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Grief: It’s a Long Story

I’ve been feeling for a while like I needed to start writing again. Not because someone told me, “you really should try journalling.” I hate being told what to do, full stop, especially if it’s something that might be good for me. Also when we are talking about grief, this kind of well meant suggestion often falls into a category of unwelcome advice that also makes me feel like I’m failing at life. More on that in a bit.

We are all gonna lose people closest to us at some point in our lives. And it will affect everyone differently and there’s no one way of dealing with it. I can only speak from my own experience. Unfortunately it’s something that I’ve had to experience a lot lately. I don’t know if what I say will have anything to offer anyone, but maybe if you are in grief and wondering why your life is not quite functioning, it might help you to feel less alone.

The thing is. Grief is not just about feeling sad and missing the person who is gone. That is a huge and important part of it. But there’s all this other stuff. Like the brain fog, the difficulty in decision-making, the deep excavation of life meaning (or lack of it,) too much energy or not enough, slowness, sleeplessness, depression, numbness, disconnection, lack of motivation, anxiety, or just a general feeling of instability about existence.

And this is hardly surprising. Death is a total head fuck. I mean – it makes sense rationally but we don’t tend to live like it’s going to happen to anyone we know, and certainly not us. The Buddhist teachings on the Four Reminders say that death comes without a warning – that’s not always entirely true, sometimes people get sick and slowly depart; other times they disappear overnight.

Having witnessed both, I would say there is something very particular about sudden death. And especially if the person is young or youngish. When my father died, it was a shock, but it was not a surprise. He was getting older, and he had some major health problems. We knew it was coming. It had its own particular pain – the loss of a parent is something that is totally groundbreaking – someone that was always there from the beginning of your existence, gone. Someone who, if you are lucky – brought a sense of safety, familiarity and supportiveness, unconditional love.

There is a deep groundlessness that opens up. For me, it was the first time I thought – wow – so I am definitely gonna die too then. Sounds silly but it really led me to a deeper acceptance of that, albeit briefly. I soon learned to forget that destabilising truth and get on with living again.

I had some survivor guilt – I wished I had been present, and not away in America, pursuing a love story that led only to more loss and grief in the end. But the fact of his having had a decent lifespan, the fact that his dementia was only going to deteriorate further, that dying of a heart attack was perhaps the lesser of two evils – these things helped me to accept it.

When my flatmate died suddenly in November lockdown last year, it was a different story. There was nothing in me that was expecting this. The shock I felt was like nothing else. It was as if I had fallen off the planet and was free falling through darkness – or worse, that I had woken up to a nightmare realm that was now real life, and the old world was nowhere to be found.

Writing about it now, I feel my heart start to beat a little faster, and I am careful not to probe too deeply. I’ve always been someone who likes to face fear head on, I used to take pride in my fearless emotional risk taking. These days I am more cautious with my mental health. I crossed a line and I did not know if I would be able to come back. I still don’t.

This is trauma. In those first weeks, I could not sleep. I felt like the day of his death was still happening continuously and I could somehow prevent it from happening if I could just stay awake. The worst part was not knowing why. Without realising it, the moment I got the news on some deep level I took internal responsibility. How did I miss it? What could I have done differently? I let him down.

We were always close even before the lockdown. In the sense that we had a particular understanding of each other, a way of looking at life, and laughing at life, our failures and successes. But through lockdown we pulled together more. The three of us, dubbed the lockdown legends, thrown upon our own resources, suddenly spending way more time together. We became more aware of each other’s struggles and it became like a family. Even in the sense that we had our differences. We worked them through. And we had fun. Often during that pandemic year, I felt so grateful that I had this home, because it was now all I had, and it was good. At least I am spared the regret of not appreciating what I had before it was too late.

With him everything had the potential to be fun. We had our own way of passing time, weaving in and out of the deep and the light, freewheeling from philosophical discussion to the everyday details of life – a trip to Homebase became a magical adventure – I gladly abandoned my daily tasks on numerous occasions to take part in a DIY mission or a long ramble around the Common for the 100th time.

The death of someone young, that you haven’t expected, is deeply confusing for the mind and the body. Everything was still in the house, as he had left it. His room still smelled of him. I wandered around the house, feeling lost and panicked. It reminded me of our family cat, when her companion died in a road accident. She couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Where have they gone?

The death remained unexplained. For three months. My habitual style if something is unexplained is to take it on myself. I would rather take it on than admit that I don’t have any control. The chaos was a threat.

