What Nobody Told Me About Grief

A lot of people around me have recently lost people they’ve loved or really cared about. So I thought I would share this Facebook post I wrote about dealing with grief after the death of my beloved, inspiring and wonderful Aunt, Jennie Buckman – What I wish I’d known about grief and all the things that came up that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve talked a lot about digging deep in writing and bleeding over the keys, so here’s some of mine. I hope if you’re grieving, this gives you some comfort. (By the way – Fuck. Shit. Wank. Bullocks was one of her favorite phrases – she said it frequently and often and always in that order):

Our tireless, fearless fighter, Jennie Buckman (right), average blog writer (left).

Fuck. Shit. Wank. Bollocks.

We have lost Jennie Buckman. Our champion. Our loving advocate. Our hilarious, frequent expletive using, passionate and fierce supporter. It’s a devastating and unfathomable loss to us all. So after some chats with my cousins and family, please allow me to share this (long-winded) post about death and grief and my experiences with it. Not because I want to make this about me, but because so many people around me are in pain and grieving right now, and we don’t talk about this process nearly enough.

I hope that, at best, this might provide some comfort, and at least, if you’re grieving, will help you feel less alone. Also, in the spirit of the late and great Jen herself, who was so upfront about her dying right until the end, I want to be a little upfront about the process of grieving here. So please take this in the spirit intended – just someone who has kinda been through it before, sharing with someone who might be majorly going through it now. Also, this is in no way aiming to minimize or take away anyone’s grief. I honestly wish when this first happened to me, someone had been able to tell me some of this stuff, because I really would have been much kinder and easier on myself. Anyway, here goes…

It’s just going to be shit for a while.

This was the best advice I ever received. Hands down. It’s not your fault. You can’t get around it. You can’t avoid it. It is what it is. And it’s shit. How long for? A while. How long’s that then? Until it’s not shit.

Grief is bottomless, black, gaping hole

with ragged, raw and sharp edges that catch and bleed. At least that’s how it felt (feels) for me. Over time (a long time), the edges wear smooth and vines grow over the hole, so you can’t see it or feel it as much. Sometimes you even forget it’s there. But then, suddenly, something/someone inadvertently puts a finger right into that place– right into those overgrown vines – which aren’t a strong as they look – and they give way a little. And wow – there’s all that raw grief again. It never really goes away. But it kind of absorbs, and sinks in and becomes a part of you and new memories and bonds form over the top of it.

It’s your grief. It’s personal.

When my Dad died, I thought I shouldn’t really be feeling so sad, because it wasn’t like I lived with him or anything. We hadn’t actually talked for a month. Other people saw him more than me. They were closer. I kept thinking, I don’t have a right to feel like this. All that did was make me feel bad about feeling sad. I eventually realized that none of that mattered: I simply really fucking missed him (Still do – always will). And I couldn’t change the way I was feeling. And it didn’t matter how far apart we were or how much closer others were, he was still my Dad and I was still grieving. You are completely entitled to feel how you feel. Your grief is real, understandable and 100% legitimate. There is no right or wrong way to feel or a set amount of time before you should feel better.

How I didn’t self-destruct from grief

So for me, the tricky part then, was not acting on these sad feelings in my typical self-destructive ways (and also doing it without resorting to alcohol which is not an option for me anymore). So that meant I had to do things to really try and stay in the present so I didn’t spiral into dark, sad and depressing past or future places, full of regrets and empty hopes. I used mindfulness mediation, I talked to myself a lot, I talked to my hands a lot. A LOT – anything to stay in the present. Where are your hands? On my keyboard. What are they doing? Typing. What letters? T-Y-P-I-N-G. What does your keyboard look like? It’s silver. There’s food stuff or something between the Y and the H keys. The black bit of the Spacebar bit is flaking off…

3-5 mins of “Meds” everyday

I also meditated for like 3-5 mins every day (still do – I call it “meds”- it sounds less wanky). Anyway, I would do “meds” a couple of times a day if I needed to. It doesn’t have to be an hour and half a hilltop with chanting goats, gongs and bells. For me, I just needed to get my brain out of that dark pattern of thinking and I did that by forcing it to stay in the present and looking at what was directly in front of me. Nothing else. Just what was directly in front of me and whatever I had to deal with at that particular moment. I honestly couldn’t deal with anything beyond that.

See People – Even When I Didn’t Want To

I also had to make an effort to be around people – even when I wanted to completely isolate. Even when I was so heavy with grief I could barely stand up or speak. I knew I couldn’t trust my head alone and unsupervised. So I would literally go to coffee with people and just sit there and not speak (Not because I didn’t want to but because I actually couldn’t – it took too much effort). And if people around me spoke to me, they were lucky if they got a nod. But they knew. And they understood. Because they were my friends and they loved me. Even when I felt so sad and depressed, I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to be around me or could possibly love me.

