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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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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Let’s Talk About Grief

Death is part of life, but it’s also difficult, and on the whole, crap.

It might not be that bad for the person dying – they might have been ill for a long time or might be ready to die. But for those left behind it’s usually rubbish and leaves them living with grief in some form. (If there isn’t anyone left behind then that is also crap, because nobody should be alone at the end of their life, so whichever way you look at it, death is rubbish).

Despite this, grief is something rarely discussed. It’s a bit odd, because while some subjects are becoming less taboo and more talked about, which is brilliant, grief appears to be lagging behind.

I’m not entirely sure why this is. It might be because those working to break down stigma – being more open, sharing their stories, talking about difficult subjects – tend to be slightly younger and maybe haven’t yet reached an age where grief is a feature in their lives. (I appreciate this is a huge generalisation and stereotype and there are older people also doing some brilliant work).

Whatever the reason, grief isn’t hugely talked about

This year seems to have contained more celebrity deaths than any other in my memory. A lot of people are blaming 2016 but it’s more likely to be that they were all a similar age and life happens. The fact that so many people are blaming 2016, instead of seeing death as part of life, further illustrates how afraid people seem to be to see death as something unavoidable that happens to everyone. It can be far easier to blame the concept of an evil year, than to face up to our own mortality.

Mum had excellent end of life care. She worked in palliative medicine all her life, so she knew what she was doing, but she died where she wanted (at home), pain-free, next to Dad, and I can’t think of a better death than that. Mum knew what she wanted, Mum and Dad discussed it, and her wishes were made known to all of the people looking after her. I’m absolutely convinced that Mum wouldn’t have had a ‘good death’, without having these conversations frankly, honestly, and in enough time for her wishes to be carried out.

Since Mum died, I’ve blogged about grief a little, and heard from people all over the world, of all ages, who are going through a similar thing. The fact that I have heard from the variety of people I have, shows that there is a lack of conversation surrounding grief, because if my blog attracts these people (and I’m just one little person typing from my bedroom, onto a blog that I put no money into advertising), then people are clearly hunting out the ‘I get it’ of another grieving person.

I’ve found that when it comes to grief, so many people don’t know what to say or do with me. As many of my friends know – I’m as blunt as they come at times – I certainly don’t expect anyone to do and say, or not do and not say, anything at all, but I still feel like there can be a wall between me and other people sometimes. Weirdly, the people I’ve found most at loss of what to say have probably been services, some people in services are brilliant, but others blame things on grief that aren’t grief-related, ignore grief at times when it’s probably worth bearing in mind, and trot out generic lines which aren’t at all helpful. I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve spoken to other one-parent people my age who have found the same thing.

If there’s anything that comes from all of these celebrity deaths, I hope it’s that we can open up conversations around death, dying and grief. It’s something that I never really thought about until Mum became ill, but since her illness and death, it’s something I’ve realised is massively important. It’s important to have conversations with your loved ones about what you’d all want at the end of your life, it’s important to keep talking to your grieving friends, and it’s important to keep talking to others if you find that you are grieving yourself.

Dad: Picking Up Where We Left Off?

I was in a well-known hardware shop last week and I saw a girl who was probably about 3 or 4, being pushed around on one of those trolleys you only get in big hardware shops (they’re sort of like a platform with a handle, rather than your standard shopping trolley) by her Dad. It prompted such a clear memory of doing the same with my Dad… only instead of it being one child it would normally have been two or three. Saturday or Sunday afternoons, being pushed on one of these trolleys by my Dad, feeling like I was on Aladdin’s carpet. Everything was right in the world, I was safe with my Dad buying something exciting like wood and then we’d go home and have tea, have a bath, and go to bed listening to The Archers play on the radio in the next room.

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My relationship with my Dad has got buried somewhere in Mum’s illness and death. It got put on pause on February 8th 2014 when he text me to find out where I was (I was living at uni at the time), came and picked me up, and told me in the car that my Mum’s cancer had returned and that there was no cure. I don’t know how he ever found the words to tell me, and then to tell Mum’s’ family and friends, but he did.

