Monday, 29 September 2008

The seven stages of grief....

Shock and Denial

Oh yes, the first stage; Shock at so many deaths together and one more at least to come as my adored step-father was dying of cancer. Shock that was so great I was completely overwhelmed; Shock and devastation and disbelief and emotional overload; One shock after another with no time to absorb the details of the one before. And denial? Oh just about as much denial as I could muster if it meant not having to absorb the awfulness of my situation and not having to feel the immense pain that was threatening to kill me from the sheer weight of it. But denial only lasts for as long as it takes you to finally turn and face it all. Life doesn’t let you deny things for too long, it prefers that you deal with the harsh realities head on otherwise how else would we grow, cope, move on?

Pain and Guilt

It’s simply too much to stay in denial. Nature abhors a vacuum. Now that my shock absorbers start to wear out and no longer deflect the reality of this desolate hinterland of death, my battered and bruised brain acknowledges each death, each loss, each severe kick in the guts raining ever more emotional blow upon blow on my heart, and I begin the process of experiencing pain of quite exquisite depth. How I will stand this is anyone’s guess. I cannot see how I have the emotional maturity or tools to cope with what God has given me now. There is an old maxim that God gives you only what you can handle. Oh really?; If that’s so then he’s screwed up big time here; he’s chosen the wrong person to test that theory out on for I am scared, so terrified that I will not cope, that pain and grief will engulf me and I’ll capitulate and throw in the towel just as my uncle did when he hanged himself.

Each second is an hour, each hour a day, each day a month, each month an eternity. I am bent double from the pain and I need to protect myself from any more agony. I am tormented beyond belief and almost forget to breath. I have reverted to being a helpless frightened child and I am lost in a hell that I can’t see a way out of or an end to. I need to run away from this excruciating unbelievable pain, just run as far away as I can, but it’s useless for what ails me will come with me no matter where I am and this realisation leaves me desperate, boxed in, a prisoner to grief.

And what of guilt?; Oh yes, plenty of that of course; remorse for being much too absorbed in my own life; remorse for being far too enamoured of my career and how it always took priority; remorse for throwing away the most precious gift I had been given – time with my family and it was much too late to claw even a second of it back; remorse at never having said I love you quite enough times. I know that I should fully embrace the pain, take it on and deal with it, not run from it but I think God will forgive me this time if I say to hell with it, curl up in a ball and wait for death. I don’t want to die but neither do I want to be alive. I wish I could die in my sleep, a nice peaceful passing and I can be with them all again. I can’t be the architect of my own demise because for now I lack what it takes to take my own life but I consistently ask God to take me. Dear God, if only I could fast forward past this appalling part of my life to somewhere painless and carefree; somewhere that promised peace of mind and where my heart had repaired.

Anger and Bargaining

Can you really be angry at someone’s death? I didn’t think so until I railed at my uncle for taking his life. I felt anger at how he could be so flippant about the precious gift he had been given and just thrown it away when my other uncle and mentor pleaded with God to save his. I felt anger that my mother should die so young; that I’d been robbed of so much time with her. I raged that God should take my parents together, that for someone so great and good and benevolent that he should do this to me. “What kind of God does that?”, I remonstrated over and over. My anger gave way to bargaining, frightened that I had been disloyal to a higher power, scared that I would have more emotional trauma visited upon me. Catholics, we graduate with a double first in guilt and fear. But I did bargain. I cried deep heaving sobs, pleading with God to let me see them again and if he did so, I’d be a better Catholic, a better person, a better whatever he wanted me to be if he’d just bring them back, just let me hug my mother one more time, let me hug her and never let her go. It was all in vain, he wasn’t listening. He was off buggering up someone else’s life and had left me to it, left me in despair.

