Grief Doesn’t Wait For A Person To Die

Whilst walking to an appointment today, I was wondering why the ‘I need my mum [insert tears here]’ feelings had been stirring again over the last few days. Part of it is the state of my life right now. But then I realised that today marks four years since I found out that Mum had a terminal diagnosis.

One day. One conversation. One car journey. My life hasn’t been the same ever since.

‘Diagnosis day’ was a weird one. I was volunteering in Leeds (following a very early morning). Dad text me asking me where I was, which was weird, because I was at uni so he no longer ever needed to know where I was. He drove over, picked me up, and told me while he was driving. I looked out of the window. I didn’t want him to see me cry. We got home and didn’t talk about it. Mum and I took a selfie. I went back to uni later that afternoon.

My grief started that day.

It’s a difficult one to articulate. How can you grieve for a person who’s still there? How can you grieve for your old life, when nothing’s really changed (yet)? The only thing that’s changed is that you’ve received a new piece of information. Everything else is the same.

But you do start grieving. In and amongst all the oh-my-goodness-shock-confusion-trying-to-work-it-all-out, there’s grief. It’s been four years, but it’s something I’ve struggled to come to terms with. That is until I started listening to The Grief Cast podcast lately. Many episodes have people who describe their grief starting while their loved one was still alive. It’s helped me realise that it’s okay. It’s okay that my grief began that day. I’m not alone.

From the moment you find out that your loved one is dying, everything changes. I mean everything. The solid foundation of ‘Mum will always be there’ disappears from beneath your feet. You become more careless with money (can’t take it with you when you’re dead). Assignments feel pointless. Relationships develop new importance. Jobs can feel worthless. Sleep can go out of whack. Food can go a bit wonky. Every time your phone rings, you’re convinced that someone else you love is dying or has died. Your anxiety can skyrocket. You start crying at random objects. Everything changes.

You become a member of a club you never wanted to be in. Grief begins.

You grieve your old carefree life. You wish that the most important thing on your mind was still what to wear for a Friday night out. You begin to miss the person your loved one was, as you watch them fade away in front of your eyes. You watch your family change, too. Morphing into a different family from the one you grew up with, as everyone tries to work out how best to cope. You spend night after night mulling things over, crying, getting angry and bargaining with the unknown. Later on you begin to wish that your loved one would die. You can’t stand seeing them so unwell, and your life is on hold until the point of death. Then you feel guilty and angry at yourself for feeling that way. Grief is well and truly present.

We need to move away from the assumption that we can only grieve once a person is dead. We need to move away from the stereotype that grief is a whole load of crying for a while, then it’s finished and you move on. It’s damaging to have these stereotypes because it makes it so much harder when you do have to experience the reality of grief. It can also cause people to react to our grief in insensitive (and sometimes bizarre) ways.

Grief is ugly. Grief is painful. Grief is messy. Grief is unpredictable. Grief can come in waves. Grief can rear it’s ugly head unexpectedly. Grief doesn’t have a nice, neat, end point. Grief is a life-long experience that affects us from the moment it begins. And that beginning is the moment our life changes. Not necessarily the moment when person dies.

One of the couple of selfies I’ve found that we took that day.
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Grief, Two Years On

I can’t quite believe it’s been two years since Mum died. In some ways, her death feels like it happened yesterday. In many ways, it feels as though it happened a lifetime ago.

Is it getting easier? Maybe.

I’ve always believed that you don’t get over grief, you get along with it. You rub along with it as best you can. Two years on and I still hold this belief. I’m not over grief, I haven’t come through it, but I’m learning to live life alongside it.

I no longer burst into tears when I see a Mum-aged person chomping on a cheese straw. Or when I see a cancer-ridden-body making their way around the supermarket. The grief attacks are becoming further apart. There aren’t as many times that I pick up my phone to text or call Mum, before remembering I can’t.

But that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I still cried when I found out that Dad had donated one of her favourite Christmas cookbooks to a charity shop (thankfully I have a wonderful auntie who replaced it within a week – queue more tears!). I still sobbed when I had some significant health challenges recently and wanted nothing more than a Mum hug. I still struggled when faced with a stranger receiving a cancer diagnosis right in front of me.

