We need to talk about grief
This is probably the hardest article I have ever written because it is so personal to me. I've been considering doing it for a while and have finally managed to. I haven't been asked to write it for anyone and I'm not a grief expert, just someone wanting to share their experiences in the hope that it may help one other person.
Grief is still seen as something we shouldn't mention, fold it away in a drawer and try to deal with it whilst not causing a fuss. But, whether we are experiencing grief ourself or someone close to us, we definitely need to chat about it. One person dies every minute in the UK so the chances are quite high that we have either lost someone ourselves or know someone who has. If you are dealing with grief I hope that this may resonate with you and perhaps bring some comfort.
"If there ever comes a day when we can't be together,
keep me in your heart.
I'll stay there forever."
So what's my grief?
Everyone has different experiences of grief but here's my story. My dad passed away very suddenly twelve years ago. There was no forewarning that it was going to happen. One day he was there and the next he wasn't. I will never forget receiving a phone call in the early hours of the morning with such horrendous news. He hadn't even reached retirement age and was so looking forward to planning what he was doing to do with his new found freedom. He was an extremely well liked man, a great listener, a supportive pillar, had the patience of a saint, was an avid music fan and a keen photographer. He was also a perfectionist when it came to DIY, much to my mums dismay, because this meant that he took his time completing jobs around the house! He embraced becoming a new grandparent and loved spending time with his young granddaughters. Then all of a sudden he wasn't there anymore. Leaving my mum a widow in her mid fifties. How does anyone process that?
Before the funeral
The time in between his death and the funeral was really awful. The only positive was that we kept ourselves relatively busy with the practicalities involved. We were in complete organisational mode. I distinctly remember meeting with our local vicar to plan the service. I knew I wanted to say something as part of the memorial, my dad deserved it and it would form my parting words to him. But I was so worried that I'd feel overwhelmed with emotion and cry in front of everyone. Father Martin encouraged me to go ahead with the eulogy, to just go for it and he made me see that everyone would understand if I got upset. He explained that if I did this I'd have no regrets. I am so thankful to him for these positive words as, even though I did get very upset, I felt strong and satisfied that I had done my dad proud.
The funeral felt like a complete blur. There are snippets that I do remember though. Looking up from where I was standing to do the eulogy I was really struck by how packed out the chapel was. This warmed my heart. Standing room only (and not much of that available either). The funeral did feel like an event I just needed to get through and I know my mum and brother felt the same too.
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."
After the funeral
For at least six months after the funeral I felt like I was having an out of body experience, viewing myself from above just going through the motions of everyday life. I definitely wasn't present at that time. I felt like my head was full of cotton wool, I couldn't concentrate or fully engage in anything. I found that many people left us alone after the funeral, maybe thinking that we should get back to normal life or possibly not wanting to upset us by mentioning dad. But this is when we all needed the most support. Luckily I did, and still do, have an extremely supportive husband and a select few friends who were there for me and were amazing.
In those weeks and months following the funeral it became apparent that there was a huge gaping hole in our family which was once filled by my dad. His absence completely changed the family dynamics. This is something we've all had to adjust to and we've all taken on slightly different roles as the years have gone on. I found this quite tough in those early years and it's still challenging at times now. I also think that I became a slightly different person compared to who I was before his death.
The months and years afterwards
I feel very lucky that I've had a solid support network around me. Not a big circle, but a robust one. Comprising of friends and family who have been there for me, who I've been able to reach out to. I have unfortunately experienced negative behaviour too. This includes a close family member not mentioning my dad or what had happened at all and carrying on as though nothing had happened. I had a 'close' friend who pushed me aside because I was of no use to her now that I was grieving. Another friend told me that it wasn't as bad as losing a mum. I even had a family member say that none of this was about me and that I needed to be strong for my mum and not upset her. Of course my main concern was my mum. I think about her, support her and worry about her every day. Our family all support each other. But at the time, I found it pretty hard to process how these individuals treated me. But the difference now is that I understand their actions were a reflection on them and their experiences and nothing to do with me. You certainly find out who your friends are and actually that's a good thing longterm. But, importantly, these encounters illustrate that many of us don't know how to talk about grief.
About three months after losing my dad I started to look into bereavement counselling. My mum had suggested it and I knew I needed to talk things through with a professional. I had to wait a few months for it to start but it was worth the wait. I'm not saying it wasn't difficult, but I benefitted so much from the process. I had counselling with Cruse Bereavement Support and every counsellor at that time had gone through bereavement themselves. I slowly learnt to make room for the grief in my every day life.
