Grief….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.
Out 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.”