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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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.

On Dying: Part Four

Warning – this is not a good post to read if you are grieving or have a lot of anxiety about death

The horror stories were flying in thick and fast, “Dad has been hallucinating all weekend on his new meds”, “Dad lost a pint of blood through a haemorrhage from his feet”, “I came home and found the floor covered in blood”.  They did some tests, found that his white blood cell count was dangerously low and scheduled him in for a trip to the hospice for a blood transfusion. Then on Monday two weeks ago tomorrow he had another bleed and had to be rushed to the hospice as an emergency; he should have gone to hospital really, but he insisted and in the end they took him there.  He almost died that night, but pulled through and has been in the hospice ever since.

A couple of weeks ago his consultant told him that they wouldn’t be offering him any more radiotherapy or chemotherapy and that really knocked him psychologically.  Personally, I’ve started to wish that they’d never done the chemo at all because it raised a lot of false hope and unrealistic expectations which have enabled both my parents to stay in denial a lot longer than they might have done otherwise. Even after the “no more treatment meeting”, he was saying things like, “The diagnosis hasn’t changed”. Well no, thank goodness, because if it had, you’d be dead already!  His original diagnosis couldn’t be much worse!

My parents have always been adept at denial and there are good reasons for that tendency in them, but it does make things extra hard on everyone.  It’s hard on the dying person who’s tormented by false hope and doesn’t spend the little time they have left preparing themselves for death.  It’s very hard on the family who have to play along and pretend that what’s happening isn’t really happening.  No matter how hard you try to be realistic you find yourself slipping into denial because you tend to take your lead from the dying person.  Over the last couple of months I’ve found myself thinking things like “maybe he’ll live another few months”, pretending that I can’t see just how badly he’s deteriorated recently.

Andy and I visited him last week and it was very, very difficult.  He finally seemed to have come out of denial, only to move straight into depression.  I was really worried at the time that he might die in a state of depression.  After we left, he sent me some text messages that really upset me saying he knew he was “boring” to visit and implying that he felt like a terrible burden on us all.  I started to dread the text messages, but I didn’t want to dread what might be his last message to me!  And I didn’t want his last message to me to be something that really upset me.

The hardest part for me is that I’ve been feeling terrible angry recently because I want the father I remember back and I’ve been in my own state of denial imagining that he might come back somehow.  My father has always been the kind of person who stays calm in a crisis and helps other people.  Now I see him panic stricken and fixating morbidly on every little problem.

This week I’ve finally come to an acceptance that he’s not coming back as he was, but the person we’re seeing more of now has always been a part of him, just not a part we saw much of before he was ill.   Most of the anger has lifted, but I have felt more emotional and less able to cope as a result, so maybe my anger was actually a defence mechanism sustaining me.

Little things really get to me.  I was walking through town in the beautiful sunshine last week looking at the flowers in the park and it suddenly struck me how hard it must be for my Dad to leave all of this, how one day I will have to take leave of all this.

The terminal illness of someone close shakes you to the core; you lose your sense of security; you are presented with the stark reality of illness and death, with a spectacle of relentless suffering, with just how cruel life can be sometimes.  One of the things that I find most devastating in all this and most hard to think about is the fact that my 96 year-old grandmother, after a life of great hardship, now has to watch her only son die.  It seems so deeply unfair. I can’t help but feel angry about it and think “doesn’t she deserve some peace in her last years?”

It’s certainly made me think about how I would like to prepare for death.  Assuming I don’t get hit by a bus and have some time to prepare, I hope I’ll be able to face it as squarely as possible although really we should always be prepared for death because it can come at any time, but most people are allowed to ignore that fact until age strips them of the illusion.

On Dying: Part One

I’ve had a shattering and life-changing week.

My Dad has been unwell for a few months and last Friday he was admitted to hospital with chest pains.  We knew it was cancer within 24 hours of that, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that we got the prognosis and found out that the cancer has already spread.  It’s in his lungs, bones and liver and almost certainly other places.  “Never mind stage 4”, as he put it, “We’re at stage 10!”

Obviously, when we first heard that it was cancer, we were all hoping that it could be contained and with treatment, he might have another year, maybe even more, but now we have to accept that he probably only has a few weeks left.  One of the growths is pressing on his spine, so they’re giving him radiotherapy to try and stop it from getting any bigger and paralysing him, but otherwise, they’re only looking at making him comfortable, which I think is sensible.  They’re giving him steroids and loads of morphine, so he’s feeling a lot better and is fairly cheerful.   He’d like to make it past Christmas because he has a horror of dying at Christmas, thanks to his weird and morbid family, but realistically speaking, he could go at any time.

I accept that he’s going to die soon, but I am feeling extremely shocked.  I’m very close to Dad – closer than I am to my mother — and I rely on him a lot for psychological and practical support.

The worst thing for me right now, though, is leaving him at the hospital.  I would really like for him to come home, but we don’t know if that’s going to be possible.  I guess it’ll depend on how quickly he deteriorates now and whether they can get the house set up for Mum to look after him there in time.

Fortunately, we’re not a maudlin family. We can laugh about it and there’s a lot of black humour going around.  And, looking on the brighter side, I’ve had him in my life for 33 years, which is a lot longer than many people get with their fathers.  I’m not personally squeamish about death – dying is part of life; it’s the one thing we all really do have in common; and it’s the only thing we can say for certain will inevitably happen to us at some point.  If you’re lucky enough to be given warning, dying can be a positive experience in that you get to say and do things you simply wouldn’t otherwise because it’s the only time in your life that you really can let go.

Anyway, I’ll have a lot more thoughts on all of this over the next few months, but I think one of the things I’ve been struck with so far is how hard it is for people who are dying to leave if the people around them won’t let them go. The dying person must also have a lot of anxiety about leaving their loved ones not knowing what’s going to happen to them and missing out on their futures.  My Dad is clearly sad about not seeing his grandson grow up.  I want to reassure him that it is OK for him to leave and that although we’ll be sad, we will be alright and will keep him in our lives (quite literally, since someone is going to have to keep the urn!)

He’s also feeling very guilty about the lifetime of smoking that caused this cancer and we’re trying to reassure him that we’re not angry with him.  Smoking was normalised when my Dad was a teenager and I understand that there’s been a lot of trauma and stress in his life that has made it especially difficult for him to give it up though he tried on numerous occasions.  He’s made it to 72 which isn’t a bad age and is a lot longer than the life of his own father who died at 54.

He was raised a Catholic and after years of being lapsed has decided to return to the church.  He has massive issues with the misogyny and homophobia of the church, but he wants spiritual input at this time and doesn’t feel able to work with a different church at this late stage in his life.  He’s not sure if he believes in an afterlife, or if he thinks Jesus was God, but he agrees with the basic teachings of Jesus and I think it’s good for him to have someone to talk to outside of the family.