Watching a recent documentary on Varanasi in India, I was amazed at how differently we all deal with the concept of death. Such a dark and impassive word, I suspect that most of us would rather not consider it. Sadly, death is inevitable and grief is something we will all face at some point in our lives. We now speak more openly about topics surrounding mental health, but I don’t feel that grief is given the platform it needs. There is no set pattern for grief and experiences of grief can differ greatly from person to person, so with that in mind, I’d like to share with you my own and rather recent experience.
My initial understanding of loss came at a young age when watching Raymond Briggs’, The Snowman. This was one of my favourite childhood films, so I watched it regularly, especially at Christmas time. I was probably aground the age of four or five at this point. Free of dialogue, the storyline is incredibly poignant. You may well recall the infamous scene at the end of the film when James discovers that the snowman, his loyal and loving companion, has melted. The melancholy music and the look of complete sorrow on James’s face was enough for my younger self to understand the implications of losing someone so dear. When my Grandma passed away just over two years ago, it may come as no surprise that the image of James’s face became ever more poignant.
From as early as I can remember, my Grandma was there to look after me. As my parents worked long hours (my father had his own business and my mother was a Head Teacher at the time), my Grandma was at our home from early morning until late in the evening. This continued until I started senior school. We had a very special and unique bond, something I’ve never had with anyone else. We did everything together, moments that now occupy some of my earliest childhood memories. I recall falling asleep on her lap as a toddler and her desperately trying to keep me awake at the risk that I wouldn’t sleep during the night. These are the memories that have since helped me to cope with her passing.
The week before my Grandmother died, I went through a phase of complete denial, clutching onto every ounce of hope I could. I felt guilty that I hadn’t spent more time looking after her, even though I’d spent a lot of time caring for her. As this was my first real encounter of the death of a loved one, I hadn’t recognised those crucial end of life stages. Due to the increase of palliative care medication, we sadly lost all sense of communication with her towards the end. For any of you who have been through this phase with your own family member, you’ll understand how incredibly difficult it is. To suddenly lose all communication with someone who has played such a key role in your life, is extremely hard to accept and to adjust to. I personally worried most about not being able to remember her voice. I willed her to speak to me, knowing full well that she couldn’t. You seem to go through an irrational thought process that, from an outsider’s perspective, would seem utterly ludicrous. You bargain for their life. I’ll do anything, I’ll give all I have.
I’d tried to prepare myself for how I thought I’d feel at the moment of her death. I’d envisaged screaming out or dropping to the floor in distress. I simply had to know how it was going to feel. I feared that feeling. I arrived at the hospital ten minutes after she’d passed, unaware of what had happened. I could see my mother walking towards me and I just knew. The expression on her face said it all, just as James’s had done all those years before when watching The Snowman. Contrary to what I’d expected, I felt completely numb. I couldn’t cry or scream out. It’s a feeling I’d never experienced before. It was one of complete shock.
This is the part of grief that I feel is spoken about the least, arguably because it is so graphic, and it’s the matter of going to view a loved one’s body. I feel that avoiding it would be doing grief a total disservice. My biggest fear was seeing my Grandma’s body. I was terrified and felt so angry with myself for feeling that way. How could I be so afraid of seeing someone who had been so caring to me throughout my life? It’s a real fear of the unknown. As something that is often so glamorised in movies and dramas, how can we ever truly prepare for that moment? I toyed with not going to see her, would it destroy all the happy memories I had? My overriding thought, however, was that I didn’t want her to be alone. I wanted to comfort her and to reassure her. I did go to see her body and I can honestly say that it was such a peaceful and calming experience, one that gave me a lot of inner strength during her funeral and in later weeks. This is not something that everybody chooses to do. It’s certainly not an easy process, so that choice must be solely yours.
In the immediate weeks after her funeral, although saddened by recent events, I seemed to cope quite well. I found comfort in going to her home and sitting there in silence. It felt as if she was there with me. I could picture her movements and the times we’d shared there together over the thirty years. The house was like a museum, everything left as it had been the night she was rushed into hospital. The cushion on her armchair was still compressed from where she’d sat in it and her tea cup stood in the sink ready to be washed. The house had a very specific smell, one that I could always detect on my Grandmother’s coat when we met up. I would sit for hours in the house breathing in this smell.
About 3-4 months after her death, the time came to sell my Grandmother’s house and that’s when my ability to cope with everything changed. I mourned for the house, for the smell of the house and for everything in it. I felt as if she’d died all over again. Why am I feeling this way when I’ve coped so well for so long? I started to experience something called premature grief. This is when you grieve for someone who has not yet died. I found myself grieving for my parents, both of whom are fit and well. I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way and it’s not something I’d heard a lot about before. How can anyone endure this pain more than once in a lifetime? How can I go through this agony again? In going to her house, I’d been keeping her memory alive. I struggled to cope with the idea of losing those memories.
I suspect the biggest mistake I made initially was not talking about my Grandmother to others, not sharing those wonderful memories. If I don’t talk about it, it won’t seem so real. I now speak about her frequently and I let her voice come into my head, something I was once so afraid of doing, at the risk of feeling more pain. I do experience moments when I get a stark reminder of the fact that she’s no longer here and I have to take a long deep breath in. I attend her graveside very regularly and I find this to be very therapeutic. Alongside my mother, I cared for my Grandma a lot in the last year of her life. Attending her graveside gives me a similar sense of purpose and I suspect that’s why it brings so much comfort.
The death of a loved one leaves an enormous hole, a hole that can never be refilled. Initially, the edges of that hole are incredibly raw, but over time those edges do start to heal and, as time goes by, you adapt to living with a void. When you lose someone you love, you grieve for the rest of your life. Grief is not something that just comes and goes, but it is something that gets easier with time. It is normal to grieve, to feel utterly distraught when you lose someone you hold so dear. After all, grief, however you experience it, is simply a reflection of the love you have for the person you’ve lost.