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.

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.

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.

Poem: Dennis O’ Driscoll, ‘Someone’

someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege
someone is paring his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone’s waist will not be marked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone’s fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be rejected as ‘drawer deceased’
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone’s coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today’s date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

I’ve been dealing with death today (one dead, one dying) and need a little black humour.  Appreciate the now.

Dennis O’ Driscoll is a contemporary Irish poet.