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.