Catherine Gray and her father
Photo: Catherine Gray and her father

LIFE HONESTLY

The in-between of grief – when you have to remind yourself to cry

This is Catherine Gray’s first Christmas and New Year without her father. And snatching moments to remember him is essential

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By Catherine Gray on

This year, the impossible happened. Somebody invincible died.

I'd always assumed my dad was invincible. I think we all subconsciously believe that about our parents, until the universe-altering moment when they are snatched from us. It's a moment that shakes the very foundations of your being. At the end of June, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and, at the end of July, he was taken by lung cancer aged just 65.

In the first month, grief was a mugger. A mugger that snuck up, kicked my feet from under me and robbed me when I least expected it. It was triggered by the tiniest and most unexpected things. Reminders of Dad that plucked me from grocery shopping or yoga or whatever workaday task and plunged me into a place of absolute sorrow. The word “eejit” (what he called me, often), the phrase “skedaddle” (what he told me, often), a book by Graham Greene (his favourite author), swingball (he didn't believe in letting me win, ever), a Jack Russell with a black face (just like one of his dogs, Tod). I'd be walking down the street, thinking about fishcakes for dinner, and a caravan swinging past would transport me to that family holiday in Donegal circa 1992 and I’d find myself doubled over, having been punched in the stomach by loss.

I didn't have to consciously grieve – it just happened. But then that stopped. From month two onwards, I entered some sort of grief limbo. Whether it was the stress of organising his memorial (a political nightmare akin to a wedding, but with none of the fun, it turns out) or just my keep-your-shit-together Britishness that stuffed my grief down inside, who knows? But I entered a phase whereby I had to actively seek grief out.

Even on the day of his very touching memorial, six weeks after his death, I didn’t cry. But the day after, I felt an irrepressible urge to do something. I went out for a run and my feet just took over, as if possessed. I went for a 12km run around Belfast, visiting each of the three houses he had lived at, and stood outside, under the safety cloak of night, racked with animalistic sobs. I followed my feet into a petrol station and bought the pink coconut buns he was so fond of scarfing (with zero impact on his daddy-long-legs frame) and inhaled two of them. I curled up in the sweet scent of the coconut and went to sleep serene.

I had made the grief happen.

A few days later, I felt the same sensation – the need to unpack. So, I went to Waterfoot beach and played Romeo And Juliet by Dire Straits, toddler-wailing for a solid half hour, while a rainbow painted itself across the bay. The song transported me to being 13, simultaneously exhilarated and scared as my dad sped around the serpentine Antrim coastal roads, singing, “When you gonna realise, it was just that the time was wrong?” at the top of his voice, while I rolled my teenage eyes and asked him to put 4 Non Blondes on already.

Grief is something I have to consciously engage in. A mental-health to-do that I factor into my calendar, just like exercise and meditation

In-between grief is a shapeshifter. It shows up looking like work stress, irritation with a particular person or money worries. But now I know the key to unmasking its true form. Because when I'm snippy or sad or overwhelmed, I simply need to use one of the keys that unlock the shut-off room in my head that I “don't have time for”. And the disguise the grief was wearing vanishes into a vapour. I wasn't any of those things – I was simply sad about my dad. Grief is something I have to consciously engage in. A mental-health to-do that I factor into my calendar, just like exercise and meditation. Otherwise the room becomes so full that I can’t open the door.

I'm constantly cutting new grief keys. Framing a picture of a crazy-handsome 19-year-old him. Watching In The Mood For Love, the achingly beautiful Chinese film he played over and over. Eating paper bags full of brandy balls, which you can only buy by the quarter in obscure Irish sweet shops. Reading his last email to me, which says: “Going downhill so fast. Maybe gone soon. Love you so much. Have a great life.” (Thankfully, I made it out to the Philippines before he was actually gone and got to spend a week holding his hand.)

After I sit in the room for a while, I feel lighter, unburdened, clearer, more rational.

There is a positive flipside to losing a parent. As my dad’s saying went: “You're here for a good time, not for a long time.” It’s unearthed a determination to grab life by the scruff of the neck. A steely resolve never to be cowed by my fear of “What will people think?” (Dad didn't give a damn.) So, there's that.

Maybe I'll reach a stage, in a year or so, where I'll only visit the Dad room by choice, rather than need. It won't be a room of requirement any more – just somewhere I go to honour him. I don't know. I don't know what it will look like.

But I do know that room will always be there. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Grief is savage, but exquisite, too. After all, the reason you feel such depths of loss is because you reached such peaks of love. High, low. Up, down. You can't have one without the other.

So, I choose both.

@cathgraywrites

This week, The Pool contributors are writing about The In-Between, that period between Christmas and New Year – a time of family and reflection, a time when we think about the past and look to the future

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Photo: Catherine Gray and her father
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