Mum hasn’t disappeared from my life. She has become part of it.

She’s part of the Christmas cake I baked a few weeks ago. She’s part of the bread I’ve made the last few weeks. She’s part of the birthday food package delivered to my brother. I see her in the crunchy leaves – remembering walks we had and the time we played football one October half term. I hear her steady advice in my ear when I’m faced with horrible life challenges. I feel how proud she is, through the pride I feel for my brothers and all they are achieving.

She’s everywhere.

Life changed when Mum was diagnosed. In some ways, the five years since her original diagnosis have been the worst five years of my life. However, they’ve also been the best five years. I’ve become closer with my brothers. My life has been propelled in a completely different direction – but despite the agonising decisions at times, I firmly believe that it was the right thing. I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve inherited many Mum figures. My outlook on life has changed. I have fallen back in love with art. I’ve been through tears, sobs, sleepless nights, medications, therapy, major health challenges, jobs, houses, flatmates, long phone calls, dog walks, driving tests, exams, panic attacks, laughter… the list goes on.

I’ve learned what’s important. I’ve learned how much I love my family, but that they’re not always right. I’ve learned that family aren’t necessarily those you’re related to. I’ve learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined – however much I don’t believe it at times. I’ve learned that crying is okay. I’ve learned that people can be amazing. I’ve learned that some people are not amazing, and you have to let them go. I’ve learned that it’s okay to let people in. I’ve learned that every emotion is okay, you just have to learn how to manage them. I’ve learned that you have to do a job that makes you happy, even if it doesn’t pay as well as other jobs, or doesn’t live up to other’s expectations. And that’s only the start.

I don’t have anything profound to write to mark these two years. I can’t tell that grieving ever goes away. You probably don’t want to hear yet another ‘it gets better’ platitude, but I can tell you that it becomes cope-able-with. I can tell you that however you feel is absolutely okay. I can tell you that your grief is your own, to cope with as best you know how. As my Mum always said: be kind to yourself

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Two Years. Sleep well, Mum. ❤

 

A Huge Thank You

Yesterday was Mum’s birthday.

A year ago, we started fundraising for Martin House Children’s Hospice in Mum’s memory, as she used to work there.

I am delighted to say that a year on we have absolutely smashed the target (it doesn’t all show on Just Giving as some donations went straight to the hospice). The money was originally going on lighting, but due to planning changes we have had a bit of a change of plan. It’s now going towards a music, art, and animation suite which is so perfect.

Mum brought joy to many people’s lives and hopefully this room will bring joy to the lives of many young people on their families. Mum was also a saxophone (foghorn) player and loved music. We would often dance around the kitchen to various CDs and blast them out in the car whilst we sang along.

We want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has helped us to reach this target – and there have been a lot of you! It was a fun thing to do, and a lovely way to remember Mum, and now she can live on through this room and all that it will provide.

Grief Is Not A Mental Illness

At the moment, thanks to the work of Heads Together, there are a lot of people talking about both mental illness and grief.

It’s great – it’s so important to talk about these things. Both can come with a huge amount of stigma, and by talking about it we can help to reduce that stigma, and to remind people that it’s okay not to be okay.

However, one thing that I’m seeing time and time again, is people writing about mental illness and grief as if they are the same thing. I’m not entirely sure why this is – I think it might be because the royals unveiled their mental health campaign whilst also talking about their Mum’s death, and the counselling they had for their grief.

I don’t know the ins and out of the royal’s mental health, and I don’t know whether they have had a diagnosed mental illness, but, what I do know is that grief and mental illness are not the same thing.

Grief is something that will happen to nearly everyone at some point in their lives. It can bring a range of emotions that you’ve never felt pre-grief. It can be distressing, it can cause upset, tearfulness and low mood… but it’s normal to feel that way. It’s normal to miss someone who was a big part of your life. It’s normal to cry. To an extent, it’s normal for it to affect your eating and sleeping habits, at least for a little while.

It can reach the point where you feel you need counselling to give you the space you need to talk about it, and to help you learn how to deal with the emotions it brings up, and that is absolutely okay, but even at that point, it’s not necessarily a mental illness.