Grief is physical. It is in the body, like love is. That is why, when people say things like, “death is a part of life,” or “life goes on,” “it’s the circle of life…” it is like they are coming from another planet. It is not something you can think yourself out of. It is something that has to be processed, like an indigestion. Or perhaps more accurately like your spleen exploding.

For me it felt like a bomb had gone off and all the pieces of me were fragmented and scattered around. All I wanted was to sleep. But the house had become a place of unsafety. I could not find safety anywhere, save for a few hours of daylight when I went for a walk. In nature I felt safe, but not in the house. The room where he died took shape in my mind like a terrifying black hole, a portal into the other world that had inexplicably sucked him away in the night.

As the initial shock started to subside I was left with this heavy, aching, sickening feeling, an actual physical pain in my chest that could not be relieved by anything at all. Sex, maybe. But only briefly. My efforts to escape only deepened the pain of the return.

All of this is to say that sudden death has a particular impact that goes beyond anything. It is not simply about the loss, which in itself is devastating. I could not even get to the loss for the first months, because I could not find a place of equilibrium, or safety, or normality – everything that had felt normal was blown away, everything I had counted on had been revealed as a total illusion.

Since I live in a Buddhist community house, none of this should have been surprising. We study the teachings, we know that there is no ground, that we create illusions by way of the material world despite the reality that everything is impermanent. We know it and yet we do it.

The lockdown was not an insignificant backdrop. “Stay at Home” – those words we became so used to hearing – to me became words of torture. Home was the site of trauma, “staying at home” was not a way to “save lives” – it was a place where lives were lost.

And for myself, the more time I spent at home, the worse I felt, the more my mental health deteriorated and I felt in danger of losing not only my sanity but my own life through a lack of ability to cope with the constant fear and the pain. I became obsessed with the room. My mind became its own worst enemy. My longing to feel safe drove me to face my fears in a way that was unkind and ultimately destructive.

In those first few months I believed that I didn’t have the right to grieve, because I had let him die. I was in the house, mooching around on a Sunday morning, making toast. And he was a few metres away, in his room, dying. How can that be possible? Again this is not something that can be fixed through rational thinking. It can come from being a sensitive soul, or from deep rooted childhood patterns of taking on responsibility for an unstable caregiver, trying to save everybody and feeling terrible for not managing it.

There’s a reason we have rituals for coping with grief in our society. All civillisations do. These were prevented, by the Coronavirus legislation as a way of “saving lives.” I wonder how many lives were actually saved by denying people the very basic need for community following a traumatic bereavement. And how many were lost. No one came round. And I couldn’t go anywhere without feeling yet more shame.

Those early weeks had a deeply detrimental impact on how things progressed for me. I thought that when I finally left the house for Christmas to stay with my mum that things would get better, but that’s when they really unravelled. Two days before Christmas in a cottage in Yorkshire, I started to become aware of all the ways I could harm myself. I had strong images of acting on these, that felt like compulsions. I did act on some of them. I was terrified. I no longer felt safe even in my own mind.

On Christmas Eve I checked myself into the hospital because I was afraid of what I would do to myself. I have never felt so lost or hopeless in my life – and I have been pretty lost. I had always prided myself on the sharpness of my mind. A memory of from my Buddhist training surfaced. “So sharp it cuts itself.” I later came to understand that this again can be a feature of traumatic stress, the “fight or flight” syndrome arousing an aggressive energy that got turned inward.

The health care system for mental health was sorely lacking. I was not able to access trauma therapy on the NHS. Not then, and not now. The minimum waiting list for talking therapy in my borough was 18 weeks. Four and a half months later I’m still waiting.

Fortunately I managed to access some care from a charity called Sudden. I called them on the few days before Christmas and someone called me back the following day. I could tell that they really understood what I was going through and it gave me a tiny thread of hope that it was not completely outside of normal human experience.

But it was a month later before I was to receive any consistent therapy. In the meantime I was on my own. Days passed where moment to moment was an excruciating struggle against a compulsion to cause harm to myself. I was drained and exhausted. I could not rest.

Trying to access help was a constant source of frustration, often exacerbating my difficulties by forcing me to recount the awful things I had been thinking and doing for the purpose of a form-filling exercise or “assessment.” They were essentially risk focused and included such questions as “what is the percentage likelihood that you will attempt suicide this week?” These assessments rarely led to anything other than more waiting.

Despite presenting with insomnia I was given anti-depressants that were known to cause sleeplessness, and they did. I managed to change to another drug that was supposed to help with sleep. That first night of actual sleep was delicious and I fell in love with sleep in a way that I never had before. Over time I have noticed that this soporific effect of the drug is actually contributing to a brain fog that feels more harmful than good now.

