Lesson number 5 – Grief is unpredictable.
Grief. It’s a tricky business, isn’t it? It can be confusing, complex, lonely, overwhelming. It also happens in a different way for everybody.
In the case of terminal illness, grief could start when your loved one/significant person is going through the process of dying. Retrospectively, I felt grief as the cancer evaporated my Mum’s spirit and personality and left her struggling body behind. I had already lost Mum. When her body stopped, it was grief that the physical embodiment of her had expired. Knowing that I’d never be able to see, touch, or hear her again was painful. That type of pain is ineffable and can consume you.
Mum passed away on a Saturday, and every Saturday thereafter for two/three months, I became overwhelmed with emotion. I still don’t know exactly why. Sadness that I’d lost her? Guilt for continuing to live my life without her? The sheer relief that waiting on tenterhooks for her to pass had gone? Or simply I’d just survived another week without her. Something about those damn Saturdays got to me.
After she’d been gone about four months, I felt I was through the initial all-consuming melancholy sadness. It was summer, I had loads to look forward to. My birthday, then Sam’s graduation and Pride in Brighton, a mini break to Cornwall to visit Sam’s parents. I felt lucky to have those experiences with the people I love. Autumn came and went, and I started to feel sad again. It was dark for longer and I was less able to see people and do things with them. It seems that for me, grief ebbs and flows with the seasons.
Then in March 2019, my Grandmother became unwell. On Mother’s Day, I took her out shopping and for an afternoon tea, by the next weekend she was in hospital with vascular phlebitis. Within two weeks, she had seriously deteriorated and was on daily dialysis treatment. The last time I saw her whilst she was conscious was the following Monday. She was on dialysis and very uncomfortable. I stayed with her for about an hour, and she said to me – “Rosie don’t go, I don’t want to die on my own”. I will never forget those words and the anguish in her voice. That sentence started the spiral of feelings I had when Mum died a year before. I went back the next day to see my Grandma, she passed away about half an hour after I got there. I was involved with the legal processes and planning her funeral, after that settled down Sam and I went on holiday. I let myself become busy and suppressed my grief. Around September 2019, a wave of grief hit me and I couldn’t get myself out of it. I decided to go back to counselling and saw a professional therapist from October 2019 until March 2020.
My therapist enabled me to map out my grief, work out what I could do to recognise feelings and allow myself to feel them, whether they are positive or not. It’s important to let yourself process and feel whatever is in your journey. It is valid and personal. My therapist shared a grief model with me, and we discussed the “expected” journey vs. the realistic journey (see my altered models below).
Grief can happen anywhere and anytime. For me it’s been anything from reading a book and relating to the author’s words, unexpectedly being caught off guard by hearing Mum’s funeral music on TV, even looking at a bloody flower. Grief is insatiably unpredictable and the emotions that accompany it can be exhausting. I’ve learned that it always sits below the surface. That grief looks different on everybody. That there will be people who are going through the same feelings, and they are so willing to share and support you. Grief has enabled me to have a heightened sense of empathy and wish to connect with others. I’ve had some really comforting conversations and felt understood and supported by complete strangers online. These people have helped me see that happiness and joy will exist with sadness and grief, even if only for a moment or a small victory. It can be confusing and misleading, but grief and joy can exist together.