It has been one year and two months since Fred died, and it is my second #NationalBereavedParentsDay. That seems an extraordinary thing to write, but there it is. In that time, I have relied on the strength and grace of those that were bereaved before me, and have seen others follow. I have also seen people on the sidelines paralysed by fear and impotence.
I am not the only mother who has lost a child, and there will be far too many others. These are the things I have learned.
Grief is physically painful. People can imagine the emotional toll, but the physical pain of grief and trauma is all too real. There is a reason why we talk of heartache – it has a literal meaning. The chest pains you feel, and will continue to feel, is not a heart attack or ‘stress’ but your heart breaking. The pains in your joints and muscles, and the sheer overwhelming exhaustion is as if every cell in your body is rebelling against this new reality. Your entire body refuses to comply.
Grief is a brain injury. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was the most useful thing I read which I try to remember when things feel difficult. Traumatic grief, or any trauma, rips your world apart and everything your brain has spent a lifetime building is suddenly unraveled. It takes time, energy and patience for your brain to even start to piece itself back together, and plug-in the wires that have been torn out. You may struggle to remember people’s names, you may forget conversations entirely, you may even put an unopened bag of pasta in the dishwasher. You will almost certainly struggle with pub quizzes. Your brain is trying to rebuild itself. I feel like I’ve taken this on the chin. I figured that as my brain had erased itself, I might try and rebuild it differently. I thought I’d replace all that knowledge of 80s sitcoms by learning Italian. Clean sheet and all that. This has been largely unsuccessful but you can’t blame a girl for trying.
Take the drugs – or not. Eventually, my GP prescribed anti-depressants. I was sceptical; after all I wasn’t depressed, I was grieving. No amount of drugs were going to make me feel better about that, or bring him back. My very lovely GP pointed out that if something needs fixing, we don’t refuse to just because we know what broke it. I had to admit he had a point. So I took the drugs. The grief didn’t ease but I felt like I could string a sentence together – so I am forever grateful for his guidance. I won’t take them forever, and they are almost certainly repressing something that will have to come out eventually, but I can wait.
Crying is not compulsory. You may cry all the time, or you may be surprised by how little you do. You would think that crying would increase exponentially with the grief, but it’s not the case. I have to be honest and say I cry a lot less than I thought I would. When I was young, and it was really cold, my Gran would look outside, nod wisely and say ‘no, it’s too cold to snow’ I have no idea whether this is actually a thing, but it feels like a thing. Grief can be too overwhelming, too all encompassing to allow for tears – they literally won’t touch the sides. Instead there is a heaviness, an overwhelming sadness that squeezes the breath out of you. If only crying would help – but it mainly serves to make other people feel better. They know what to do with crying.
Find what feels better. All you can do is look after yourself; walk, read, yoga, sleep, watch Say Yes To The Dress on a loop, anything to get you through the day. Because even when you don’t feel you can get through the day, you will – there is no other choice. This is your life now and it is hard, and unbearable, but bear it you will.
I’ve found reading to be my salvation, sometimes books about grief, more often not (this has included all the Bridgerton novels, just to give you an idea of range). I’ve found reading to be a way to escape, of being with other people and living other people’s lives for a little while, before I had to return to my own. I can’t watch television or listen to the radio like I used to, it seems to require both too much and too little concentration. But lots of people can’t read anything, and that’s OK too.
It’s also OK to not look after yourself, just for a little bit. I wish there was a way to tiptoe through this, escaping the hail stones raining down, but there isn’t. It’s resolutely awful and sometimes trying to do the right things to make yourself feel better, then still not feeling better, somehow feels worse. So if you drink too much, eat too much, sleep too much, that’s OK too. Just try not to do it forever, and know that in the end it won’t change anything. This knowledge has not stopped me consuming a hastily bought Millionaire’s doughnut from the McDonald’s drive through, so don’t listen to me. Occasionally, I had a packet of chocolate fingers for lunch. My sister got cleaning and tidying as a coping mechanism, I got biscuits.
Find your oven gloves. Mister Rogers told us all to ‘look for the helpers’ and there is no doubt that these are the people you need in a crisis. However crises don’t last forever and you inevitably come to terms with the fact that nothing can help.
Grief is heavy, and it burns. There are lots of people who don’t know what to do – they arrive, try to touch it but burn their hands and retreat, thinking they’ll wait until it cools down a bit. Some people grab the closest damp tea towel, which isn’t much use, but at least they know better for next time. What they need are oven gloves. There will be people who come armed with the ability to just hold your grief for a while, to not fix it, or try to cheer you, or wait for you to feel better. Grief is exhausting, and at times really boring, and relentless. They will turn up anyway, and keep turning up. Cling to them.
There will be joy
You feel like you will never be happy again. In so many ways, that’s true. You also don’t want to imagine a time when you can feel joy whilst your child is still dead. It doesn’t seem possible, or acceptable. However you will find moments of joy – just brief ones and gradually they will happen more often. They will be small, but you will notice them, far more than you ever would have noticed them before, and you will be grateful for them.
I could go on, but I won’t. I won’t because nothing of the thousand words I’ve written will make any difference to your pain, or take it away or ease it in the slightest. It’s shit, I’m really sorry.