Recently, I met up with an old friend whose father died seven months ago. Composed but still visibly downcast, she asked me how long it took me to grieve following my own father’s death, some nine-and-a-half years ago. My answer was, “I have absolutely no idea. I still don’t even know what grief means.”
Here’s the thing about bereavement: like motherhood, you’re meant to just know what to do without anyone telling you how. In the days and weeks following my own dad’s death (and he really did die. I didn’t lose him, he didn’t “pass”. His heart stopped beating and he died), people constantly told me to make sure I grieved properly. I nodded and thanked them for their kind wishes. I told them I was coping when, in reality, I was entirely at sea, not understanding how to behave, what process I should be embarking on. It felt too embarrassing, almost disrespectful to my dad’s memory to say, “I don’t know WTF I’m meant to be doing, here.” Good friends bought me Joan Didion’s (very good, I know) books and they read like foreign texts. I read bereavement websites but, in my chaotic state, felt wholly unable to relate.
I sincerely hope you’ve never lost someone you love but, as someone who has, and who comes from a family where no one really talks, and who dealt with my father’s death extremely badly, allow me to tell you what I learned during the two years in which I genuinely felt I’d gone insane. When people prescribe a grieving period, they are coming from a good place. They mean “feel sad – allow this to dominate your thoughts and feelings for as long as is necessary”. It’s a thing to say, to feel you’re being supportive at the most terrible time in someone’s life. But having heard it repeatedly myself, I will never prescribe grief. Because apart from that sounding like a platitude from the same category as “time heals”, “kids adapt” and “everything happens for a reason” (shudder), it’s not something over which anyone has any say. Grief is not a choice, a project to manage or a course of medication to take. It just happens while you’re unable to form a single, sensible thought.
With the benefit of hindsight, I know that grief is a feeling, not an expression. You don’t have to wail to show you care, or weep to make others feel comfortable that everything is in order. Despite the neat psychological theory, there are no stages to go through in predictable order – denial, anger, blah blah. Frankly, the whole thing is a bloody mess. You may say nothing, as I did (until the day I very calmly told my husband, while chopping mushrooms, that I was going mad and planned to retrain as a barista in Starbucks. I was deadly serious). You may feel like punching walls or people who’ve deigned to ask you for a favour during your personal apocalypse. You may feel so completely “nothing” that you’d fail to register if they walloped you back. You may want to eat everything or nothing, sleep too much or hardly ever. You might want to meticulously paint on a brave face with make-up, or fester in a dressing gown and your own filth. You might be in a constant state of confusion over how the world can make sense when your parent is dead, about who on earth you are if not someone’s daughter. You’ll feel under constant attack from all the questions you never asked, the things you never got around to saying. You will probably feel guilt over not having seen them enough, whether you went home once a year or visited thrice weekly without fail. You may well feel all of these things repeatedly, in one dizzying cycle of anguish.
Grief is when pain is visceral like a stab, not dull like toothache. It’s acute agony, not chronic sadness
Grief is when pain is visceral like a stab, not dull like toothache. It’s acute agony, not chronic sadness. It’s the period before the wound becomes a scar. And however long that takes, however much of a mind bend it most certainly will be, I can promise this much: it ends. Like a storm, grief is real and terrifying, but mercifully ephemeral. It trashes everything in its way, but leaves behind a stillness, some space for you to rearrange the pieces in a new formation. It can take months or years to do its worst (I was lucky – I got emergency therapy and felt human within 18 months) and, afterwards, you will permanently feel a little sadder than you did when your parent was alive. You will be more aware of your own mortality, of how – should life follows its correct course – your children will one day feel similar anguish. But within the hangover of grief, you will still be able to experience the joy of a great joke, of a kind gesture, of an excellent meal or a Sunday morning in bed. Your laughs will be real and raucous, your precious moments unadulterated, even enhanced by a sense of increased gratitude.
Piece by piece, you will gradually arrive at a point where your late parent’s cooking can be acknowledged as shite, where you and your siblings can criticise his drinking, or her lateness, or their atrocious handling of a school bullying incident. If your family is anything like mine, you’ll come to accept that your relationship was complicated, sometimes distant, and understand that those deaths are every bit as harrowing as those within close, white-picket-fence families. You’ll remember the shock when they smacked you on the bum for singing anti-Nottingham Forest FC songs, and the horror of the time they told you your new perm made you look like Rick Parfitt. They had bandy legs or shocking dandruff, the same occasionally bad breath as anyone else. The loss of reverence for the dead, the letting go of the need to cling on to their many achievements, will be comforting because it’s familiar and real, and takes you right back to when he or she was alive, flaws and all. And while you’d give anything to experience their shortcomings again, to just remember them makes life a whole lot more bearable.
And if a dear friend you care about loses their parent first? Say, “This is horrible, this is complete and utter shit, this is the absolute pits of the pits” – never identify any silver linings in an utterly ghastly situation. Take round a macaroni cheese, leaving it on the doorstep if they can’t bring themselves to answer the bell. Don’t believe their crap about being fine, but don’t force them to discuss it either. Tell them you love them, tolerate their imperfect behaviour or intense neediness, accept their temporary madness with kindness, and check in often, even if only via text. Then give your kids a cuddle, and pop round to your Mam’s while you still can.