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.