For anyone that has experienced immense grief from losing someone that they are close to, this is my first blog that reflects what it was like for me when I lost my Dad. Whilst this is my experience, and everyone’s experience of grief is different, I wanted to share the rawness of how it felt for me, how debilitating it was, and some thoughts on how I coped. I hope if you are in that dark place, that reading this may offer a glimmer of light. You are not alone, there are many of us that hold a space for those in need of comfort. I trust that you find the healing your soul needs and know that - this too shall pass...
Grief - a juggernaut of emotion.
"How can a soul be here one moment and gone the next?"
When someone that you’re close to passes, it’s a shock - whether it was expected or not. How can that soul that was here just a moment ago, now be gone? We know how to express love openly, as that is accepted, welcomed and celebrated. But how do we truly express our grief. It’s not something that a lot of people talk about, we’re not encouraged to share our story and express how we feel openly and without embarrassment. It’s as if we’re supposed to hide it and just keep a stiff upper lip. As a result, it can feel isolating and lonely. And it is genuinely so difficult for someone who hasn’t felt it deeply to understand. How do we see the beauty and the point of life, when it feels like we have a hole as deep as the ocean in our hearts and the very ground has been ripped open beneath our feet – it’s hard to keep your balance when your world is rocked so violently.
The first waves of grief can bring a sense of emptiness that gnaws at us from the inside, our body a void of complete numbness. A sense of utter disbelief and desolation washes over again and again, like a torrent of endless waves.
When my Dad passed suddenly in 2005 from a massive heart attack at just 58 years young, it was like a being hit by a juggernaut at a thousand miles an hour. I just folded into a mess. My world came crashing down around me. The silencing of my loved one was what I imagined to be like the intake of breath just seconds before the axe swings – for a split second everything is still, everything is silent, everything is suspended in a moment of luxury, that moment when everything is as it was, before the realisation, before everything you know changes forever – then the pain.
I felt like all my feelings were tossing around inside my stomach, and that any moment I could projectile vomit them into the outside world. I didn’t know how to get the pain out, so it sat and boiled in my veins.
"Grief can bring a sense of emptiness."
Grief can feel uncontrollable. Our mind can feel in turmoil, screaming silently to be let out, searching for ways to express itself, whilst at the same time trying to hold everything in, as letting it go may mean losing the grip of the end of the rope, that we are desperately hoping someone else is holding the end of. For me, the person who held the rope was always my Dad and he was gone – and I fell.
That first night, I slept in my Dad’s bed, the one he had passed away in the day before. I know it sounds morbid, but I wanted to be in the last place he had been. I led there and cried until my throat hurt and passed out exhausted.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that when they first wake in the morning, they’ve forgotten the truth and everything seems well for a split second – and then they remember. For me it was different, I woke knowing immediately that I was still in the nightmare, and the anguish inside me meant there was no pardon from this reality.
For the first few weeks, every time the doorbell rang my heart lifted. Because I wanted to believe it would be my Dad, smiling at the door, explaining that he had to fake his own death because he was really an undercover spy and had gotten into a spot of bother. But it was never him, partly because he was never a spy, and partly because deep down I knew he hadn’t faked his own death, because I’d visited him laid out on the slab, cold as ice. I knew he was gone.
People that are in a lot of pain often do painful things, to themselves and sometimes direct that pain towards others. I fell into an abyss, an alternate world where everything was grey, where laughter was offensive, conversation unheard. Where I was quick to anger, quick to retreat and hide. I wasn’t interested in anything anyone had to say, I couldn’t care less. The worst thing imaginable in my life had happened, that was the end of my sanity.
The grief consumed me, and I let it - for a while. I felt like I was slowly being strangled, choking on my own emotions. At that point I had not smoked for years, but I took it back up with a vengeance. And with it, I drank. It helped me to numb the pain. Concentrating on a cigarette meant my brain had a moment’s reprieve from remembering and the endless pit of torment churning in my stomach was replaced by the smoke in my lungs. And the wine helped me fall into a deep slumber, but it didn’t stop the nightmares.
I’m not at all saying that my smoking and drinking was a positive thing, quite the opposite, as I knew was punishing myself for not being able to stop what had happened. But it did have a place in my journey and so I never want to pretend it wasn’t there. It took me a little while to start to see that probably chain smoking through the day and passing out at night from multiple glasses of wine wasn’t helping. And I gradually replaced them with healthier options, but it wasn’t an overnight change it took time. And also, smelling like a dirty old pub isn’t the nicest thing in the world…
"We have to learn how to navigate grief."
I think grief is a journey in solitude mostly. I had lots of people around me that cared and tried to help. And they did help, I am so very grateful that a few people in particular were there for me, had they not been, I may not be writing this now. But grief is a journey that one undertakes alone. We must learn how to navigate it, learn how to express it uniquely and learn how we can heal. In the short-term certain coping strategies work, but longer term we have to adjust our life. We have to find new meaning, new purpose and different meanings for the things we know.
For me the most important thing that helped me through was believing that this was a test and I must trust that I knew what I was doing when I signed up for it. That life had thrown down a challenge for me, the most important one I would ever face. Would I face this and come out a better, stronger person, or would I dissolve and disappear into an empty shell – and give up. And by golly there was no way I was going to give in. Life had taken my Dad into death, and there was no way it was taking me too.
Some days I didn’t get out of bed, some days I drank myself back to sleep (for a while). But some days I got up (and I even showered) and I spent the day awake and focused. I never knew how I was going to feel, but I just went with it, hour by hour, day by day. On the days where I wanted to curl up and die myself, I kept in my mind that I would NOT give in. I would NOT disappear into nothing. That I WOULD somehow get through this. And not for my Dad, or my brothers or anyone else, for me. Because after all, my Mum and Dad loved me enough to make me and I was not going to dishonour them by taking that away from myself. I wasn’t going to let something like death ruin my life.
