On Grief

How it is for me

I’d been putting off my return to meeting for worship because I sensed that the time spent in reflection would open the floodgates. I needn’t have worried: yes, I did cry and yes, that was good.

My mum died at around 1:30pm on Tuesday 4th June. Almost two months later, I’m finally getting around to making some sense of my bereavement.

As I was waiting for mum to die, I texted someone to let her know that I’d be back to teach the class as soon as I could. She sent me this wise and comforting message:

“It’s like waves. At the beginning the waves are so huge and relentless, it’s difficult to breathe. Over time the waves become smaller and less frequent but I don’t think they ever go away.

My dad died of early onset dementia so we lost him a year before his death when he no longer knew who we were. That’s when I started to grieve. He was only 68 and it was awful seeing him so frightened and confused. But I still feel like he is with us. There’s nothing much anyone can say to help you at this time other than reassure you that you will get through this, you have the strength. And your mum will never leave you.”

Today, as I settled into meeting, I read two texts from Quaker Faith and Practice. Here is what Ruth Fawell said in 1987:

“Maybe we face the fact of death for the first time when someone near and precious to us dies, and we then wake up to wrestle spiritually with the feelings of anger, dismay and acute deprivation that take us by surprise and question our hard-won faith. Or we may be called upon to stand by another person suffering great grief in bereavement. It is through such experiences that we struggle towards an attitude of our own towards death, so that we can speak from where we stand, and from the acceptance of the strange and paradoxical nature of death as of life.”

And here is what Margery Still said in 1990:

“And so the first and greatest step out of the dark place becomes recognisable: self-absorption begins to give way to empathy with a world of suffering you previously didn’t know existed. People in the first shock of grief will be drawn to you, and you, no longer a newcomer to that world, will have found your listening skills.

As to that delicious and sustaining food you were accustomed in happier times to peck at, why, there it is again, and you haven’t recognised it. The former sustenance was only fit for children, and has been replaced by helpings of insight appropriate to your increased maturity.”

I don’t believe in life after death, but mum is with me. I’m a chip off her old block; I was shaped by her. And I am shaped by her death: until now, I was sleepwalking through life, with little idea what it felt like to lose someone and no idea what it would be like to die.

Now I better understand, and find myself surrounded by friends, colleagues who have lost or are losing their mothers, their fathers, their partners. I better understand what to look out for, what to ask, how to listen and what to say in response. And now we better understand each other, and look out for one another.

How it is for others

Soon after she died, I asked,

“When does one stop seeing or hearing something and thinking, ‘I must tell mum about it’? Does it ever end?”

Here are the responses:

“No, but the way you feel about it changes. It goes from being a sharp gasping shock each time to eventually becoming a welcome comfort. Sometimes a sad comfort of loss, sometimes a happy grateful comfort of what you had.”

“My mum died 21 years ago and I still think it almost daily!”

I asked her how it felt and she said,

“Strangely comforting as it shows how much I still love her.”

“I still do that about my Dad and lost him 4 years ago.”

“Several years at least. At the moment I’m getting it several times a week.”

“Not really, but you cope with it all better over time. The pain is, initially, unbearable. You wonder if you’ll ever stop feeling so utterly sad. But you will. Please do allow yourself to cry. I didn’t and suffered for it.”

I said that I’d had some of the unbearable feelings, and had had a good howl on my own in the car. I never want that sense of connection, painful or otherwise, to go. She replied,

“It won’t. Grief comes over you in waves, and at times that you cannot predict. Also, everyone grieves uniquely- there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. You won’t forget – even though, in the early stages – that is a big fear (well it was for me).”

“Heck no! Never stops!”

“My other half still regularly gets the impulse to show/tell his dad stuff and he died in 2004. It becomes a comfort really. It keeps the memories and closeness alive.”

“You don’t want to forget that feeing. My Dad is still in my phone contacts, etc and I like that.”

“I lost mum when I was 18. I’m 52 now. I still want to tell her about the stuff I know no one else will care about (even if they pretend they do, bless ‘em). The memories are alive but time and nature sort it out so your life moves forward and around those you love and lose.”

“Nope – not for me anyway – and it’s been a few years now.  Often when driving and think, ‘Oh dad will know that.’ Even get to the phone before I remember. More smiles than tears now.”

“No, but in time it becomes bearable. I always think of grief like waves rolling onto the shore…. sometimes slow and gentle and other times wild and unforgiving. When an unexpected wave breaks, knocking you for six; know that it will not pummel you forever and calmer times will come.”

“It won’t end but likely will be less frequent and less raw than it does now. Eventually you will think, ‘Oh she would have loved to hear that.’ And you’ll smile. Be patient.”

“Not in my experience so far.”

“I’d be devastated if it did stop. It’s one way of remembering Daddy, remembering how close we were, remembering our conversations and the laughter.”

“Mum went in 1985 and I still do that or reach for the phone when something nice happens, Christmas and her birthday I’m looking at fluffy slippers or cards. Now it makes me smile. Don’t let it make you sad, it’s comforting.”

“No it doesn’t, in my experience. ‘Oh, Mum would love that… be so cross…’ It’s a tender sweet moment.”

“Never. I still see jumpers ‘my Dad would like’ almost 15 years on.  Still would have loved to go to the new Laurel and Hardy together.”

“No. I still think that at times. 23 years on.”

“For me it stopped about a year after mum died. It’s lovely seeing others say they still do it years after losing them. But that wasn’t my experience and I’m okay with that.”

“Not yet. it’s been 16 months.  the amount of presents I’ve picked up and put back down for mum’s birthday in a few weeks is ridiculous.  Some days are harder than others for no apparent reason, but not as sharp as this time last year.”

“No, I don’t think so, not for me anyway. I tell her anyway, in my head and in a funny way it helps.”

“Never, even when she is long dead.”

Lauren Herschel has written about her grief, using the metaphor of a ball and a box. That works for me too.