The other day, I read a piece in the paper in which the author, Amber Bryce, was mourning the loss of her cat, whom she had owned for a year and was evidently very important to her. “Grief is grief”, she said, “whether it’s over a beating heart covered in skin or in wispy white fluff …” I reflected on this, not least because my experiences of loss show that there are many different levels and aspects of grief despite the common factors arising from the finality of someone’s passing.
Early November represents a difficult time for me in terms of personal loss.
In 2001 I lost my mum. There was the woman I was before, and the woman I was afterwards. That grief was, at the time, my hardest experience ever. I learned much about the sheer weight of grief, and how heavy a burden it is to carry. I learned to shoulder it through focussing on all the happy times we had shared and trying to emulate her particular brand of positive living. Mum was a happy person who always saw the best in others and she never wasted energy on the negative aspects of life.
My ex-husband Ken died in November 2002, and this loss brought its own particular difficulties, especially for my teenage children who had to learn to cope with losing a parent at such a young age. Our square of four became a triangle of three in 2002 and it was very tough on all of us. The only positive I could take is that when a spouse dies, there is the consolation that you knew a life before they came into yours, and it is possible to envisage a future without them. I had already learned to look forward after our separation, which helped to a degree, but it was a challenging period.
Then in November 2017, cancer took my brother Peter, and this grief remains raw and unfinished in terms of how I work through it. Whether or not you are close, to lose a sibling is to lose a person with whom you expected to grow old. My sense of loss at Peter’s passing is profound. Our relationship ebbed and flowed over the years. Thankfully it was harmonious in recent times. I know I will miss seeing his handwriting on the envelopes at birthday and Christmas times – whatever else was going on, he always sent cards. I have lost the person who remembered things about our parents that I cannot. Our family stories suddenly have to be told from a single perspective. A sibling represents a person’s past, present, and future and this makes it a particularly difficult grief to assimilate, whatever your age at the time.
Hot on the heels of these three dates sticking out of the calendar like flags, it is my birthday on 10th November. Reaching that date positively each year feels like quite an achievement. I think of it as a poke in the eye for grief’s confidence- sapping, anxiety-inducing, subtle attempts to ravage my psyche. You don’t win, grief! I’ve made it to another candle on the cake, despite your efforts.
Regardless of which level of grief boot camp you survive, you won’t and can’t be the same person you were before loss, but that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing.
You have to want to live despite your losses, and you have to want to live well. You are here and they are not, and it is important for you to live the best possible life you can, enjoy the fullest days imaginable, to make up for all those lost days that your loved ones are missing. Yes, you will exist in a kind of grey fog for a while, but natural resilience and optimism are just around the corner if you can but find them.
Grief lays you bare; it is isolating and it hurts in a way that no other life experience hurts. Sometimes I think that the grief I experienced in losing my parents and my ex husband were some kind of God-sent preparation for the worst grief of all when we lost James in 2005. It is only in recent times that I began to draw strength from believing in the helping hand that brings me through all my difficult times. I believe too that life is pre-destined, and trite though it may sound, that we are only sent what we can cope with. However, it is difficult to see why some people seem to get so much more trauma and stress than others …
There have been many occasions over the years when someone, learning that I have lost a child, has said, “Oh, I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child”. My response, if I were brave enough to voice it, would be to say, “No you can’t and I wouldn’t want you to have to experience it. But know that if you are unfortunate enough to do so, you can live through it and you will emerge from the darkness of grief and loss into the mourning light over time”. So it is with all grief and all loss.
In writing, I find consolation in the stock of stories, images and allegories that I get from faith. They’re accessible to everyone and that underlines that you are not alone. Everything that I experience, has been experienced before down the ages. Grief is nothing new. In the early days of loss, I would have struggled to empathise much with anyone mourning the loss of a pet but I understand more now about the layers of love, loss and grief that life experience can throw our way. I am more generous-hearted these days, now that my own grief is a gentler thing.
Grief is forever, but it morphs itself endlessly into different shapes and forms. Sometimes they stand before you like sentries preventing you getting past, at other times they walk quietly in your shadow.
Grief and love are intertwined in a curious way. I am reminded of what happens when you mix oil and vinegar. The two separate ingredients agitate together until they form a smooth emulsion. The balm of love and grief combined allows you to think of those you have lost with affection, and with a smile first before tears.
So … today, I smile and say, “Bring it on, November, I am ready for you!”