What is grief?

2013-01-27 14.25.18Grief….I’ve read more about grief than I ever wanted to, and yet I still seen to be drawn towards it. I recently flicked through a supplement in The Times of the 50 best new books that you should read over the summer. I picked two to read. The first one was about a true story about the trial of a man who had driven his car into a lake killing his three young sons. Was it murder? Had he done it to revenge his ex wife for leaving him and meeting a new man? Could a father ever really kill his own children?

The second one I chose was called ‘The Last Act of Love’ and it was a memoir written by a woman whose brother got knocked down in a hit and run accident when he was 16 and was in a coma for 8 years before they finally applied to the court and got permission to withdraw all support and let him die. Both books were very sad and the second was really just an account of the impact that intense grief had on her life.

Toby Christmas day 2010Out of all the light hearted novels I could have chosen about love and hope, I chose two dark tales of grief and despair. It didn’t hit me until this morning and I started to wonder why I had chosen them and how I had been affected, especially reading the second one about how this woman was just weighed down with grief for years and how it affected her life and her relationships. I even looked up at Toby’s picture on the wall thinking if he hadn’t been successful in his suicide, he might have ended up brain damaged. The sister who wrote the book prayed the night of the accident to let her brother live, but actually 8 years later she realised that it would have been better if he had died that night.

I think I am just drawn to read about others who have experienced tragedy. Does it make me feel better, less alone? Until tragedy hits us, we think tragedy only happens to others. We read the paper or watch the news and think ‘How tragic, how awful, poor so and so’, but it’s OK because it has happened to them not us.

So all very dark stuff that got me thinking about how people are affected by grief and what that word even means. What connotations does it spark? Sadness, crying, despair? If you look it up in the dictionary two meanings are quoted. The first is ‘intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death’, the second is ‘minor annoyance’ as in ‘my ex keeps giving me grief’.

I’ve read about the stages of grief, the grief journey, the physical impact of grief, the mental impact of grief and I’ve read lots of non-fiction books on how people have coped. Among them are ‘Chasing Death’ by Jan Anderson, ‘My son, my son’ by Irene Boulton, ‘Goodbye dearest Holly’ by Kevin Wells.

Some people compare their grief to others. They may say ‘Oh I know how you feel, I felt terrible when my Dad died’, or ‘It was a blessing he didn’t suffer’, some people even imply that the grief you feel when losing a pet is just as bad as when you lose a person.

There is no answer; no right or wrong. People, including experts, can write about it and analyse it until the cows come home, but when grief comes to you following a death of a person who was special to you, you realise that your experience is not going to be exactly the same as another person. Yes you may find comfort from talking to someone else who really understands because they have had a very similar loss. If your husband has died you may feel better meeting other widows, if you have lost a baby you may feel better meeting other Mums who lost a baby, but if we start comparing our reaction to others it may not be helpful.

The sister in the book had a lot of counselling and talked about not ‘processing’ her grief, but how do you process grief? I am no expert, I only have my experience to go from.

Sometimes I think I give the impression that I haven’t been deeply affected by losing my son to suicide. We use this phrase ‘coping’. “You’re coping so well, you’re amazing, you’re so brave, so strong”. Yes, on the face of it I am. If that means I get up every day, shower, wash and blow dry my hair, put on make-up and choose nice clothes to wear, then yes I am coping. If that means I write a blog, run a support group, go to University, then yes I am amazing. But it doesn’t mean I haven’t been deeply and permanently scarred by the death of my only child to suicide.

Should I be more devastated? Does it mean I didn’t love him enough if I am getting on with my life and enjoying myself? If I don’t think of him every minute of every hour of every day does it mean I am forgetting him?

I recently went on a retreat style holiday called ‘F**k it therapy’. I went thinking maybe I had all this unprocessed grief, but came away realising I haven’t. I have been processing my grief my way, and that is all I can do. I am coping well, if I compare myself to others. On my retreat I sat and listened to people crying about their failed relationships, their sad childhoods and the stress of their high power jobs and I realised I am content with my life. I don’t even really think ‘processing’ is the right word. We just live through it and find a way to live with it. Some do better than others, which may be due to their outlook on life, their support system or just their general personality.

After I finished the book about the boy in the coma, I didn’t feel the book had any message other than ‘life really sucks when you have a brother who you love in a Persistent Vegetative state for 8 years’. She describes how she felt sad all the time and drank a lot, I couldn’t help wondering if she may have drunk a lot even if her brother hadn’t got knocked down. She was attributing all her pain and problems to her grief. When I get depressed I have to remember that I got depressed before Toby died and even if he was still alive I would still get depressed sometimes.

I’ll always have the ‘intense sorrow’, but it’s all relative. Until death smacks us in the face we think the worst thing to happen to us may be redundancy, divorce, or illness. I know better, yes my son died, but I am living with it my way. I have just followed what felt right for me. I haven’t immersed myself in it, I haven’t been in denial. It happened, I can’t change it.  The sister in the book talked about how painful it was to be known as ‘the sister of coma boy’ and people constantly asking her how he was. I don’t want to be known as ‘that poor woman whose son killed himself’ but at the same time I am going to talk about it whether you like it or not. Because it is part of my story, part of who I am now.