Grief could trigger mental ill-health. It can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, especially if you’re already predisposed to them, but it is not, in itself, a mental illness.

Mental illness affects one in four of the population at some point in their life. Mental illness is when the feelings and emotions that we have go out of the spectrum of ‘normal’. If we have a diagnosed mental illness and then go through grief, it could exacerbate the pre-existing illness, but the grief itself isn’t an illness.

It is important to talk about mental health and mental illness and to encourage people to seek help when and if they need it. However, it’s also important to understand that it’s okay to feel. Feeling sad or upset in response to difficult life events – included, but not limited to grief – is absolutely normal.

It’s important to be open with each other when we are struggling, and to reach out for help. It’s important not to squish it down, ignore it, and pretend it’s not happening, because it’s likely to just blow up at some point. It’s important to go to your GP if we feel as though you’re struggling with mental illness. But it’s also important to remember that feeling is normal, feeling is okay. It’s normal to feel sad, upset or low at times, especially if someone close to use has died.

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Can We Please Talk About Death?

My Mum died. I didn’t lose her – she was in the lounge. She didn’t pass anything, death isn’t an exam and what does ‘pass away’ even mean?! She died.

You can talk about her and mention her name without whispering it. It’s okay. I like talking about her. I like remembering her. I like hearing stories of her.

I’m sick of people treating grief like a broken eggshell. Talking about it will not cause your own parent to die. Death happens to everyone, so surely we need to work out a way to talk about it?

I posted the above on one of my social media channels the other day. I was really surprised by the response. So many bereaved children commented saying how much they agreed. They also included the awkwardness that comes when someone says ‘I’m sorry’. How do you respond to that? I always say ‘well it wasn’t your fault’, but that sounds callous. As does saying ‘well it was a long time ago’, or ‘it’s okay’.

Nobody knows how to talk about death. We resort to nonsensical euphemisms. Nobody knows how to talk about grief. People whisper. Or they blank words out of sentences. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Death and grief seem to have become one of the biggest taboos in our society. It’s really quite odd, because death and grief happen to literally everyone, so of all the things which could be taboo, it’s a bit bizarre that death has become one of them.

Rio Ferdinand did a fantastic documentary the other week where he spoke about the death of his wife, and the grieving process that he continues to experience. He spoke about his worries for his children. He spoke about his resistance to therapy, and later his need for it. It was raw, open and honest. It was refreshing to see an honest account of grief on a national TV channel. We need more of it.

Grief is horrible and unpredictable. It will affect everyone differently, and different people will need different approaches when it comes to talking, or helping. But rather than projecting your idea of what constitutes ‘help’ onto another person – why not just ask them what they need, or what they would find helpful?

The only way we can start to break down the walls that death puts up, is to talk about it. The only way we can begin to ‘trial and error’ our way through the language surrounding death, is to begin to try, experience a few errors, and slowly work out the best way for these conversations to happen. Death and grief aren’t a big black hole that needs to be avoided at all costs. Talking to someone about it won’t make you fall in the hole and keep falling until you can’t get up.

Please ask your friends if they would like to talk about their dying family members. Please ask your friends and family if they would like to talk about their dead family members. It might be awkward and uncomfortable, especially to begin with, but death happens to all of us, and slowly, together, we can work out a way to talk about it in a more comfortable way.

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Mother’s Day Fundraising

Mother’s Day is next Sunday – last year we did some fundraising for Yorkshire Cancer research. This year we are continuing our fundraising for Martin House Children’s Hospice. Mum worked there for many years before later becoming a trustee. We are trying to raise £5000 to restore the lighting in the corridor of the children’s bedrooms which will not only brighten it up for them, and highlight the incredible artwork on the walls, but also reflects Mum’s light and bright personality.

This Mother’s Day we’re asking you to donate the cost of a card in memory of all the Mums who can’t share Mother’s Day with us this year.

To donate, please text ‘LOVM53’ followed by your donation amount to 70070 or visit our Just Giving page.

 

The Sound Of Grief

Mum was a bundle of energy. As I frequently say to people – I’m not sure I remember her ever really sitting down until she became ill. She was always moving, always on-the-go, always running from one place to another doing various activities.