Robins appear when loved ones are near
Moving 'forward' is not moving 'on'. There is no end date to grief, no set time frame and everyone's experience is different. But when the time is right we can look forwards. I've learnt to grow around my grief. I feel like the grief itself is similar to how it was in those early days but, as I am growing as a person, it starts to take up a little less space in my life as my life grows around it. We can still grieve the loss of a loved one whilst carrying on with our own lives.
Looking forwards my life includes my loss. I truly believe that we can take our loved ones with us on our journey ahead. I'm always thinking about my dad, the incredible memories, trying to harness all of his great qualities, thinking about what he would have done in certain situations, what advice he may have given and whether he would have enjoyed some of the things that we are doing.
As I've got older I'm much more aware of my feelings and dealing with my emotions in the best way. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't always work, but I try not to fight against feeling low or upset. I sit with it, I'm ok with it, I don't try to bury it, I talk about it. I'll often listen to my dads favourite songs, go for a walk, look at some old photos, cry... It's all good.
"Remember what it was that you loved most about those you have lost" said Bean,
"and be that. Keep those memories alive."
Support & Guidance
There is a lot of support available if you are grieving or are close to someone who is grieving. I have found the following two charities helpful over the years:
www.cruse.org.uk The UK's leading bereavement charitable organisation
www.thegoodgrieftrust.org The UK's leading charity bringing over 900 bereavement services together under one umbrella.
What I've learnt and what has worked for me
Lastly I wanted to share what I've learnt over the years, what has worked for me and any useful hints and tips:
If you are feeling overwhelmed, take one day at a time, one hour at a time, one task at a time, one moment at a time. Don't look too far head.
If you are really struggling, try to reach out for help. It doesn't have to be with someone you know. Contact one of the charities I've mentioned above. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone you haven't met before.
If you've had someone close to you pass away try to talk about them lots. It keeps them alive in your life. I would say that in the early days I was forced to talk about my dad because my children were so young and asked lots of questions. I did this, more often than not, through tears or with a lump in my throat. It's important for children to see these emotions and I think it helped us all in the process.
It is crucial to say something rather than nothing to someone that is grieving and to continue this as the weeks, months, years go by. My closest friends haven't been afraid to talk about my dad which I have always appreciated.
If you don't know what to say, just say that you don't know what to say. It's much better than saying things like "Stay strong". I really don't like this sort of comment. It's completely irrelevant and implies that we shouldn't be allowed to 'feel' what we are feeling. We don't need to be strong. We need to feel our emotions. I'm also not a fan of "It will get better" or "Chin up" or "At least he didn't suffer" etc etc. Instead open the conversation with things like "I don't know what to say, but I am so so sorry to hear this" or "I can't imagine the hole that he/she will leave behind" or "They will be missed so much" etc etc.
It's possible to feel fine and then be hit by a huge wave of emotions which knock you sideways. Even though this can be really unsettling, I've learnt that it is completely natural and to be expected, even years down the line. Something as simple as a song on the radio can set me off.
Always try to check on those who are grieving even if they look ok. Just because they are smiling it doesn't mean everything is fine. They might be putting on a brave face so as not to burden others but they could be really struggling.
Build mindful moments into our day. Learning to be in the present moment rather than filling every second of the day. This helps us to become aware of how we are feeling, allows us to sit with those emotions and acknowledge them which is much more healthy than ignoring what we are feeling.
Talk to close family members about their funeral wishes. Although we shouldn't be living our lives fearing that death is around the corner it's a positive way to talk about it. My brother and I know how our mum would like her funeral, down to the songs and the type of coffin. Although she keeps changing her mind about the songs!!
Try to ensure all paperwork and finances for loved ones are in order so that you don't have the awful task of trying to work through this in the depths of grief. Also think about your own finances, insurances etc.
Include children in funerals of loved ones. In hindsight we should have taken our daughters to my dads funeral. We made the decision not to as we thought we were protecting them. But I now know what a beneficial process it would have been to help them understand why they were't going to see Grandad again and to also make it a celebration of his life.
One thing is for sure, change is certain in this world. So don't dwell on things, hold grudges or regret anything. Do things now, patch things up, make amends. Or remove yourself from negative people and situations before it takes hold of you.
Watch 'After Life' on Netflix, a black comedy written and directed by Ricky Gervais. I really recommend it (if you don't mind a bit of swearing). Central to the story is a man who is trying to navigate life after the loss of his wife. It's emotional and hilarious in equal measures and completely heart warming.
And lastly, be kind to everyone, including yourself.
"If you know someone who has lost a very important person in their life and you're afraid to mention them because you think you may make them sad by reminding them that they died - you're not reminding them, they didn't forget that they died. What you're reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived. And that is a great, great gift."
The Good Grief Trust
My hope that, if you have made it to this point in the article that, you have found it interesting and useful. I'd love to hear your comments.