Grief – The Great Dismissal

When you’re bereaved people say things to you that are so stupid, so crass and insensitive, it takes your breath away.  I’ll give you an example from the last couple of weeks. I told a colleague that I was feeling a bit down because the following weekend would see my first birthday since my father and grandmother died, and also because a supportive colleague had just left the organisation.  This colleague replied, “It’s not all doom and gloom. You have to see the positives”.

I was startled by the way my colleague’s interpretation of what I’d said not only managed to dismiss my pain, but also made my feelings into the problem – I was being gloomy and not seeing the positives.  It was interesting that what she reflected back to me was not what I had actually said – I never said that everything was “doom and gloom” and nor did I imply that I couldn’t see any positives, I just said that I was feeling upset about certain losses in my life.  But of course I shut up, stopped talking about it, and made a mental note not to raise the subject with this particular colleague in future, which I’m fairly certain was the unconscious aim behind her response.  She certainly won’t have to deal with my pain again.

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Bereavement, Depression & Capitalism

One of the problems with being bereaved is that the grief starts to kick in just as society expects you to be getting “better”. My father died in May and I didn’t really start to feel bad until August, since when I’ve felt progressively worse.  And I know it’s only just beginning; I don’t really believe that my father’s dead and still feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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The Eating Disorder Strikes Back

One of the most difficult things to cope with (and write about) recently has been the resurgence of my eating disordered thinking. I’ve had problems since I was 14 when a bout of binge-eating lead to weight gain which was followed by dieting that quickly turned into anorexia nervosa.  The situation improved spontaneously after I had therapy when I was 17 and I was pretty much OK until I left university when stress triggered off disordered eating again which, by my mid twenties, turned into bulimia nervosa.  I managed to stop that when I was around 27, but continued to exercise compulsively and maintain a low body weight.  This culminated in what I can now admit was really a period of exercise addiction between 2007 and 2008 – of course, at the time I said it was about “health”, not weight, even though I was doing far more exercise than was required to be healthy.

Several factors over the last 12 months have resulted in my gaining what I feel to be an unacceptable amount of weight – these include simple changes like moving closer to work so don’t have a long walk twice a day and not being able to afford a gym membership, as well as more complex factors like Dad’s illness and death which led to erratic eating patterns and my not feeling well enough to do as much exercise as I did in the past.

So, now I find that I haven’t recovered and weight gain of maybe half a stone (I’m not going near a scale!) produces levels of anxiety in me which feel about equivalent to suddenly finding myself in a burning building. The most depressing thing about it has been the destruction of my treasured illusion of recovery by the realisation that all I was really doing was holding off the illness by maintaining a low body weight that felt “safe”.

I am quite stunned by just how bad it is. How can you explain to other people that you really do feel like the most important thing in the world is losing weight? How can you explain that your main worry about your grandmother’s funeral is being under pressure to eat and other people watching you eat?  How can you explain to friends who are heavily into fitness that, although you still care about them, you need to distance yourself from them at the moment because they are triggering the hell out of you? I know it all sounds utterly, utterly irrational to people who don’t have eating disorders, but I suppose that’s the nature of a mental illness.

I’m fortunate that my partner understands, having grown up with an anorexic mother herself.  We’re mainly focussing on reducing the anxiety as much as possible at the moment, but I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I probably need more counselling on this issue because, while I’ve had quite a lot of therapy for other problems, I’ve never had any specifically for the eating disorder.

Although this has been a nasty wake-up call, it probably has been necessary and ultimately a good thing for me to realise that I’m not better now that I have time to work on it. I find that there are so many things I want to write about in relation to the experience of having an ED that I’m wondering if it would be a good idea to start a separate blog about it.  I’m not totally decided on this – it would be nice to have an outlet where I could blog whenever something came up, but it might also be too many writing projects.

Thoughts on my grandmother’s final days

My 96 year-old grandmother is dying and I’m having a lot of difficult emotions.  She’s refused to let me visit her over the last few weeks and, now that it’s reached the final days, I’ve been dithering because she hasn’t requested my presence or said anything about what she wants me to do.

So I’ve been wondering if I should just get on a train and go to see her anyway, not knowing whether she’ll even be conscious or aware of me, or whether my coming will cause her distress because she doesn’t want me to see her like this.  But if I don’t go, I’m worried that I’ll regret it, maybe for the rest of my life.  I’m frustrated, angry with her for what I experience as her controlling behaviour, guilty about feeling angry with her, and also guilty about  the fact that I don’t really want to go because I don’t want to go through another experience like the one I had with Dad just eleven weeks ago.  Death can bring up so many conflicting emotions.

However, I’ve realised that my suffering in this situation has a lot to do with attachment to ideas about what grandparents should be like and what our relationships with them should be like.  Somewhere in my mind is a fantasy of a loving grandmother who dies peacefully, but first calls me to her bedside to hold her hand, to be blessed and accepted and told that she loves me.  Of course this fantasy is all about what my ego wants and not about the reality of my dying grandmother.

