Why grief must be witnessed

Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.

David Kessler, Our Experience of Grief is Unique as a Fingerprint

8 Years (Part One)

My three-year-old nephew plays on the floor. “I’ve been feeling sad”, you say, “because I won’t see him grow up”.

At the time, I thought you were just experiencing a bout of the morbid thoughts that had always occasionally plagued you, but later, I wondered if you already knew.

My nephew is eleven now. The rope binding you to us unspools a little more every year. Distance grows.

Two homes that you never entered.

Two jobs that you never heard about.

My grey hair, which you will never see.

I heard about a woman who spent thousands of pounds to save the life of a dog her late husband had loved.

Your cat died a few months ago. The last pet we will ever share with you.

My nephew reads Harry Potter and loves riding his bike. “The worst thing”, my sister says, “is that he doesn’t remember Dad”.

Part Two

On Not Managing Grief

The second Christmas since my father died and I feel like all my attempts to manage the situation have come to nothing.  I find myself plunged into grief again.  I realise now that my mistake lay in imagining that I could “manage” the situation in such a way as to avoid experiencing painful emotions because, let’s face it, that’s what I really wanted to achieve, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time.

Content note: death, bereavement, grief 

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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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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.