Mum became ill for the first time when I was 18. Dad brought my brothers and me into the kitchen and told us about Mum’s cancer. He told us Mum had caught it early and that we shouldn’t be overly worried. We cried and hugged each other, but we were calm. I went to work that afternoon. Mum bounced back from cancer round one, and wasn’t diagnosed with terminal cancer until around 9 months later.

Once Mum was diagnosed as terminal, Dad would drive me backwards and forwards to uni, clocking up miles and miles, allowing me to continue my education as well as spending valuable time with Mum. It was Dad who learned all the biology behind Mum’s condition, Dad who learned how to care for her at every step, and Dad who became fluent in doctor-speak. It was Dad who managed all of the visitors coming in and out of our house, Dad who spent hours every day on the phone to people updating them on Mum’s condition, Dad who slept downstairs next to Mum, there for her night and day. It was Dad who was next to Mum when she died, Dad who really was there ‘til death do us part’, Dad who had to ring the GP, the coroner, and anyone else you ring when someone dies. It was Dad who rang me when Mum died, Dad who spoke to me as my world fell apart in a university stairwell, Dad who gave me a hug when I walked through the door later that day.

It’s Dad who’s left in a big house, in a small village, with three offspring and no wife.

When Mum was ill, Dad and I spoke about it a lot. At the beginning of Mum’s illness, Dad asked me to explain a few bits or bobs using my A-Level biology knowledge. As Mum’s illness progressed, Dad and I would spend half an hour in the car together between uni and home at least twice a week, which was a lot of time for talking. We would talk about Mum’s symptoms, her level of care, sometimes about what life would be like without her. We rarely talked about things that weren’t in some way related to Mum.

Mum and Dad had so many plans and so much they were looking forward to, together. Without Mum, Dad’s lost more than his ‘other half’: he’s lost his best friend, partner in crime, and confidante. They had plans to travel, to do charity work, perhaps to foster after we’d all grown up and moved out. They had other plans, ideas, hopes and dreams that I know nothing about.

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As for Dad and me, I’ve got to learn to become a daughter again. Our relationship paused two years ago, and in that time I’ve changed in so many ways and so has he. I’ve had to grow up quickly in a lot of ways, but in other ways I’ve got stuck in time. I’ve also not moved away from home in the same way as many of my peers. I’ve moved away from home physically, but I’ve got very used to going backwards and forwards on a regular basis and contacting my family multiple times a day; something which the majority of my peers definitely do not do.

Dad and I have had to start navigating this whole Dad-daughter-motherless-grief thing. He’s my Dad… but I don’t have a Mum anymore, so to some extent he’s been plonked in the role of Mum-and-Dad combined. Things I used to go to Mum for, I now either have to find a close female friend, or go to Dad. He’s got to do things he didn’t used to take sole responsibility for like remember what we have for birthday teas, or buy the odd bit of clothing.

There are times when it’s been really, really hard. Dad has never shied away from challenging me and my decisions, and as much as I love that and respect it, it can be hard when we disagree on something and I don’t have another parent to run to. Without another parent to mediate, it can then take a little while longer than it might have done to resolve anything like that. Admittedly, at times, I’ve felt like I’ve had to be a ‘Mum’ to my brothers. My Dad told me when Mum died that we should never let anyone tell us what Mum ‘would have wanted’, and that I was not my Mum, and I was not my brother’s Mum. But that can be hard; I remember things Mum did for me, like buying my favourite foods during revision periods, and I want to do the same for my brothers (this particular one resulted in a few kilos of milk bottle sweets arriving at my Dad’s house).

Working out how we all relate to each other as a family is just one more difficulty in the mountain of change that occurs when someone dies. I know that we will get there and I’m really glad we’re close enough to work through these things together.

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Father’s Day

Mother’s Day was hard… that was to be expected. But Father’s Day? I didn’t think that would really be of any significance. Turns out I was wrong.

