Grief and survival

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On Friday July 7th, 2017, at 22.05 I heard the house phone ring, and leaped up to answer it.

The voice on the other end confused me.  It sounded like my brother’s, but was too young.  For a while, I felt as if I was in a parallel universe, or had gone backwards in time.  I rather hesitantly asked who this was, feeling embarrassed and sure I should actually know.

The voice on the other end told me that this was my brother’s youngest son.  He told me he was ringing with sad news – that he had found my brother dead in his bed after being alerted by someone (my brother’s long term partner) who had been expecting him for the week-end.

What happened next was somewhat unreal.  I heard someone crying, and realised it was me.  I sort of felt my way to the sofa, aware that I was standing and my legs were giving out under me.  My husband quickly realised what had happened, and helped me to sit beside him, offering much needed physical contact. I had trouble taking in the news.  Even though I knew he had been ill, the shock hit me like an express train.  For a split second, I wondered if this was a joke (but my nephew would never be that cruel), or maybe I was dreaming (but no, this felt too shocking to be a dream).  I wanted time to adjust. Some kind of warning, as there was for both Mum and Dad, who were taken into hospital and died later.  It felt so final.  One day, my brother was alive, and the next he had gone to bed and never woken up.

I spent the next day in a daze, but I had things to do.  Most pressing was the fact that this was the week-end, and at 9 am on the Monday morning I was due to begin examining a PhD in another part of the country.  My husband and I quickly agreed that I could not let the candidate down; to have one’s viva cancelled at the last minute would be awful.  And so, I packed my bag for travel on Sunday.  I met the other examiner at breakfast on the Monday morning, and warned him I might not be at my best.  The viva went smoothly, but I was relieved when it was over and I could go and rest on a nearby beach (which just happens to be where my parents used to live when they were alive together).  I could not actually rest, however.  I wandered around, like a small boat adrift at sea at the mercy of the currents.

I had arranged to stay with friends that night after the viva, and travel home on the Tuesday.  On the Tuesday morning, I began sneezing and streaming, and put it down to hay fever.  By Wednesday evening, after a stint of grandchild sitting, I developed a sore throat and started to feel unwell.  Then followed a long period during which I tried to keep on doing things (I tried lying in bed but it just made my back ache), battling a feeling of being totally wiped out, headachy, hot and cold, a throat like the night of the long knives, and then the cough set in.  Two weeks on from the first symptoms, I still feel lousy but the cough is loosening up a bit.  I have a GP appointment booked for tomorrow.  The phrase ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’ comes to mind.

During this time, I have had two lots of people come to stay, which was all pre-planned.  I could have asked them not to come, but I didn’t.  It was lovely to see them, even if I did find it harder than usual.  I went to bed early, and got up late.  People understood, for which I am grateful.

However, what this period has reminded me of, quite apart from how grief hits the body and not just the tear ducts, is how some people some of the time get it right in how they deal with others’ grief, while some people some of the time seem to miss the mark.  Not that there is a right and wrong way.  We all do grief differently, whatever the textbooks tell us.  Some of us want to talk, others want to be alone or avoid talking about their grief.  Some want to be touched physically, while others recoil from it.  All of this is normal.  However, from my own perspective both as someone who has been through grief a few times now and who has worked as a therapist with people who are grieving, I can offer a few tentative pointers about how to respond to others’ grief.

First of all, do offer your condolences.  Some people find it very hard to know how to do this, but I have been touched by simple Facebook messages saying ‘I was so sorry to hear about your brother / so sorry for your loss, Bonnie,’ followed by something caring like ‘I do hope you are able to take care of yourself at this difficult time.’  Unless you know the person shares a particular spiritual or religious belief with you, resist reassurances like ‘He is now up in heaven with the angels,’ which frankly makes me want to puke as it is based on mere superstition and is thus not at all reassuring to me.

Next, when you meet the person – and this is the really difficult one, I know – don’t run away / cross the road / hurry off with some lame excuse.  You might feel really awkward and wonder what to say, but as with the condolences I personally have appreciated it when my husband (who is a complete star) asks me how I am feeling, without expecting me to be OK, and then listens rather than talks.  Asking if the person wants to be alone, or with people, in silence or talking can also be a good start.  Would the person appreciate a short walk with you?  If they want to talk, what do they want the conversation to be about?  Would they prefer to avoid the topic of the person they have lost?  Or maybe to talk about her or him?  You can reassure the bereaved person that they don’t have to be a particular way (some of us laugh, somewhat hysterically, or to take a break from active grieving).  Tell them they can ramble on, or be silent, talk about something very specific that is bothering them, or watch a romcom (or anything else, for that matter).  But don’t, whatever you do, try to fix anything.  That is not your job.  If they regret that row they had in the morning, just listen, show you care about how they are feeling, but don’t give false reassurances.  Or any reassurances.  Oh, and don’t use this as an excuse to tell the bereaved person all about your third cousin twice removed, who also lost their brother / sister / parent / lover.

Be honest about your availability.  When someone is bereaved, typically the family swarms round them, not wanting them to be alone for a minute.  But families can’t usually keep that up.  By all means, stay the first night if your loved one isn’t ready to be alone.  But make it clear that you are offering this for the first night.  Oh, and do ask.  They might not want it.  Don’t tire yourself out so that you feel resentful and then start getting snappy.  That simply is not worth it, to anyone.  But when you can, offer practical help.  Is there anything that feels too much right now, that you can reasonably take off the bereaved person’s ‘to do’ list?

We have yet to have the funeral for my brother – another hurdle to face.  His ashes will be committed at sea (he was a naval man), but I don’t need a place to go in order to feel close to him.  As with my parents, I find myself saying and doing things that are like him, and I have a little chuckle to myself when that happens (usually followed by tears, but that is normal).  In addition to the sea he loved a particular part of Yorkshire, where he worked voluntarily on a railway.  I might go there some time.  My brother loved trains.  The last time I saw him, he was waving me good-bye on the station as my train pulled out.  That is how I wish to remember him.  Waving to me as I pull out of a station.