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
My father died eight years ago this month. The anniversary surprises me every year. I feel restless, unable to settle to anything, abandoned and uncared for. I start to look for attention in all the wrong places. Eventually, I remember that I have been “abandoned” by the person I was closest to for most of my life, the person who made me feel seen and upon whom I could depend for a response.
I still grieve the loss of his support and the way he died. My father did not have a good death. We watched helplessly as he suffered terribly, both mentally and physically, through his last few months. I feel haunted by regrets, and sometimes guilt, even though I know he would not have wanted me to feel this way and that one of the last things he said to me was, “Enjoy your life”.
Eight years on, what do I want to say to you about grief? First, you don’t “get over” the loss of someone close. You can adapt to it and, if you’re lucky, your life expands around the loss, so that it no longer feels as all-consuming as it did at the beginning. But you always carry it with you. I remember a colleague, who lost his mother when he was five, telling me that even as a middle-aged man, he could always be pulled back into that pit of grief.
I still feel like I’m adjusting to the situation. On the one hand, it seems like my father has been gone for a long time, but on the other, if I walked into the kitchen in my parent’s house tomorrow and found him sitting there in his usual chair, it would just be a relief to discover that I had been mistaken.
I think that one of the biggest adjustments in bereavement is accepting the changes to yourself. We construct our identities in relation to other people and losing them changes us, often in ways we do not like. I feel like I did not, and would not have, consented to these changes in myself.
That’s another thing. Grief is such a bizarre and unexpected experience. It does not manifest how you think it will. I expected to feel sad and miss my father, but I did not expect to be having panic attacks almost every day for years. I’ve got the anxiety under control now, but I still have anxiety attacks whenever I’m confronted with a problem that my father would have supported me with. I’m just more able to recognise that this anxiety is actually grief.
Your relationship with the person doesn’t end with their death. It just changes. In a way, I feel like I know my father a lot better now that he’s dead and I can see the whole story of his life. I can also see that I did not address the difficulties in our relationship and never confronted him about the ways that he failed me which, if I’m honest, were as significant as the ways that he supported me. I think he knew this too, but we never talked about it because it was too dangerous. I never would have been able to think, let along say, this when he was alive.
Despite the silences and unacknowledged difficulties in our relationship, I still think about my father every day. I will always regret the way he died, miss him and feel the loss of the support he gave me.
For grief support “that doesn’t suck”, see Megan Devine, Refuge in Grief
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”.
This is a long listen, but so helpful if you’re struggling with grief or trying to support someone else. Highly recommended.