Depression, Reflection, Loneliness

Christ, I have never experienced depression before; A black, black depression of such enormity that it weighs about 80 tons on my head and chest. I am buckling under the sheer burden of it all. I still cannot believe the course of events that my life has taken of late. The frequency and suddenness of death in my life leaves me a shadow of the person I was. I am diminished as a person, daughter, sister and niece. I am having difficulty grieving because I am confused. If I cry for my mother I feel guilt that I am not grieving for my father or my two uncles and I am also grieving for the loss that is yet to come. I stop in my tracks. I have no guide book, no instruction manual on how to grieve for so many at the same time. Nature demands a cycle of birth, life, death and a grieving process for the person who has gone; I can’t find anything designed to help me grieve in multiples of four. I don’t know how to do this, don’t know who to ask, don’t think anyone else could possibly have gone through such heartache and as such cannot be of any use; don’t have the energy to look for help as I spend my days curled up in the foetal position on the couch that I rarely move away from. I am at a standstill, can't move forward, backward, up or down, can't move an inch. Inertia keeps me stuck, unable to move. My world has shrunk to this couch, this room and someone has sucked the oxygen out of it. I keep trying to drag myself out of this state but I am simply too exhausted and heavy grief physically drags me back down. I’m not ready, not done reflecting on each person and their part in my life, the memories good and bad that they leave me with. Not done asking them to come back, not ready to let them go and to acknowledge they are gone from me forever. If I can keep them here, I’ll never experience the appalling loneliness that sweeps over me. But I can see people looking, read their minds as they think I should be getting over all of this and I want to scream at them to go to hell, that they will never understand my unique pain and that if they just walked ten steps in my shoes, they’d never think let alone utter such a thoughtless, stupid, puerile statement again.

The Upward Turn

Somehow bit by bit there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel – it’s been so dark here for so long that I can hardly believe I can see it. My life has started to calm. My body is incapable of any more deep grief. It simply won’t survive any more heaving racking sobs. I can’t replay it all anymore. My heart and my head are toughened, stronger, covered in steel where they were once tender and vulnerable before. I find I can breathe with less effort as my depression eases and my chest begins to relax a little. My head is still weighed down but I find that I am able to bear it better than of late. Perhaps my self-inflicted isolation and purdah is coming to a close

Reconstruction and Working Through

Life must go on. I know this and given that I didn’t deny myself that even in the worst of my grief – I managed to stay the course, not down a thousand tablets in a quest to end it all - then it must be true, life must surely go on. I must reconstruct a way forward without these wonderful people in my life. I have to chart a course for the rest of my life that remembers what they gave to me and to use the best of what I inherited or was gifted through knowing them. My life is now different to what is was or was planned to be. I have to deal in facts, what is and not the fantasy of what it should have been. I can feel them willing me out of my purdah, telling me gently that it’s time to let go, that they’ve done what they can for me and they and I need to move on. I hear them giving me permission to start living again. Baby steps, one at a time, but faltering steps forward nevertheless; Progress of a kind. Immense sadness still pervades my every waking moment but despair is releasing its tentacles on me.

Acceptance and Hope

Reality stares me in the face. I must accept what has happened or stay trapped in a world of grief. To expect to be happy at this stage is a high expectation but it is enough to know that I will again laugh without guilt, be me again but with a few knocks and bruises that will heal. I am still me but a slightly tougher me because I survived the worst and came out the other end. But I’m a more vulnerable me too. I am wise to the fact that life can be cruel and deliver the most extraordinary blows and part of me will always fear an all too intense pain and a grief that I might not recover from. For the time being though it is enough to know that I had the strength to come through a terrible situation and the signs are good that I would survive it again. But mostly I have learned that life is to be lived and that I can’t live in fear of the worst. Life is risky and that’s what makes it so interesting and fun. Acceptance means moving forward and planning for the future again; it means experiencing happiness and joy and love. My life is wonderfully full and happy and I can talk about, laugh about the people that I loved so deeply and lost. The best parts of them are their legacy to me.

My heart was dealt a final blow when five weeks after my mother’s death, my step-father passed away. I managed a journey home to finalise a few details that he needed completion on and just four hours after saying my last tearful goodbye to him, he let go. As his family said at the time, he somehow found the strength to wait for me that one last time, to make sure his affairs in this life were complete before moving on to take care of my mother in the next. Only then could he let go. I cried at his bravery and dedication to the last. A gentleman to the end, making sure he was there for my mother once more.

I remember talking with a good friend and telling her my disbelief that so many blows could be delivered one after another. "It's called the catastrophic effect", she said looking at me. "Just when you think life can't give you any more to handle, off it goes, again and again and again, until you can't stand up from the weight of it all".

In conclusion, the model above is a general guideline to the grief process. Each step will be visited at different stages, revisited again and again as stages cross pollinate each other, and each individual grieves at their own pace and in their own timeframe. I moved between them several times during my journey and I wish I had known at the time what I was experiencing and why.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Stop the world, I want to get off......