I still love sleep and look forward to it most of the day. Partly because I can actually do it, and partly because I don’t have too much motivation for other things. This is another thing about grief that doesn’t seem connected but is. And finally I am coming round to my original point. It is confusing being in it. Because it often seems like I’ve just become a less productive person. I’ve lost my drive.

Even in my grief counselling sessions I sometimes feel like I’m getting it wrong. Other areas of my life aren’t working either, but I feel like I can’t bring them up because they’re not relevant. This idea of bereavement as if you’re alright except when you think about it so just try thinking about something else. Yes, distraction can be really helpful especially in the early stages. Another reason why it was SO hard during the pandemic because distractions – especially social ones – were few and far between.

Perhaps I’ve succumbed to the western health care perspective where all the pieces are unrelated and require their own 15 minute appointment. It would be more holistic to take the person as a complex system that has undergone a kind of emotional earthquake. Everything has shifted and is fragile as a result.

Other relationships can suffer and change because of grief too. I have been heartened by certain friends who really stepped up, and surprised by others – even really close ones – who disappeared out of my life in the moment I needed them most.

I think there is some misconception about Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief as if they are somehow a linear process. When in actual fact it’s much more like concentric circles – or some other kind of shape that is a lot more messy. I might write more on this subject but this post is already getting long.

It is a very vulnerable thing to share your personal experience. I wrote at the beginning a little about unsolicited advice that makes me feel as though I’m failing at life. People are always trying to help. It comes from a good motivation. The problem is that as a grieving person you expend a lot of energy on trying to make other people feel ok about your state and working to feel grateful for their help which isn’t helping.

Go for a run. Go for a walk. Try thinking, meditating, talking, walking a dog, getting a cat, staying home, going out, watching TV, calling someone, making some art, cooking new dishes – it gets overwhelming. As a grieving person, I am winning if I can get out of bed and brush my teeth. Yes sometimes I go for a run. Other times I can’t face it. I didn’t become a baby that can’t take care of themselves. I know what is good for me.

In my view, the general rule of offering any advice is to stop and ask yourself. Did the person ask for advice? Or were they just sharing something. The golden rule is to listen and ask questions. What helps you? How are you feeling? What has been your experience so far? Or practical offers. Do you need me to do some shopping for you tomorrow? Keep it simple. Can I give you a hug? Do you want to tell me about it? I’m here. I’m thinking of you.

Especially in the first weeks, this is what is needed. I don’t need to know about your friend and what happened to them and how awful it was. Right now, if you want to support me, be present and be real. That’s it. Let me know that you can hold it if I need to snot all over your shoulder. Then maybe I learn to trust you with this avalanche of feeling and then maybe in 3 months time I might ask you for some advice. Or not. But it’s not what is needed now.

It is so hard for us to just sit still with discomfort – our own or someone else’s. But this is the greatest gift you can offer, to anyone – in grief or not. I know that for some people who have not experienced a bereavement the discomfort is too much and they have to talk through that pause and fill the space. That’s ok and it’s probably better we do talk about something else in that case.

I think the most important thing is to respect and honour someone else’s grief process. There is a wisdom in how they are coping and it might not be your way, and they might not always be helping themselves. But the way to help is not to tell them what they should do differently. Because that just adds to the burden of feeling absolutely lost over how to be a human being.

I watched a beautiful interview with the comedian Rob Delaney about losing his son to Leukaemia. He talks about other people’s concern that if they bring up the loss they are bringing up a bad memory. He says, I’m already thinking about him. You didn’t remind me – he’s on my mind and you just gave me an excuse to talk about him.

So many times people offered me support and then immediately undercut this offer by saying “you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” I am then left in a confusion about this mixed message. Are they just being polite? By reminding me of my right not to talk are they overtly hoping I will not? My grief-addled brain cannot handle confusion. I need clarity.

I bring him into conversation when he comes to my mind. That’s part of how I keep him alive and it feels good and healthy. There are too few occasions when people asked me about my connection to him and what he was like. Those are precious because it’s the love that saves us in the end.

When things finally started to shift a little for me, was when I spoke to a therapist who reminded me that I was in grief. I had buried all that loss and was trying to erase myself too. But that day when I finally allowed myself to look at the photos that people had contributed, and to listen to the music that reminded me of him, and I cried and howled and filled my lungs and emptied my heart – that day I realised that I could not heal until I connected to the love, the deep love that I felt for my friend who went without warning and was not coming back.

