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I don’t know how to be me without the person I loved most

Shouldn’t there be a how-to guide for the earliest days of grief, asks Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

I remember writing – years ago now – a sort of how-to guide for what to do when your friend had cancer; or when your friend’s partner had cancer. I wrote about what you should do; how you could make it easier on them. I remember thinking: I have no idea what I’m doing but this is what I wish someone else would do for me.

And so, I sat down to write a similar thing for the world in which I now find myself: a kind of how-to guide for the earliest days of grief.

What do I wish people would do for me, right now? I thought to the blank page, and found myself – suddenly – totally stumped.

Grief is – like I wrote last week – unreasonable. I want to be alone, and never to be alone again. I want to lie in the park and feel the sun on my face, because I am still unbelievably, unbearably alive. And I also want to shroud myself in black; cover my eyes with a thick veil and shut myself up like Miss Havisham, stopping all the clocks at the hour of death. I want everyone to know; I want nobody to know.

In grief it seems to me that there is an essential tension of simultaneously wanting everyone – everyone in the world – to stop and acknowledge the immensity of your loss, and also wanting for nobody to mention it to you, ever, in any way, because talking about it will break you into thousand tiny pieces.

I don’t want people to say nothing to me, and also everything they say is wrong – and, in fact, there is a weird kind of comfort in that. They can’t really make this better. You can’t make this better. I can’t make this better. This is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, because we loved someone and he is gone.

I’ve always been a straight-A kind of student. I’ve always been able to study hard for the things I cared about and get top marks when I wanted. Acknowledging for the first time that perhaps there is no right way to do this – no way to make this easier, or to skip out on the hard parts – is bizarrely freeing.

There’s no way to make this less awful, but maybe the only thing to do, then, is to be there in the awfulness too

There’s no way to make this less awful, but maybe the only thing to do, then, is to be there in the awfulness too. The usual rules apply: be kind; try your best; reach out to your people. Find something practical to do that makes sense for that person and that situation (admin, money, meals?) and do it. Send a text about something funny or lovely. Send a card, if you want. Be around, be available, be yourself. You’re still you. The bereaved person is still them.

For me, personally, I don’t need lasagnes dropping round (for example); I don’t want any euphemisms or any chat about God.

But someone sent us a box of cheese. Someone else sent a huge bunch of bright pink peonies. One of my dearest friends and I have been texting back and forth about baking pretty much every day: what’s the best way to get this pastry into the tin? Do you think you’d need like a quiche-style egg custard for this tart? What about banana? Other friends swooped in and took me to the seaside for the weekend, and let me walk moodily alone along the shore shouting at the waves until it was time for champagne.

These things won’t be the same for everyone, true. And they certainly aren’t the traditional ways of grieving. But baking and peonies – and cheese and champagne and the sea – are much more me than lilies and sombre reflection.

Treat your friends like they’re the same friends you’ve always had: when everything else is at sea, you get to be a constant, if you want. You get to help them remember who they are. You get to be the solid foundation when everything else is crumbling.

I don’t know how to be me in a world without the person I loved most. I don’t know how to be me without the person who I loved my entire adult life. But I’m going to have to learn. I started writing this new column before I knew just how much everything was going to change, but it was always supposed to be about learning how to live in the world, after. Perhaps being surrounded by friends – the people who know me and knew him best – is the best way to start.

And so, maybe, that’s the best how-to guide I can give you just now: be yourself. Be yourself in grief, and be yourself in supporting the grieving. Love your friends; lean on your friends. Be present. Be there.


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