“She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with It as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”
~ George Eliot
About two years ago, I started writing a fanfiction story about grief. Funnily enough, it was the conclusion of the tale of the first character I ever wrote about, because to date, it remains my last fanfiction. I hope to do more, but as yet I remain uninspired. When I first wrote about Jess, she was happy, and she became happier by falling in love. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth, but I did not imagine that one day I would be in my car, driving down the road towards home (she lived here, in my house, initially) when it popped into my head that she was dying. It was my first encounter with the autonomy of characters: they don’t always do what the author wants, you know… What the situation that Jess and her partner found themselves in gave me was a chance to write about something I know far too much about: grief.
For those of you new to my blog, I should explain that my parents died when I was young: my Dad when I was almost 10, my Mum when I was 14. Her sudden death at home was quite a traumatic experience for a young person, but in 1972, there was little or nothing in the way of counselling or support on offer, and that only served to make me bury my feelings deeper. It’s only with the benefit of experience and hindsight that I can see how what happened continued to ricochet through my life for decades. Even now, I can feel the tears welling up as I type. I am taken back to those emotions of anger, fear, loneliness, desperation, guilt, as I am every time I think about that time.
That final fanfiction, called Only Time and Tears, wasn’t the first one in which I had touched on the subject of bereavement and its aftermath, but it was the first one explicitly about it. In the course of the story, Jess’s partner meets other bereaved people who have differing reactions to their losses. If there is one thing I have learned over the last 54 years, it is that there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. I am a regular listener to Cariad Lloyd’s excellent “Griefcast”. If you are a podcast person, I cannot recommend that one highly enough. As you will learn from listening to her guests, every person has a unique experience, and naturally, each has a unique way of coping. But all too often they speak of being expected to conform to some societal norm, some timetable. If there is one thing I want the world to understand, it’s that THERE IS NO TIMETABLE FOR GRIEF!
And it grabs you at the strangest moments, unexpectedly, without warning sometimes. There are the obvious danger points, like anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas, that sort of thing, but a few years back I had a mini-meltdown in the Chateau de Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years. My parents took me to art galleries all the time, our house was full of art books and paintings, and to be in a room where Leonardo actually worked was overwhelming. Occasionally I find pieces of music with no direct association can get me, too. Something about the sounds, the meaning, the timbre…whatever it is, I don’t know. Possibly the fact that I respond emotionally to music quite readily.
But to return to matter of allowing time for grieving, which is what I want to discuss this time, i think it’s important to understand two things: firstly, as I said already, we all have to go according to our own individual schedules, and secondly, we have to accept that grief changes over time. It takes many forms; it sneaks up in disguise, and if you haven’t been given (or given yourself) the time and space you need to come to terms with all of the emotions attached to your loss, you can make some big mistakes.
When I look back on the four or five years that followed my mother’s death, I can see now that one thing piled on top of another to cause me to lose my way. Instead of going to university and studying for a degree, I began to fail at school almost immediately. My base of knowledge and enthusiasm for some subjects carried me through most of my O-Levels, but by the Sixth Form I was skiving off almost more than I was attending, because (I see now) I was depressed. I opted to go into nursing because I knew I’d get accommodation and all I wanted at that moment was to get away from my sister-in-law. Life had become intolerable in that house and it was a few years before I felt as if I had a home anywhere. Nursing didn’t work out for me either, probably because I wasn’t sufficiently committed to it, but also because I injured my back.
So at twenty, I found myself homeless and jobless, with nowhere to go back to. My brother John, nominally my next of kin as Mum had made him my guardian in her will, moved house without notifying me. That settled it for me, and our relationship took years to mend. I was never reconciled in any meaningful way with his wife. I don’t know if she’s alive, even. She treated me with such coldness and cruelty when I was a grieving teenager that I honestly don’t care. I know that doesn’t reflect well on me, but I am pretty sure she hasn’t lost any sleep over me.
Getting married and later getting pregnant were new stages on the grief – yes, I’m going to use the ‘J’-word – journey. Its incredibly hard to go through those experiences without your Mum and Dad. Every good thing that happens to you has a bittersweet tinge. My daughters will never know them, and vice-versa. Mum would have been such a wonderful Grandma, such a support to me when I needed it, and it’s hard knowing that we’ve all missed out on that. My parents both died in their early fifties, and probably with the treatments available now, they would have lived longer, which only makes me feel sadder. I admit I find it very hard not to feel bitter when I see selfish people live long lives, when Mum and Dad, who both worked hard and served their community, were robbed of a comfortable retirement together.
So yes, you may have gathered from what I have said that I have bad days, even now. That’s what grief is like. And you have to allow yourself to go with it. Right from the beginning, there will be days when you feel OK, even happy. This is normal, acceptable, and necessary. Your brain and body needs to do this, to cope with those times – day, longer periods even – when all you can do is cry. You must allow this to happen as well, because if you try to suppress those feelings, they will find their way out somehow, and it won’t be good, believe me. Julia Samuel – please read her superb book Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival – calls this ‘doing the work’ and I think she’s right. We need to allow ourselves to feel the pain – I always feel better when I do. Trying to push it back down hurts much, much more.
As I’ve said, I did that at the beginning. My friends couldn’t cope with it, teachers were either indifferent or kind but hapless, for the most part. Mum died in September, and by the end of the school year, allowances were no longer being made, that I remember vividly… I just got on with school and doing what needed to be done at home now Mum wasn’t there. There wasn’t any discussion about it, as I recall. I was female, so I cooked, washed up, did the laundry and cleaned. It was hard to find time for grieving between that, homework and all the usual teenage activities. Everything suffered, in fact. Then life became more and more chaotic for me. My brother John married when I was sixteen and my home became more and more unwelcoming and I retreated into my head. I stayed there for a long time.
I don’t think I began to grieve properly until I was happy. That makes sense to me: feeling safe and secure, I was able to release all that pent up stuff. It didn’t pour out in a flood, but it did come out, gradually, painfully, sometimes in bursts, and it hasn’t really stopped since. More recent losses have served to heighten it (both my brothers have now died, John in 1994 at 49, Richard in 2017), and I am still working on it. I have only recently recognised that I have suffered from depression and anxiety for years, despite my fascination with the human mind. I still have a long way to go, but I am happy to allow myself to feel whatever I feel and deal with what comes.
Some of you reading this may be lucky enough not to have suffered a loss. Some of you may feel that your loss, of perhaps a very elderly parent or grandparent, or a pet, is insignificant, or minor. There may be some people reading this who have lost a parent or sibling with whom they had a difficult relationship or from whom they were estranged, and that complicates their feelings even more. However you feel, your feelings are valid, and you should allow yourself to feel them: not what you think you should feel, and most definitely NOT what anyone else thinks.