When I put this fantasy to one side, I have to admit that my grandmother has always been a spiky character: stubborn, strong-willed, and at times even ruthless in her determination to live her life her way.   I spoke to her on the phone yesterday and while she did tell me she loved me (after I said it first!), she also said that she didn’t have anything to say to me, which hurt my feelings.

I don’t doubt that she loves me and she’s always been supportive in her way, but her acceptance of me has only ever been partial – she disapproved of my undertaking postgraduate study and I’ve never had the courage to come out to her as gay or introduce her to my partner for fear of her reaction.  Her homophobic and also her racist views have always upset me.

We’ve never had an emotionally close relationship, but she’s always been a powerful presence in my life.  I suppose an apt metaphor for my relationship with her can be found in the sweaters that she used to knit for us when we were children, sweaters that were warm and durable, but also a bit scratchy and which had neck openings so tight that we felt like we were getting our ears pulled off every time we put them on.

She’s a proud woman who’s made the best of an unremittingly hard life.  Some of her actions have had terrible consequences, in particular separation from her child for over 20 years.   But those actions were taken in the context of options limited by the laws of the time that treated women as unequal to men.   She’s suffered extremely painful health problems in recent years with incredible courage and dignity and has spent the last few months of her long life watching her only son die of lung cancer.  Part of my grief is about the starkness of her suffering and my wish that things had been better for her, but to all this I know she would say, “Never mind, it can’t be helped”.

At the same time, I admire the way she’s always claimed the sexual and romantic fulfilment that’s been so important to her life (even now she has a boyfriend); she saw her grandchildren grow up, the birth of her great-grandson, and she has a devoted step-granddaughter as well.  She’s loved gardening, knitting, cooking, and socialising and I seem to have inherited those last two from her, as well as my smile and the underlying bone-structure of my face.

I’ve now decided to go and see her tomorrow whatever happens.  She may or may not be aware of me, but weighing up the stress of the visit with the possibility of the life-long regret of not trying to see her before the end, I’ve decided to risk the stress.

This isn’t about her accepting me so much as it’s about me accepting her for who she is.

Bereavement, Self & Capitalism

Another thing bereavement has done for me (and this is no bad thing) is make me really aware of some of the ways in which I’ve constructed my sense of self.  One way I’ve done this over the last 15 years or so is to see myself as very professional, efficient and hard-working person. Other people appreciating these qualities in me makes me feel valuable and important.

Bereavement is helping me let go of this self (at least a bit) because I simply can’t do it at the moment.  I’m completely worn out, physically shaky and feeling unwell, mentally vague, preoccupied and forgetful, struggling to concentrate for more than half-an-hour at a time.  My levels of work productivity have inevitably dropped and the illusion that I had of myself as this energetic, well-organised person who never asked for help has taken a battering.  I’ve had to take a day off work today because I just don’t feel well enough to go into the office. And I’ve realised that I’m going to have to adjust my working practices and ask my colleagues for a bit more support over the next few weeks.  Well, I said I wanted to get rid on my workaholic tendencies and it seems I don’t have much choice about that now.  It’s really made me think about how I value myself and whether I want to carry on valuing myself in that way.

This professional persona is really a reaction to an old script from adolescence in which I was constructed as a lazy, useless sort of person, and an underachiever at school.  As I grew older, I reacted against it by creating this super-efficient persona.   Stories build on stories and it takes work to unravel them all.  The “lazy” persona was nothing more than a reaction to a lot of other stories that got told about me for various reasons – mainly these were stories that enabled people to avoid dealing with the fact that I had depression as a teenager.  I’m really beginning to understand why my counselling course tutor asked us to make a list of all the stories that people tell about us.

But then I caught myself thinking that I’m fortunate to work for an organisation that cuts me a little slack during bereavement.  I was shocked to realise that I’m feeling “lucky” to work for an organisation that doesn’t sack me immediately over a slight drop in productively!  Talk about being conditioned by capitalism.  That’s an appalling situation, but it counts as a privileged position in the UK.  Lots of people have to go to work and try and be productive no matter how terrible they feel because if they don’t go in, they can be sacked and instantly replaced by one of a hundred others waiting for work in the class war that our conservative government is currently attempting to inflame to even greater levels.

Funeral and Aftermath

So Dad’s funeral was really, really hard. It would have been better if we could have had it the week after he died when we were all coping better, but we had to wait three weeks, which is too long.

We told people not to wear black because Dad never liked dark, sombre clothes.  When I was a kid he was always encouraging me to wear brightly coloured clothes, without much luck, since like a lot of teenagers I tended to think it was a good idea to dress almost entirely in jeans and black t-shirts. He liked the colour red, so for the funeral I wore a red top and my brown velvet jacket – and my jeans, since I think Dad would want us to go as we were and I am a jeans kind of person.