I did like one quote from the book, near the end where she is finally coming to terms with her loss. “I now think of myself as carrying a rucksack of grief .… Occasionally it is so heavy that I am not sure I can continue carrying it, but most of the time it is bearable and some days I hardly notice it at all.” She also says: “I’ve learned that almost everyone is carrying a rucksack. The world is full of people carrying around a toxic narrative, pulled down by a sadness or a grief that they don’t know how to share, and all of us are hiding it from each other.”

The last act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

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8 Responses to What is grief?

  1. So powerful Anne. So well written. And yes, I too am only drawn to television or writing about very dark themes. Light comedy and happy tales don’t seem relevant to my life any more.
    You are an incredible woman and you do so much to help all of us bereaved parents. You have refused to let your tragedy make you keel over in despair and this is such an inspiration and source of strength to me.

  2. Lori Robinson says:

    Hi Anne,

    I always welcome your blogs about the grief journey each parent takes after the unfathomable loss of their child. It surely is a unique path, none I would ever wish upon a single soul. You share these times so eloquently and I thank you.

    I wish you a pleasant end of summer. It’s good to know other parents walk alongside one another in many ways. Yes, it’s next to impossible to remember all the wonderful, treasured memories each of us have about our child. And yet, for example, this weekend my husband, younger son & I are driving to the Central Coast of CA for the wedding of a close friend of our late son. ( Our families have been close for years). It’s a bitter-sweet event as our oldest son ( Shane) who died Jan ’12 by suicide won’t be with us yet this family was there to celebrate & witness Shane’s marriage in August “09 to his longtime g-friend. I asked the groom’s mom how she felt about me wearing a picture button of Shane at the wedding since some of their friends will be in attendance. She offered a very gracious response reminding me this family keeps a picture of Shane in their home to always remember how Shane lived his life with such zest & enthusiasm. It’s a day of reflection since August 8 is the day Shane was married in this truly beautiful setting attended by so many family & friends. It was such a crowning moment of joy for me as Shane’s mom. Hard to believe 29 months later Shane would be gone at the tender age of 25. Yet, now this same day, six years later another couple will get married in front of many family & friends gsthered together. I guess in many ways it’s how life goes on in spite of the grief that some of us have to finds ways to accept.

    Thanks for posting as today I’m trying hard to focus on so many special memories I have to be grateful that Shane did live life to its fullest for the short time he was here on Earth. I thank you for sharing your remembrances of your special son, Toby.

    Grief does involve so many emotions.


  3. annwae says:

    Thanks Lori, your story really reflects the circle of life and how life goes on when a part of our life has stopped. I am sure you will feel Shane’s spirit and light shining brightly on that day. I hope you can celebrate your happy memories as well as the couple starting out heir new life together.

  4. Deborah Haslam says:

    Dear Ann
    I also read the article that was published in a Sunday supliment about the woman that lost her brother. It touched me also because he lived for 8 years and it was the decision of his family , to end his life and stop the life support. When my daughter was on life support I hoped and prayed that she would give us a sign that her brain was alive. Much like the sister that prayed for her brothers life. A flicker in her pupil, anything !! But there was nothing , she breathed only because the machine did it for her. As I sat beside her , her colour was good and all her body seamed to function and I comforted myself that her brain would heal and that I wouldn’t have cared if I had to nurse her forever In a wheel chair or whatever. But that was not meant to be. Reading the article of how the eight years continued for the teenager and his family, made me realise that I was probably lucky that she hadn’t signalled anything and the following day we were advised to turn off her life support. Had Lucindas brain been alive and she had lived , I could have been in the same position as this family, caring for their son for years, In a vegetative state. And I know that although I am devastated and heart Brocken, I can at least carry on with my life . When something like this happens to a person, you do think endlessly of different sinarios that could have been your life. I look at vagrants and wonder how their lives have evolved in order that they wander the streets, and a local mad person that dresses in bright colours and endlessly walks around the town, talking to themselves. And then I think of myself and how I would feel if my beautiful daughter had lost her marbles and become one of life’s potty people wandering about in a state of madness , and I know that I would find this difficult and hard to live with, but I would rather have her mad than not have her at all, which is my life now. But would Lucinda have wanted this? Absolutely not!
    And if I think sensibly, neither would I.
    And here I am now approaching my daughters 24 th birthday, the 2nd birthday without her. And yes I can agree now with everyone that wrote to me in the early days, when I was in the depth of my grief and my brain paralysed with the anxiety of what she had done, almost 2 years this September, that you can live on, there is not a day that I can go through without thinking about Lucinda . But I can now talk about her and not break down. We cannot fully ever recover but we can learn to cope and live our lives.
    Love to all Deborah

    • annwae says:

      Thank you for sharing your story Deborah. What you went through was so traumatic, seeing your beautiful daughter alive but not conscious. I found the book difficult to read but it did make me realise I would not have wished Toby to live like that. Such a hard decision. Sending you love as you remember and celebrate the life of your beautiful Lucinda x

  5. Reblogged this on The Grief Geek and commented:
    This is a fantastic blog- so articulate & so honest 💙

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