There is a dreadful loneliness in grieving. Even though my whole family were grieving for the loss of a brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, aunt, brother-in-law, sister-in-law it became a strange solitary process where we were united in our tragedy but it all seemed so abstract, so detached and we were unable to console each other, such was the magnitude of our loss. My head kept replaying the awful truth - two deaths in one night, three deaths in a week and four deaths in a month. It was as though my brain needed to constantly replay the whole catastrophe in order for it to make some kind of sense before I could start to come to terms with my loss. I clearly was still suffering immense shock and I reeled from the intensity of it.

On the day that my mother died, the journey home to Scotland was arduous and protracted. I wept over and over as my partner patiently drove the four hundred miles or so in one long journey so that we could get there as soon as possible. I felt bad that my step-brother and his wife had to deal with undertakers and such like on my behalf and I needed to get there to relieve them of such a dreadful burden. It was particularly hard for them as my step-father lay dying whilst his wife had passed away in the next room. I couldn’t imagine the torture this must have created for them all.

It was with a very heavy heart that I knocked on the door of my mother’s home. Knowing that it wouldn’t be her opening the door to me as she had done a hundred times before made me weep at the finality of it all and I leaned heavily against the door frame to steady myself. My partner seeing my distress came swiftly and engulfed me as he held me tightly because he knew I was dreading so much and this was a first of many things to dread. The door opened and the ashen faces of my step-brother and his wife said it all – they’d no doubt had better days in their lives and what we were now experiencing was staring them in the face too. They ushered us in and I quickly went to see my step-father for I was concerned as to how he was coping.

Oh this gentle man who had loved my mother so late in her life was but a shadow of himself and in little more than a week since I had last seen him. The events of the day had taken their toll and the sparkling light in his eyes that was his love for my mother had faded with her passing. I saw my own deep grief in his eyes and it was the most painful reflection that I have ever seen. It was like shards of glass lacerating my heart, death by a thousand cuts, all over again. I hugged his frail, cancer ridden and emaciated body, careful not to break him, and we were silent in our grief but tears rolled down my face as the damn burst yet again.

Where my father had been a violent controlling man, H was as gentle and fun loving a creature you could ever meet. My mother blossomed in his love and care and he in hers. He was a true gentleman to whom people turned for advice and help and he never failed in his duty to be a good husband, brother, parent, friend and neighbour. He was a dapper old soul with exceptional manners and I was so grateful that he was in my mother’s life. He gave my mother a future full of love, hope and laughter where all she had known with my father was fear, pain, physical and mental torture. Her premature death at the age of 64 meant a cruel twist of fate that robbed her of perhaps the best years of her life. But in time I came to be grateful that if she was to die at that time then it was better she went first rather than her witnessing the painful and deeply sad passing of her husband.

It was a long night fielding calls from brothers, sisters, relatives and friends. My head felt like it would burst having to repeat the details of her death, plans for funeral arrangements over and over again. It was like planning a military operation simply because my mother had 9 surviving children, two sisters and one brother and a smattering of other relatives and they all needed to be at her funeral. Finally the phone went silent for the night and myself, my partner, H’s son and daughter in law got down to the business of drinking ourselves to a standstill as all good Glaswegians do in times of sadness, happiness or indeed just because the sun rose again that day. We don’t need much excuse to get ‘tired and emotional’ as it is called back home - the opening of a crisp packet would probably make it onto the list of things to pop a can or two about. I badly needed a drink as all day emotions were running high and simply because I was the one there, answering the phone to my grieving family, I became by default the counsellor, mentor, parental figure for my siblings who were so deeply lost in their grief too and looking for any kind of reassurance that the world wasn’t imploding in on itself. When I replay this day in my mind, I am incredulous that I survived it, as to take on the grief of your siblings as well as your own seems almost too bizarre to comprehend. I clearly remember almost standing outside of myself as autopilot kicked in and I took call after call after call. I can only think that my years of being a senior manager in a professional environment and with all the training that went with that privilege had kicked in and I treated the whole scenario as a project, problem solving exercise that needed to be addressed. It was clearly a coping mechanism that got me through those few distressing hours.

The funeral took place some seven days later; an inordinately long time for my mother’s body to remain unburied but as she had died on a bank Holiday weekend, as coincidentally had my father the previous month, then everything ground to a halt as arrangements could not begin to be made until the following Tuesday. I felt such immense frustration and there were times I got cabin fever from being holed up whilst giving my step family some respite by helping to take care of my step-father as he fought his battle. The funeral arrangements were not without problems and as with all families there were misunderstandings, petty grievances from years before aired once more, alliances rebuilt only to be broken down the next day because grief is a hard task master that demands maturity at a time when all that surfaces is a lost, bewildered and angry child needing the safe haven of a parent to run to. It is almost ridiculous to feel like an orphan when you are in your mid 30’s but simply put that is how every one of us felt at the loss of both parents in such close proximity.

