What is grief, and what can it teach us? This is something I’ve been mulling over in recent months on the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.
Talking or writing about grief is scary. Bereavement, grief and mourning are private experiences and we are conditioned to hide our vulnerability and to always “put a brave face on it”.
However as I learned in my few sessions of bereavement counselling ten years ago – communicating about bereavement grief helps externalise and dispel some of the sadness.
I hope this blog will be of some comfort to any readers who have lost a loved one recently. Life is cruel, but we find consolation in shared experiences.
So here goes.
Her absence is like the sky
What did I feel like when my mother passed away? Sadness doesn’t do it justice. It was rupture. Her death was a catastrophic life event for me.
My mother was my ally and confidante, and when she died the foundations of my cosy existence and blithely optimistic world were gone too, leaving me off-balance, fragile, alone and mortal.
No more Mum. No more Penny. No more Nana.
No-one to phone up for an ambling chat about this and that – the mundane details of life that only she could possibly find interesting.
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything”
CS Lewis: A Grief Observed
I know it sounds melodramatic, but in a way I experienced my own death – the death of my childish sense of immortality. I found myself staring into the existential abyss. This wasn’t depression as I was quite able to continue functioning at home and work. It was Grief.
Here’s the hard part. As I went through the supposed stages of grief I learned a few unsentimental but useful truths;
- Grief doesn’t bring you closer to family and friends – you simply lose a common thread in your social fabric.
- Many people avoid the recently bereaved – too sad, too complicated, “what a downer”.
- You are on your own on this planet and shouldn’t expect pity from anyone.
- You only really grow up when you lose a parent.
Waking up to grief
One morning – some weeks or months after Mum died – I woke with a jolt to her voice clearly saying my name. Of course it was just a dream, but so real my heart was racing. But at the same time I felt strangely comforted.
It was as if my subconscious mind had assumed my mother’s voice to tell me that she was “gone but not gone”, that I could draw on my reservoir of vivid memories – her voice, her warmth and her kindness.
The Here and Now
As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to receive bereavement counselling after my mother’s death. I’m not sure I would have coped mentally without it and would highly recommend it to anyone who has lost a close family member. In particular the therapist’s advice on how to morally support my father without overwhelming him was invaluable.
“It is not the pain of grief that damages individuals, and even whole families, but the things we do to avoid that pain”.
Julia Samuel: How to let grief work for you (The Guardian.com)
An essential survival skill (that my mother had instilled in me) is mindfulness which in non-hippy terms is the discipline of focusing on the here and now, and getting on with your life minute by minute. Which sounds a bit grim but isn’t really, it’s just about living in the present.
Comfort in the mundane
The lingering sadness after bereavement doesn’t ever go away. But ever so gradually the grief eases and poignant remembrance takes its place.
Ten years on I still think of Mum every day but I don’t grieve her in the same acute way as I did in those first months.
Simple things we loved doing together give me comfort; playing Scrabble, watching costume dramas, hanging out in DIY shops. Everything she taught me is alive and well. I love talking to the children about their wonderful Nana and they love hearing about her.
I would like to end on a note of optimism for anyone going through bereavement. Although your life will never be quite the same after losing your loved one – take solace in knowing that you will find your balance and your joy again in time.
“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on”.
Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)