11 September is a sad anniversary for many. On a personal level, it was a particularly significant day for us this year as it marked James’ thirtieth birthday; it seems impossible that we have lived through eleven birthdays without him being here to share them. The birthday date each year brings to mind happier times and it is undoubtedly a much easier day to get through than the July anniversary of his passing.
It was a strange day this time round, as I was in hospital on the first postoperative day after a total hip replacement. Any of the usual small rituals associated with James’ birthday, such as lighting a candle for him, were not easily achievable. Instead, when I was not focusing on clearing the post-operative brain fog and processing my feelings around the procedure I had just undergone, I dipped in and out of Facebook on my phone. A few days earlier, I uploaded a series of photos of James taken over the years and it was heartening and comforting to read people’s kind comments and good wishes, both for his birthday and my recovery.
I began to consider whether there were parallels between my surgery and the grief path, which sounds rather indiscriminate, but it is a favourite game of mine to play ‘match up’.
Measuring other events against loss and grief can often offer a new perspective for processing them.
Breaking it down to the simplest level, both the loss of James and my hip replacement mean that something has been taken away from me, to be replaced by something else. In the case of my hip, a part of my self has been taken out and discarded as no longer functional. It has been exchanged for something new and shiny that works properly.
Can the same be said of the loss of my son? No, of course not! – there is no comparison.
A part of my self was indeed lost the day that James died, but with what has it been replaced?
We can never replace lost children.
BUT the gap left by his no longer being here has gradually been filled, over time, with a new sense of being, a new sense of hope, a new sense of living and a new sense of purpose. To this end, I ‘work properly’, albeit in a different way.
An enormous difference between my hip replacement and the loss of James is that my surgery was planned and anticipated, his passing was most certainly not. Thus the shock and trauma of loss is an element which has no comparison with planned surgery.
I turned to word clouds to better express the links between the two concepts: there is great
fun to be had at www.wordle.net if you are minded to play around with the written word.
This is not an exhaustive list, but all the same it can be seen that most of the words appear in both HIP and GRIEF word clouds. The exceptions relate to the unexpected nature and timing of loss, which is neither chosen nor controlled.
Anticipated events can be prepared for and researched. Fear of the unknown may be reduced with the acquisition of knowledge and an idea of what is to come. This cannot be said of sudden loss – by its nature it will instil a deeply profound, traumatic shock to the system, and even after a decade of living with that shock, I am still aware of its reverberations if something happens to trigger memories of the early days of grief.
The regret associated with loss is permanent; whereas the regret I felt for the necessity for surgery has been transient.
Control is an important concept to me. I enjoy an orderly existence and prefer to plan for events. When they are thrust upon me, this engenders a certain level of fear and uncertainty – hence I dreaded my spinal anaesthetic prior to surgery but in reality it was better than anticipated. The uncontrolled nature of loss and grief, when all my terms of reference were swept away from me in an instant, means that a long recovery road followed for me to be able to get back on track and feel as though I was in relative control of all aspects of my life. I am often reminded of C S Lewis’ quote from A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”. Being forced to get to know grief when it is thrust upon you does have the effect of reducing the fear.
Pain is difficult to quantify as we all live with degrees of physical, mental and emotional pain. For me, the removal of the physical pain associated with my hip has been miraculous and instant, a real life-changer for the better. The same cannot be said of the pain associated with grief and loss. This is an underlying, permanent, pervasive level of pain, with which anyone who is bereaved has to learn to live.
When I was in hospital, the medical staff were fond of asking, “How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten?” My scale did not rise above a seven, and painkillers were appropriately issued to keep me comfortable during the early recovery phase. But when it comes to grief, the pain score will be right off the scale at first, and today I would rate my grief pain score at two to three. This reduction has been a slow, gradual process, and it has been aided not by physical painkillers, but by the positive attributes in my word clouds. Accepting the presence of a constant low level of pain as a given has become almost second nature.
It is clear to me that having faith in my own ability to heal both physically and mentally – with a great deal of help from outside my self – is a massive stride towards a proactive recovery whether it is from loss, or surgery, or a combination of both.
It is achievable, yes, but no one ever said it would be easy!