Shortly before the funeral my step-father’s family took him back to his old family home where they provided round the clock care and to allow us to grieve with some privacy. It is with great respect and with some discomfort that you dispose of your parent’s worldly goods. Rooting through drawers and cupboards throws up a mixture of old bric-a-brac, old photographs of happier times you forgot or sad fearful times you can’t forget. It took a few days of constant graft, giving possessions to charities, throwing out things that you hope they would approve of as rubbish and not something that harboured a dear memory for them, allowing family to choose a treasured piece of jewellery to remember her by. But none of it really matters in the scheme of things for possessions are meaningless clutter and it is your memories that keeps them alive; their names uttered on your lips as you talk about them with others who share your loss and share your history and share your deep personal grief.

Finally I left her house and turned to close the door behind me. The home that was once full of love and warmth now echoed a barren and empty sound as the door closed heavily. She was gone from this place and the realisation filled me with dread for the future because I knew that she was no longer going to be part of it. I had closed that door knowing it would be the last time I would hear the peculiar noise it made as the dodgy latch kicked into place; I had closed it knowing that I would never see that door again; knowing that I couldn’t ever come home again for a wee cup of tea with my wee Glasgow mammy; knowing that I would have to find my own sense of ‘well done’ because she was no longer there to tell me that; this was going to be a mammoth task because no one told me ‘well done’ quite as good as my wee mammy ever did - I wasn't up to the task.

Several hours later, several drinks later and sobbing uncontrollably in my home in England, I picked up my phone and dialled her home phone over and over but no one answered. I knew her home was dark, empty and completely abandoned but grief made me hope against hope and with complete irrationality I wished to God that she would pick up the phone and tell me that she lived to fight another day. I understood just how helpless my brothers and sisters had felt when I’d fielded their calls but this time there was no one to answer the phone to me. Oblivion called.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Life's a bitch and then you die

Back in April I started to write a story called the Catastrophic Effect. I got as far as detailing my father’s death from lung cancer. I also wrote about how forty five minutes after hearing of his death my cousin called to tell me our uncle had committed suicide. Not only was it unusual to hear of such news so closely together, the second death was completely unrelated to the first for the uncle that took his life, was my mother’s brother and was incarcerated in a mental hospital in Glasgow so knew nothing of my father’s death. It was shocking news on top of my father’s death but only because it came so close on the heals of it.

My uncle had been desperate to kill himself for some months as he had great difficulty in coping with the loss of his brother and wife within weeks of each other. As a well healed and seemingly strong individual who held down a professional career for many years it was an immense shock for us to see his degradation into a babbling and angry wreck with suicidal intent at every turn. Nothing we did for him helped ease his anguish and he was like a wounded animal cornered in life with nowhere to go. He could not be reasoned with and was finally sectioned against his will in an attempt to save his life and see him through the worst of his fear and grief to a point where reason could once more be used to encourage him to want to live again. No one bargained for his utter determination to succeed and so on that evening he obtained a wire coat hanger, attached it to a light fitting and hanged himself. He didn’t actually die that night but was effectively brain dead from there on in until he finally got his wish and took his last breath two days later; Suicide – the long term solution to a short term problem.

In a complete contrast to this deeply distressing situation, another uncle was fighting the final stages of secondary bone cancer and desperately clinging to life for he wanted to live so very much, to carry on being here for him and us. The immense effort and pain he endured was deeply etched on his wonderfully kind and intelligent face making it enormously difficult to look at him and not want to sob your heart out just watching him lose the battle bit by painful and heartbreaking bit. But there were to be no tears, no remorse, no outward displays of emotion or recognition that he was dying for this would have distressed him and had us banished from the room until we could pull ourselves together. No matter how much pain he endured he fought the battle of his life with grace, bravery, courage and strength, with fortitude and a determination that had gotten him through life.