It is for me a way of connecting to joy again, to be able to feel that love and know that I am capable of it. My joy levels are low right now, and the happy moments short-lived. There is no substantial hope or looking forward to things in that light way, that excitement of what’s to come. Not yet. But I can hold my own heart and my heart only got bigger. Bigger for knowing him, and bigger for losing him.

Double rainbow, Ilkley Moor, exactly one week after his death

Allow myself to introduce…myself

HOLA! Happy new year! It’s been a long time, but I have not been idle!

Something of a rebirth has occurred and I am excited to introduce it/her(?) to you now.

It started with death, and loss and grief. A period of space followed during which seeds flourished under the surface. Then came emergence from the pit of despair and new music! The new project desired a new identity, and so Luna Bec was born.

With her she brought a new lease of life, and finally, a new blog arose. It’s amazing that she has time to write a blog, given the numerous personalities she appears to be maintaining, but so it is.

I hope you will join me/her/us there, without delay!

Click here to visit the brand new blog and subscribe to follow posts.

And while you’re at it, why not check out the new music too!

Prove Me Wrong by Luna Bec

“The Rebirth of Venus” – cover art by Linzie Elliott for Luna Bec’s third single, “Prove Me Wrong” – listen here

Love

I do not trust the word “love”

For there are those that have used it against me

But I trust its vibration

Pulsating, a diamond moon

Fragile spindly or bold and delicious

And I have learnt to feel its absence

Even where I desire it most

A cold lack

Going to bed hungry

Turning the knife inwards

While my lover twists the blade

The stories we tell

I am not too much

I do not trust the word “love”

Slippery side of a black bucket of hope

There is nothing to cling to

But I have felt its warmth in the actions of others

Making tea, fixing a bicycle, lamenting the loss of a friend

It is the mundane that impresses me now

Listening

Sharing without agenda

Cleaning the oven

Studying types of tree, all of them sturdy examples

Of what I aspire to be

I do not trust the word “love”

With its myriad meanings and ways to mesmerise

I bought that book, a one way ticket to disappointment

But I know its radiance shines out of every cell

Riding the snow at sunrise

Alighting the faces of strange friends

Singing in company

The world is alive and dying to dance with you

Openly offering its richness

All the while searching and laughing

For what is most essential

Cannot be found or destroyed

With every breath I make love to the universe

As the tide suckles the dark shore

I feel everything and nothing

Those who took love and used it as a weapon

Cannot penetrate what is already air

Strange Opening

The gap you left
Must be filled
With a new kind of love
Your body
On my body
The perfect dance
Of how it should be
But things are
What they are
And we twist and turn
Caught in the knot of reality
How to surrender
Breath by breath
Without giving up?
A dive into dark
And a longing for life
Leads the way
Unknown
To a strange opening
Freshly lit
By a light touch
And a fledgling trust
That something
Will
Happen

 

 

Moon

This is me in your car
Looking at the moon
One of the few things we share
Her icy fullness a natural mirror of our strange familiarity
When the sparks rose from the fire
And the music played
I saw it peek through the branches
You asked me why I was laughing
It’s just that sometimes I feel happiness

Solstice

I have loved you since the first leaves fell
When the darkness dropped like a stone and all went quiet
You arose in my mind like a perfect shell
On a vast beach laden with jewelled sand
That slipped through our fingers and toes like time
I have loved you since the first moment of Summer
Brought the sweat to my skin
And made me dive deep in the river where we met
When the snow bleached the ground a million miles
Between us I have loved you
Through exasperated cries
A prison of pain
Long dark nights
Loaded with tears
Your honesty pierced the sky where I hung my dreams out to dry
And bemoaned the passing years
I have loved you since the first drops of rain
Made a country green that sings in my heart still
With water and wood and wide open space

Nobody knows anything
All that is a mirage and the story unfolds indifferently
At the end of magic

Poetry

There may not be magic
But there is poetry
Poetry is easier to define
And no one is in charge of its occurrence
It just happens endlessly in life
And depending on what sort of person you are
Or think you are
You might find it more or less regularly
Amongst the broken rubble of your existence
Peeking out in the shape of an unexpected meeting
A troublesome illness, an ironic twist
And thanks to the modernists
It doesn’t even have to come in the form of a neat verse
It can in fact be clumsy and not in the least pretty
Alone in the eye of the perceiver
Does it hold value
Which makes it much like other things, or non-things
That strike a note in the cold chambers of the heart
Once warmed by love, or hope, or whatever
Now held together
With the glue of simply being
And not knowing what else to do

Before You Die

Looking for a good book to read in order to distract myself from the discomfort of existence, I came across this article, “7 of the best books to read before you die.”

