldn’t walk and I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to get up from that spot again. The spot my life had just fundamentally changed for ever.
I felt an arm around my shoulder and there was somebody there holding me and supporting me and I remembered, not only had this just happened this had happened in front of a group of women I had only known for a few months. I had just moved to this country I was still getting to know these people and they were getting to know me and now I was gone. I knew that straight away, something in me had changed and I had to get through this and when I came out the other side I was going to be somebody different. All I needed was to get home, all I wanted to do was to run away to my house and shut myself away. I needed space.
I know other people who have had a loved one die and they all ask, am I grieving normally? Is this right? I honestly have to tell you
there is no right way or wrong way. If you go primetime TV dramatic and scream and wail for days that is the way you need to be, if you laugh and sing well that’s your coping method and that’s what works for you. Grief is so, so deeply personal nobody can tell you how to do it.
I went numb. I could do everything I needed to do except, for reasons I still haven’t been able to fathom, prepare meals. Every single thing I knew about food left my head. I would stare at the cupboards trying to remember how to make breakfast for the kids, lunch didn’t happen and dinner was made by my husband when he came home from work. I tried to grocery shop once and the sheer amount of food stuff on the shelves swamped me and I had to leave.
Every step I took, every conversation I had all came out normally but on a constant loop in the back of my head like a heartbeat were the words, your dad is dead, your dad is dead, your dad is dead. They never, ever stopped.
Watching TV, playing with the kids, talking to a friend over a coffee these words beat in to my head. I could ignore them until the nighttime came and then they danced across my brain, happy to be free at last, I could almost see them floating in the air above me burning in to the bedroom ceiling and the tears would fall. Images of how he must have spent his last moments and how he must have felt haunted me most at night. Was he scared? Was he upset that he was alone? Did he call for help?
People say to you that you are holding it together well, I don’t think we are. We people going through grief right there and then, I think we go in to a survival mode. Your body and brain have been dealt such a massive shock that it can’t compute. It shuts down and allows you the most basic functions while it processes. It can be a blessing and a curse. We aren’t holding it together, we are waiting. The moment your brain finally realises the enormity of it all it lets go. It lets go in a massive outpouring that you have no control over, no knowing of when it will come or if there is a trigger. Your brain just knows it has reached the point where it is ready.
For me it came about 2 weeks later. I was sat at the table with the kids, we were talking about the day they had had at school and I felt a sudden burning pain in my eyes. I had cried a lot, I knew the feeling but this was different. There was no blinking it away, no shaking my head to make it stop. It felt like a dam had broken behind my eyes and it was rushing towards me. Small gasps started to come from my throat and I had to leave. I text my husband, ‘help me, I can’t stop it.’ He climbed in his car and came home.
He found me in the basement behind the washing machine where I had managed to crawl before I became overwhelmed. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t breathe, I could barely talk all I could do was whimper. He had missed the screaming. My body was spent it had nothing left. He put me to bed and I lay there and silently cried for the rest of the day before exhausting myself finally in to a sleep.
Naked grief is so raw, so personal. Something people cannot see coming. The weeks and months after someone dies you are given the space to work your way through it. People understand t must hurt and they allow you that.
It becomes harder after a few months. People who didn’t experience that pain have moved on. Life has swum by at its usual pace and you are expected to keep up only you can’t. You are paddling and paddling and just as you are getting somewhere something happens and you are thrown back a pace. Somebody on a television programme dies the same way you take to your bed for a few hours. You think you see your loved one and you can’t shake the misery when it’s not them.
You forget for a few hours then your brain throws it back at you and you feel instant guilt that you had let them go for a second. Almost like you need to cling to their memory because if you don’t who will? The world needs to know they were here, they existed, that despite it all you loved them. You don’t want to forget.
The problem is, in order to start to move forward with your life you do have to let go a little bit. You have to let that heartbeat beating their name quieten down. It takes a lot longer than is socially accepted that is true. Other people forget a lot quicker than you do and sometimes you want to remind them that it still hurts. Maybe not as openly and as urgently as it once did but it’s there. Perhaps this is why this blog post came about, perhaps I need to say I still hurt but I don’t think so. It came to mind a few days ago when I was watching the television and they flashed up the exact spot they found my father, they were mentioning it as a beauty spot in the south of England, it is, but for me it is so much more. Seeing that right there sent me in to a strange spiral of hyper active behaviour. I didn’t cry, I didn’t take to my bed but I did run around trying to find displacement activities. I see this as a way forward.
I grieve not only for my father but for me, for the different person I became, slightly more cynical a little bit broken somewhere I will never be able to fix. I grieve for the fledging friendships I had built up in my little expat world which were changed irrevocably that day in the park.
My dad was the first instance in my life I have felt this, I think I have been lucky to get to this age without a major loss in my life, it opens your eyes to others around you as you see them struggle and you want to say it’s ok, it will become easier to bear. It will never go away but it won’t feel like it is your everything.
Grief hits everybody in different ways at different times. There is no way to do it properly, there is no time limit there is only you and what you need to do, go gently, take time for yourself, do not be surprised when a year or more down the line something makes you catch your breath and never second guess yourself just because somebody else does it differently. Grief is feral and visceral in its coming, it lifts you up and steals you away, it changes you and hurts you and will always be a part of you once it is there, but never think for a second it will own or define you. It is simply another chapter, another page to turn.