It was a small funeral, about 40 people were at the church and about 20 came on to the crematorium and to the house for refreshments afterwards.  While I know that we were in no condition to handle a big funeral, it also felt kind of wrong that it was so small.  My Dad touched a lot of peoples’ lives and many of them were missing on the day. I felt that more of them should have been there.

The fact that it was a Catholic funeral caused me a lot of pain that I’m only just starting to unravel.  Standing there with my partner in a church that rejects us, that says we are morally disordered people and that our relationship is sinful, I felt totally excluded from the ritual. I also felt terribly conspicuous sitting with Andy in the front row under the gaze of the priest, relatives and random Catholics who’d come in for the service. I felt anger at being made to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious while being comforted by my partner at my own father’s funeral.  We could have just not worried about it, but there would be real consequences for my mother if we’d made ourselves too conspicuous as a lesbian couple and I’ve decided to be sensitive to that as well.  This meant we found ourselves in an oppressive double-bind with no good choices.

It’s always a very strange experience to go back and immerse yourself in something after you’ve left it behind and for me it was hard to see just how bizarre the beliefs I was raised in are. I was particularly disturbed and upset by the denial of death – it rather felt like the entire religion has been created to assuage death anxiety.  Well, most religions try to assuage death anxiety in one way or another, and since human beings are so immensely averse to the idea of death that’s one of the functions religion serves.  However, I really don’t think the Catholic approach is helpful and in many ways I think it actually increases the suffering of the bereaved. The message we were getting at the funeral was:

1. He’s not dead because death doesn’t really exist – denial causes suffering because he is dead and death does exist!

2. We hope that he’s in heaven, but we don’t know if he is and he might not be – causes suffering because it produces fear and anxiety about where the loved one might be.

3. Because we don’t know where he is, we’d better pray for him and offer masses to try to make sure he gets into heaven (you have to pay for the masses obviously) – causes suffering because it puts responsibility on grieving relatives to get loved ones into heaven by doing the right things.  This is potentially guilt-inducing.
I’m sure a lot of Catholics have more sophisticated beliefs about death than this, but it’s pretty much where my relatives and mother’s friends are at and I find it disturbing.

My father was lapsed from Catholicism for years and reverted when he became terminally ill.  I feel that this happened mainly because he hadn’t made the effort to find another spiritual home and when he found himself dying, it was too late to look for something else. The upshot was that the Catholic funeral didn’t feel like my father at all.  He was an anti-authoritarian, non-judgemental man and his spirituality was very much a personal, simple “just me and Jesus” kind of Christianity.  He was a bit of an anarchist, really, who always believed in doing his own thing and I honestly think he would have been much more at home in Quakerism or Unitarianism.

The Catholic funeral also reminded me of my father’s lack of spiritual comfort at the end of his life and this is very painful for me.  I wish it could have been different for him, but for various reasons he couldn’t trust anyone and, ultimately, I think that included distrust of God as well.   It’s interesting that the person who helped my father most when he was dying was an Asian doctor, who he thought was either a Hindu or a Buddhist, and who sat down and talked to him very directly about death.

Andy and I have decided that we’re going to do out own memorial for my father which will involve going to a place that was emotionally significant to him and doing something to memoralise him, such as building a cairn. This will be a place we can return to when we want to remember him.

On Dying: Part 5

Just over a week since Dad’s death and I have sense of unreality. I’m off work and it’s like we’re having a very strange holiday. On one level I feel relieved.  The stress of the last seven months has lifted, but the reality of Dad’s death hasn’t sunk in, so I’m not feeling the stress of that yet.  It doesn’t help that the funeral isn’t until the 1stJune which is heck of a long time in limbo.

At the moment my grief is all about the fact that he suffered so much, both mentally and physically.  I’m grieving seeing him so vulnerable and helpless.  I’m also feeling very shaken up by the experience of actually seeing him die.  His death was as good as we could make it under the circumstances, but it still wasn’t what I would have liked for him. He never accepted the fact that he was dying and he fought it all the way to the end. This denial had a huge impact on us as his family because it controlled everything.  So I’ve been grieving a lot about his illness and the way he died because it was just so fucking sad and traumatic for all of us, but I haven’t even started to think about his actually being gone.

Also, I think I’m waiting for my “real” Dad to come back – not the sick one, the “other” one. His illness changed him a lot and that kind of change in a person allows you to disassociate and psychologically separate them into two figures.  Even while I knew my Dad was ill in the hospice, I still jumped whenever I saw bearded men who looked like him.  I jumped out of my skin the other day when Mum inadvertently sent me a text from his phone.   It’s like there are two Dads – the one that got ill and died and the other one who I last saw in October and who is surely still around somewhere and who I’m expecting to return.