Warning: Grief has physical side effects

The PHYSICAL aspect of Grief. I wasn’t prepared for the physical effects of grief. I didn’t expect to have days where I would be so tired, so heavy with it that I could barely stand up. Or that my body would also respond to the additional stress by developing bladder infections (which I hadn’t had since I was a child). It might be different for you, but don’t be surprised if this amount of emotional stress has some sort of physical impact on your body.

It’s a rollercoaster.

And sometimes all you can do is hang on. Some days I felt like a sobbing mess. Some days I almost felt normal. Then some days, I felt normal but then I would knock over a glass of water, someone would say something I didn’t like (which was usually innocuous and harmless) and I would either break into hysterics or snap angrily. Generally, I like to think, I’m a fairly level-headed person. So when these outbursts happened, and especially when I had been feeling so normal moments before, I got really worried. Scared even. Maybe I was having some sort of breakdown? Until someone explained to me that I was going through a huge emotional trauma. If my stress levels were a bottle of soda for example, then normally, the bottle would only be ¼ full. But now, my base stress levels were ¾ full. So any additional “normal” stress was adding to my already ¾ full bottle, shaking it up and making it overflow. Ah. Wish someone had told me that before…

What happens when you start to feel normal again…

About a month or two after, I started to feel really normal again. So normal in fact, I actually forgot that my Dad had died for a minute. The shock had worn off. I was upright more often and mostly back to my regular routine. And one day, I was walking down the street and suddenly had this thought, “I haven’t spoken to Dad for a while. I should call him”. Then this small part of my brain was like, “Yeah, there’s a reason you haven’t. What was it? I can’t remember, but it’s really important. Is he travelling again? What was the reason?”. And then suddenly – “Oh that’s right. He’s dead”. And it was like he’d died and I’d lost him all over again. Fuck.

The Self-Talk

The self-talk. I am my own worst enemy. I had all these expectations about how I should feel. What I should be capable of and when by. I shouldn’t still be sad after x number of days/weeks/months. I should be over this by now. I realized I was telling myself things like, “You shouldn’t be feeling like this today, what’s wrong with you? You have x, x and x going on in your life. You have so much to be grateful for. Why aren’t you grateful? You should feel happy. You’re crazy/stupid/lazy”. And it’s true. I did have a lot to be grateful for. I was grateful. I just didn’t feel grateful. I just felt sad. But telling myself how I should feel and beating myself up for it, didn’t help how I did feel. In fact, it was quite the opposite – it just made me feel worse. So I had to change the way I spoke to myself. It took a lot of practice because I’d been beating myself up for a very long time.

But eventually, it became, “Jo, you’re a bit sad today and you know what, that’s okay. But you know, you have work to do today, so how about we just go to work and see what we can do? And you know, if it takes you a bit longer to do something that’s okay, and if you need to take lunch earlier, fine. You’re really fucking sad today, so let’s just acknowledge you’re really fucking sad today, and put that to one side. Don’t ignore it, just put it to the side and let’s go about our day as best we can”. Once I allowed myself to acknowledge how I felt, I could accept it, and then it just kind of rode itself out in time (with some help – I did go to therapy for a while, that helped a lot too. There is no shame in seeking and getting help however and whenever you need it).

So anyway, I didn’t know this stuff about grief. I wasn’t ready for it. We never really are, are we? So if you’re grieving, then I hope this helps you a little. So as much as you’re blindsided by your terrible loss of a loved one, maybe you won’t be so blindsided by your emotional and physical reactions to it (if that makes sense) and will be able to go a bit gently on yourself. This unfathomable grief and loss you’re feeling – it sucks. It really fucking sucks. And nothing can take it away or make it better. But I want you to know, you’re not alone. And you are loved. And if you need to talk or reach out, I’m here. And if you just want to sit silently around other people, while they talk, then that’s absolutely fine too.

And I’ll end with this, death is also hard for those around us who don’t have a personal connection to the person we’ve lost, but care about us and maybe don’t quite know how to handle it (who does, really?). So if you’re in this situation, here’s what helped me: Just be there. Listen if I need to talk, be okay with silence or quiet if I can’t. You don’t have to be my counsellor. I’m not expecting you to take on my pain on as your own. You can’t. There’s nothing you can do to make this better. This pain will fade when it’s ready (it never really goes away completely – not really). You are as powerless over this thing as I am. What you can do is simply be there and given the circumstances, perhaps let go of any expectations you have as to what mood I’ll be in and what I’ll be capable of doing. I promise, I’m trying my best, but I may not be my usual ball of sunshine. And may not be for a while. So please, if you can be a bit patient and gentle, I’ll be back to normal in a while. I promise. Whatever “normal” is for someone like me or however long “a while” turns out to be under the circumstances.

And also, to everyone who knew and loved my Aunt, Jen – I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I like to believe she and Dad are up there somewhere – wherever awesome atheists go – holding court, upping each other’s jokes, arguing passionately, interrupting and talking over each other and generally causing some form of hilarious riot. But fuck. She was so loved and will still be so missed.

Fuck. Shit. Wank. Bollocks.