Our house was always a busy one; three children, a handful of friends, a collection of musical instruments, a pet or three, and every now and again an extra ‘borrowed’ pet. It never was going to be the quietest of places.

If there wasn’t a hum of voices filling the house, there was music. Mum played the saxophone (foghorn) and was part of a band. My Dad and one of my brothers played the piano and we had a drum kit in the lounge. When people weren’t making their own music, the CD player was on in the kitchen – Mum often put Caro Emerald on and danced round the kitchen whilst cooking or baking. There would normally be music coming out of the lounge, too, and at least one bedroom.

When Mum first became ill, the house only became noisier. I had moved to uni by that point but would come home most weekends and whenever I did, there were visitors. I don’t think there were ever just five of us in the house. Mum’s friends from uni would visit, or some family would have travelled up North. At the very least there would be some friends from the village or a neighbouring town popping in.

A year after Mum was diagnosed as terminal, she ended up in a coma in hospital. At that point, she was silent, but her room wasn’t. You would imagine someone being in a coma in the middle of the room might result in a bit of a sombre atmosphere, but it really wasn’t. We would spend most of our time there with various combinations of family and friends. It was almost a happy atmosphere – people were sharing stories and memories. There was laughter. I remember tearing up at times, but on the whole I remember feeling like although we were separate from the world and time lost all meaning; laughter and smiles prevailed through it all.

Once Mum came home from hospital, the noise subsided. We still had visitors, people still came to see her – in fact I only remember a single day between her coma in February 2015, and her death in October 2015, when I had some time alone with her – there was always someone around. It was quieter, though. Visitors would sit in the lounge with Mum just talking, or with the TV on in the background. There were occasions when it was busier and louder, but on the whole I remember it being more still.

On the one day that I was alone with Mum, the silence was almost loud. Mum slept for most of the morning. There was nobody else in the house. It was still and so quiet. It no longer felt like my house.

I remember staying over at a friend’s one night, and in the morning we were woken to a clattering in the kitchen and the sound of general family life. Until that point I hadn’t realised how much my house had stopped sounding like a home.

When Mum died, the house was full of people. The church was full of people. There was hardly space to breathe at times. There were words, there was music, there were children running around, adults talking, people generally catching up and exchanging memories and condolences. People speak more softly when someone dies. I’m not really sure why, but they do.

Mum died in October, her funeral was November and then it was Christmas. Throughout all of this time I carried on living at uni. The house I grew up in wasn’t home any more. The sound of it was wrong. Life became quiet. Having too much noise put me on edge and made me feel horrible – grief sensitised me to sound and I just couldn’t deal with anywhere particularly busy or noisy.

I’ve well and truly moved out now, but each time I pull into Dad’s drive, I still expect to see Mum running around the kitchen or working in the office. The house doesn’t have the ‘right’ sound any more.

Mum had so much life, love, and passion in her. She lived every single day. She tried new things, loved her job, cared for each of us, had fun with her friends, and picked up various hobbies. She wasn’t quiet, and neither was her personality.

Grief is so loud yet so quiet at the same time. Slowly, slowly, I am able to listen to, and enjoy music again. I can have the TV and the radio a little louder. Some songs or sounds will still set me off. I’ll be trundling along and out of nowhere a song or a sound will hit me, my chest will explode, and I will cry and cry. That can often be a relief in a strange sort of way, though. Sometimes you really need to cry.

I’m not ‘there’ wherever ‘there’ is. I will never live another day without grief, but I am learning to live alongside it. It doesn’t go away, but it does get better. The ‘I can’t breathe’ moments become further apart. I’m able to listen to music again, I finished a book the other day for the first time in years, I can put the radio on, and at times I can play the music super loud in my car and have a good old sing-a-long.

One day, I will have my own kitchen, I will embarrass my family by cranking up the CD player (or whatever magical invention exists in the future) and singing along to whatever music takes my fancy. I will have a house that is a home. It will have its own sound. It will be full of love and light, just like Mum was.

This was originally written for Let’s Talk About Loss, a safe space to talk through taboos and address the reality of losing a parent when you are young.

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