Here was a man who was born into poverty and hardship in the east end of Glasgow in the depression of the 30’s to a father who had been embittered and disabled fighting in the bloody battle fields of the first world war. He was a man of immense intellect and the first in his family to obtain a university degree. His heart was the biggest I have ever known and his compassion was endless for the poor and disadvantaged that he represented as a councillor for the poorest ward in Glasgow. He never forgot that education and a magnificent work ethic was his passport out of poverty and he worked tirelessly as a teacher and a councillor to help as many willing participants as possible achieve that same goal through the same opportunities that he had been given. He was my mentor, friend, inspiration, uncle and father substitute and shining light in a young life that had endured much violence and hardship at times. His and my aunt’s home was my refuge in times of fear. I studied science as my major because he was a scientist and I so wanted to be like him. He instilled in me a love of all things scientific and physics fascinated me. But mostly he infused in me an understanding that real strength in a man is the gentleness of spirit, the kindness and the ability to forgive that love brings and that bigotry, violence and hatred are enemies to be thwarted at all times. It was his utter belief that life was for living and living well that gave him his strength and deep need to survive.

So, here was a juxtaposition of incredible extremes; two men fighting their own personal battles; one to die and another to live.

I have no anger for the uncle who killed himself. I don’t know whether it is a brave or a cowardly decision to take your own life. I cannot enter his state of mind and find out what drove him; I can only try to understand that it was his wish, his right to do what he did with his life. Even with my psychological knowledge and understanding I cannot offer a plausible insight but I do hope fervently that he is at peace.

The week following my father’s death and uncle’s suicide was a flurry of detail, arrangements and communication with all who needed to know and be there to say goodbye. On the Wednesday we waved off my father, on the Thursday it was time to see off my uncle but on that morning, my other uncle died.

It was a bizarre netherworld kind of existence and everything seemed to enter a slow motion kind of reality. For a time I was angry that my other uncle lost his battle. Grief brought out the child in me and every fear I once buried, every injustice I felt bubbled to the surface. I raged at the world for taking my protector, mentor and friend but in time I came to realise life and death are bedfellows that must be lived and endured and that the natural cycle was indeed working as designed.

His funeral was a grand affair for my uncle was halfway through a four year tenure as Glasgow’s Lord Provost and Lord lieutenant to the queen. In the years before Scottish devolution, he was Glasgow’s leading politician and the Queen’s representative for all things royal in Glasgow. His death in office meant a funeral of almost state proportions was to be held. Police lined the streets, people turned out in their thousands to say goodbye to one of the most popular Lord Provosts ever to hold office and the press were there in their droves. It is my only experience of being photographed and filmed at every turn as we travelled with my aunt in the official car that lead the procession – a deeply intrusive moment in my life. My uncle was a practicing Catholic who was devout in his faith and the head of the Catholic church in Scotland, Cardinal Winning insisted on leading the service with a multitude of bishops in attendance. The Queen was represented by a minor royal and the service was magnificent in its dedication to my uncle and really quite beautiful. He would have been fair chuffed but equally humbled at the turnout and the depth of feeling that was emitted that day. It was a surreal experience seeing so many well known faces all in the same place.

I remained in Glasgow for a few more days for my mother was not entirely robust in her health and when you lose one parent, the surviving one becomes even more precious. The truly depressing news that her husband, my stepfather was in the terminal stages of cancer had been told to me by his son. My mother was unaware that he was dying and no one knew how to tell her for she had a weak heart - a legacy from a massive heart atack that she had suffered four years before. A few days later I returned home to England and immersed myself in work. I was full of confused emotions at the death of my father, the callous suicide of my uncle and the shocking loss of my dearly loved mentor. I had no idea how to work through such an extreme set of emotions and as usual, work was my salve. I carried on almost zombie like just going through the motions for it was all that I could do to get myself out of bed and showered in the morning. I carried on for a week and almost collapsed from exhaustion and grief on the Friday night, but glad that I had made it through the week with no major catastrophes happen in front of colleagues.

At 7.45am the next morning the phone rang, dragging me from an exhausted slumber. It was my step-father’s son. I felt my blood run cold as I waited for him to tell me he had died. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I kept asking him to repeat what he had just said for what he did say just did not compute. My brain refused to take it in such was the god awful shock at what I was hearing. I could hear him speak and it sounded like he was a million miles away in a parallel universe with his voice just seeping through.

I collapsed onto the floor, dropping the phone as I did so. My life felt like it was ending before me and I didn’t care, welcomed it, prayed for it, was ready to make sure it happened. I ran to the toilet and threw up over and over again as I sobbed and wailed and cursed God for taking her. My mother had died exactly one month after my father.