I’ve seen these articles before. “The top ten places to visit before you die.” “Fifty great films to see before you die.”

It struck me that the words “before you die” under these circumstances might be somewhat superfluous. I would be intrigued by an article entitled “7 of the best books to read after you die.”

Titles might include “What Was All That About?” “Letting Go of Past Lives.” “Bardo for Beginners.”

Perhaps these words are simply a helpful reminder that we will indeed, die, and therefore any activities that we wish to undertake must precede this unpredictable event. In which case they are not entirely superfluous – they communicate a sense of urgency, a feeling that life must be lived now.

What are we to do in the face of this slow emergency?

What happens in that strange indefinable period of time between birth and death, where the only thing that is certain is that it must end?

The modern world offers a bewildering choice of ways we could spend our time. This is where lists could be potentially helpful. However the drawback is that they might suggest a discrimination between the meaningful and the mundane.

Navigating a period of extreme grief in which simple tasks are often all I can manage, the feeling of the breeze across my face in the morning often the highlight of my day, this idea makes me sad. Is a life without adventure a waste of time? Must we continually extend ourselves in order to experience depth? Is there a case for just being?

When I was at school we did a lesson involving woodlice. This stuck in my mind because living in a damp old house woodlice were pretty frequent guests. I also liked the word “exoskeleton” and the way this protected them even if you dropped them on the floor.

We put these creatures into what was referred to as a “choice chamber.” There was a dry section and a damp section. And then a control, which had nothing in it at all.

Maybe the control section is like just being. Protecting us from overwhelm. Without that we don’t really have a choice because we just get buffeted from desire to aversion and back. The emptiness of the control provides us with the clarity to discover what kind of louse we really are. Emptiness may not be entirely comfortable, but at least it’s honest.

7 Things To Do Before You Die:

Look at a blackbird
Look at its shiny eye
The way it jerks its head from side to side
And bounces and sings
A tiny clown
Visit the corner shop
Speak to the people there
See the grooves in that man’s face
The way he walks
His cheerful manner
His expression when he thinks no one is watching
Smell the air on an autumn night
Smoky and crystalline
Damp moss and crisp leaves
Bringing in hallowe’en
And the yawn of winter
Touch the fur on a cat’s back
Soothe your fingers with its greasy softness
Feel its sinuous spine
Curling against your hand
Listen to the laughter of an old friend
The familiar chimes of a shared history
Warmth and love
Taste water in a state of thirst
A primal quenching that has no equal
Lay down on the ground under a summer sky
Touch its vastness
Air on skin
Deep space
Know that you are all of these things and more
Ephemeral as dust
Blessed to breathe breath
Even in a crisis
Such as life is

Autumn Self

My autumn self is walking
Not knowing where it is going
But feeling
The outstretched arms of orange trees
The empty expanse of a damp cold field
Reaching inside to a place that is tender
An aching seed of shaky surrender that says
This is it then?
This isn’t half bad
Or half good
Don’t try and be the one you think you should
The gaps between things are trying to tell you to slow down
Stop even
Breathe in the Saturday afternoon gloom
It’s only going to get worse after all
So why not start small?
Admit that success is a tiny fire in the heart
Nothing more
Nothing to roll over and die for
And this dull absence of everything you want
Is simply the vacuum from which all is created
Even as long as you have waited
It was only ever the beginning
Of endlessness

Pompeii

Sun warming fresh ground after rain
Scent of cypress, earth and ancient stone
Above the old city the volcano steams divertedly
While tourists wielding selfie sticks
Search for a piece of the past to place in the present
I am in my head, not feeling
Only the grooves of cartwheels on huge cobbles
The oddly familiar frescoes
Mosaic floors
Tiled counters and gardens made for beauty and refreshment
Theatres inviting grand gestures
The smell of Autumn fires
And the wind in the tall trees
Tell me that I am human like so many before me
Trying to lead a good life
Making mistakes
Enjoying the simple pleasures of light and cool water
Bathing in public
Food, friends, noise, geometry,
Silence
Reclining away from the crowds with a lover
In red rooms with painted birds
So soon to grow old
Searching for meaning
Or its absence
In the body of another
Shadowed by green mountains
Temples honour the unseen magic of gods
Pillars piercing sky
Breeding acorns, marble, ivy
And always the faint taste of the sea