I was just sort of going about my day earlier – standard Sunday stuff; cycle to a shop, attempt food shopping, feel proud for actually buying some salad and not adding to my ever expending washi tape collection etc. I was feeling a little more anxious than usual but wasn’t really sure why.

On my cycle home, I realised it was a Father’s Day thing. It’s not uncom218 (2016_04_23 16_52_32 UTC)memon that I dream about Dad dying, or Dad having cancer. For a long time after Mum was diagnosed I panicked at every text or call, terrified that someone else close to me was ill or had died. I’ve got a bit better at that now which is handy because I don’t think it’s healthy to panic innumerable times a day. The dreams still pop up every now and again but I don’t normally worry about it during the day any more, apart from today.

It feels odd being a daughter with only one parent. It feels odd having a Dad without a Mum. My Dad is great in pretty much every way, but it’s weird having a Father’s Day without a mother. I don’t really know what to do or say. We focussed so much on Mum while she was ill, I can remember every Mother’s Day, but I don’t remember Father’s Days, I don’t remember what we used to do…

Today has prompted lots of anxiety, a few tears, and the majority of the day spent buried under blankets, crocheting and watching various comedy programs. It caught me by surprise. I’m not alone in it, though. I’m in a Facebook group with other young people who have, or had, a terminally ill family member. I posted in there earlier today and a number of people responded with similar feelings.

Grief is a funny thing and there’s no rule book for it, no logic, no handy flow chart to guide you through. You just have to take each day as it comes, and sometimes that means spending the day buried under yarn, engrossed in TV, and I think that’s okay.

 

 

Where’s the “good” in “goodbye”?

I was going through old cards and letters the other day as I began to put things up in my room (I’ve been very creative with command hooks. I should probably have bought shares in command hooks…). I found the last birthday card that Mum ever wrote for me (which made me cry). I also found the card my family wrote for me when I first went to uni, which has found it’s way onto my wall.

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The more I read it, the more I think it’s excellent advice for life. (I wish you could FaceTime dead people, though, but Mum was cremated and I don’t think ashes can talk).

I was wandering round a shop today when ‘No Good in Goodbye‘ came on. As it came on I was scrolling through my phone and people from my uni course began to post their results.

Admittedly I got a bit of a ‘pang’ and my mind began to race about what could have/should have/might have been.

It feels stupid because I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am right now and I’m more content with life than I have been in a long time. If I’d have stayed at uni I would most likely have become even more unwell and probably wouldn’t have finished. I wouldn’t have met some of the wonderful people I now have in my life and would have missed out on some fantastic opportunities that I’ve been granted. I probably wouln’t be blogging for Blurt, or have the job I have now (which is basically my dream job).

I’m struggling to match the ‘me’ that I am, with the ‘me’ I’ve always thought I ‘should’ be. I’ve had a few conversations in the past week or so when people have been really surprised that I did Art up to AS level and DT to A2 level. They’re really surprised that I have a bit of a creative streak (something I’m debating blogging about more…). I guess I sort of abandoned creative me, and tried to become academic. There’s nothing wrong with being academic, but I don’t think it’s really ‘me’. I’m actually not a huge fan of reading and writing, I’d much prefer to play with paint, talk to people, or design a website. I like doing and being rather than sitting and reading. I like learning through doing or talking to people.

Uni was so tied up in Mum’s illness. I didn’t notice it at the time. I didn’t really think I was any different from my peers. When I’ve gone back through cards, letters and photos, though, it’s become increasingly clear how much Mum being ill really did affect it. I can see my social life dropping off. I can see the distraction setting in. I can match photos and cards to points in Mum’s illness. We tried to keep everything as ‘normal’ as possible, but looking back  I can see how far from ‘normal’ things fell.

There is no ‘good’ in ‘goodbye’ and as each day goes by, I miss Mum more and more. There’s more I want to tell her, or ask her advice on, or just chat to her about. But maybe there is a bit of good in the bad? Maybe Mum’s illness and death and my leaving uni have forced me to reassess who I am and what I’m doing with my life, and maybe that’s no bad thing…