"Some days you might not get out of bed, some days you will."
And it also felt like the universe was piling on the crap. Just for a laugh. Let’s see how much she can take before she breaks. There were so many other things that started falling apart, that the stress of everything was overwhelming. I lost a stone in weight just from stress. It seems to come in waves like that, like dominoes, one thing goes and then everything else follows. It certainly was my ‘dark knight of the soul’ time. But also in a very strange way it helped, because you can’t just focus on your grief then, as other things need to be attended to. And therein you have a moment of forgetting time.
It was during these times after my Dad passed, that a small book of poetry that I’d inherited from my Pappy (my Dad’s Dad) sent me a message, that’s what I chose to believe. As I was opening the book, I noticed little pieces of paper stuffed as markers that I’d not noticed before, and it fell open to the beautiful poem ‘Unconquerable’ by William Ernest Henley (known more commonly today as Invictus). The lines ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud, under the bludgeoning’s of chance my head is bloody by unbowed.’ rebounded in my head. And that has stuck with me, I may be bruised, bloody, beaten to exhaustion, but I will not bow to grief, or trauma or death. I knew I wanted to choose a life worth living and I wanted to pick back up the pieces of the puzzle of my life and put them together again, and they may make a slightly different picture now, and some may not fit perfectly (to be honest some I had to jam right in there), but it is my life and I am the curator of it. I will not be crushed.
"Find something to focus on."
Finding something that I could focus on was key to help my journey. I’ve always been a stubborn coot, so for me that utter determination not to give into the dark but to learn to walk with it until I found the light, was paramount. Whether your focus is another person, an animal, your chosen work, art or whatever it may be, it will help you through the night. I also wrote, poetry, words, letters I would never send. But it helped. I could write out how angry I was with the world and get all those thoughts down on paper, and then burn them. I felt I was releasing them, bit by bit.
I tried to remember funny things that would help make me smile, like the time when my Dad put a white wash on with new red bathroom towels – I know - who would do that. They’ve got a lot of colour in them, those bathroom towels – which was evident in the pink shirts and y-fronts that came tumbling out to our witnessing hysterics. So, I plucked out a pair of my Dads freshly laundered pink y-fronts and ran down the drive, displaying them for all to see on the gate post and left them flapping in the wind. You should have seen the Postman trying to get the gate open without touching the pants. My Dad was furious, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
Those moments of remembered joy are key. They give your mind and body a break from the exhausting, relentless grief. And gradually those good moments last longer, and they turn into good hours, then ‘good days’. And they happen more frequently, then they happen closer together. And the dark turns to grey, and then you catch a glimpse of the light, peaking from behind the pain, is a memory of love. And the darker days happen less frequently, and then they happen further apart. To look to a more treasured time is certainly a way to push out the darkness, even for just a bit.
And remembering the love, the love, the love, the love. That you had and STILL have. That love hasn’t gone anywhere, your love for them and their love for you remains. It is not frozen in time. It is everlasting and moves with you, it doesn’t fall away.
"Real love never falls away."
Finding a purpose helped me through my grief. Firstly, my purpose was to get up in the morning, to continue to live, then to smile. I knew one day I would write about how I felt and that it may help others, it’s taken me a long time but I believe in divine timing, everything happens when you’re ready. My purpose sometimes changed from day to day, but if I had one, it was a better day.
I think one of the reasons I struggled with my grief for so long, is that I felt incredibly guilty. I felt that somehow, I should have been able to prevent what had happened. I questioned my commitment to my Dad. Why didn’t I see the signs, why wasn’t I there to help him. Did I not love him enough to save him.
"Find a new purpose."
It was excruciating, I punished myself over and over again by dragging up what happened and going over it in my mind. How could I be so selfish, so self-centred that I didn’t realise something was wrong. And that took work and self-healing to finally get to a place where I forgave myself and acknowledged that the decision of whether my Dad stayed or not was not mine. I wasn’t that powerful (after all I’m not She-Ra).
And I channelled that into my other relationships. I wanted to make sure that the people and animals I loved and cared about knew it, that I told them and showed them how important they were to me. That never again would I lose anyone I loved with the feeling that I hadn’t told them how important they were to me. The people and animals I have in my life are the most important thing, not money, or status or material things, all those things mean nothing to me. I live for the love, especially for my animals as they are the loves of my life, and rescuing dogs helped me rescue myself in the process.
I wanted them to know how special and unique they are. And how the world is a nicer place with them in it. So I know that when one of us goes, there is no need for guilt, or remorse or that well of feelings you should have shared. That everything that needed to be said was said, not at the end, but from the beginning and all the way through our relationship. That showing the ongoing appreciation you have for someone in your life is very special. I would encourage everyone to do that, show those you love what they mean to you, it gives a certain peace in the heart (and the flakers leave them in the dust).
"You are not alone."
So yes in the beginning it may be tough, it probably will be. But if you’re working through grief, please keep in mind that this too shall pass. I never thought I would be in a place where I’m so happy and content after what I went through, but I am. And so will you be. Just give it time and be kind to yourself. You are not alone. For many of us that have been through this type of grief and come out of the other side, we have come out stronger, better people for it. And we hold a space for you – even though we may never know you or meet you - that you can grieve the way it suits you and we honour your journey and send you love. And when you’re ready, we’ll be there (if only in spirit) to offer you sunscreen so you can walk once again in the bright sunshine.
With love and light, Tania x
© Copyright 2023 Tania Fox
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May you never see the light at the end of the tunnel, but bathe in its beauty and be surrounded by it - always.