What I have learned from my grief

(excerpt from my book ‘When to love means to let go’, published on Amazon in 2020)

I have learned so much in my journey with grief and bereavement.

I have learned a lot about anticipatory grief. Shortly after Paul’s death, people would say to me that I was now in the early stages of my bereavement and I realised that that was not true. I had been grieving for Paul since the moment we got the diagnosis of liver secondaries.  My “doer” was strong and did not allow the grief to come to the surface all that often over the following months. But I always knew that it was there somewhere hidden deep inside of me. So, of course, when Paul died it was heart-crushingly sad, but somehow the pain I felt was not entirely new. Anticipatory grief is a phenomenon experienced by many who are in a situation like the one I describe in this book. And I think it is good that we can experience anticipatory grief as it in a way prepares us for the loss we are about to experience.

I have learned how important it is not to rush into anything when newly bereaved.  Only one week after Paul’s death, I dashed into Saint Luke’s Hospital with chocolates and “thank you” cards for the nurses on the different wards we had been on. I also requested to speak with one of the nurses who had been with us in Paul’s final hours, the oncologist and the palliative care nurses. Most of that day is a blur in my memory. I remember that the oncologist and I hugged and he told me that on the night of the day of Paul’s admission, when he already knew that Paul was not going to make it, he had gone home crying. Then I remember clearly asking the palliative care nurse what they had given Paul in his final hours and the response that they had given him only a little bit of Difene. At the time I simply accepted this and did not think about it further, although it did strike me even then that this was a bit odd given what he had previously been on. Only months later, with a mind that was a lot clearer, I asked myself: how could they have given him something as weak as Difene when before he had been on morphine? And today I think that the nurse, seeing my distressed state and probably knowing that no matter what she said I would not take it in anyway, she decided to say this instead of reading from the actual file. Maybe she also wanted to see how much I was actually able to take in of the medical facts and therefore told me something so strange to see how I would react. This is of course all an interpretation on my part. The truth is: I was not ready to visit the hospital on that day and I was certainly not ready to have those conversations. Sometimes I wish I had not gone in on that day and that I could go in now and have the conversations with the nurses and doctors with a lot more clarity and ask questions and be able to really take in the answers. So, if you are newly bereaved and you feel the urge to go back to where your loved one died and/or ask questions of the medical staff, I would advise that you give yourself a little more time. You will probably be able to have a much more meaningful conversation with them at a further remove. By the way, I think this goes for all kinds of big decisions we have to make following our loved one’s death: do not rush. I know of a lady who, following her husband’s death, decided that the best thing for her to do was to sell her house and move to a different town, but, months later, when she was already living somewhere new, she regretted having given up on the home that they had shared for over 40 years of marriage. It is better not to make big decisions for a while after the death of a loved one.

I have learned that grief affects everybody differently and that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. There were times, particularly in the first couple of months after Paul’s death, when I felt that I was not grieving right, that I needed to cry more, eat more, sleep less. But over time and through reading a lot on grief and bereavement and being an active participant of the McMillan “Bereaved Spouse” forum and reading a lot about other bereaved people and their experience, I have realised that I am okay and everybody else is okay and that grief is a very personal experience for each and everyone of us. I want to remind us all that grief affects everybody differently and that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to mourn for a loved one. All we can do to facilitate the process of grieving in ourselves or when accompanying a family member or friend in their grieving process is to be kind and compassionate and to allow the process the time and space it needs. So be kind to yourself. And be kind to others who may be grieving.

I have learned that grief is an ever-changing, and not a linear, process. I used to have ideas about grief; for example, that at first I would cry a lot and, as time went on, I would gradually cry less until I would stop crying or that I would feel very bad at first and, over time, feel better and better in myself. But the truth for me was that I would sometimes feel very forlorn and sometimes feel a little better and sometimes feel good but that there was no particular order in which these changing feelings would occur. Sometimes I would have a very mournful day followed by a really good day followed by a very tearful day followed by an okay day. And sometimes I would experience all of the feelings from very low to very high all on the same day or even all of them within one hour.  I realise that there has been a little bit of a linear process in the sense that I do have fewer very down days now than I used to have in the immediate aftermath of Paul’s passing. But most of the process is up and down, back and forth, ever-changing and certainly not linear. It never ceases to astonish me. And there is so much comfort in it for me because I do know now that when I am feeling very wistful or a little bit panicked about the future or anxious because I feel sick and Paul is not here to look after me, those feelings will pass and there will be different and better feelings somewhere along the way.

I have learned that it is important not to look too far ahead and not to think too much about the future. Over time we will all know what to do and how we want our life after loss to unfold. You cannot force those changes. In the beginning, I would find that whenever I was looking too far ahead into the future or when people asked me about my future, I was either feeling anxious because I was going to have to live my future without Paul or I would feel overwhelmed by sadness and pain because I realised once more that, no matter what kind of future I was going to have, it was going to be a future without Paul. And so for a while I stopped looking. And I think this is something that is absolutely fine. Over time, I started to look a little bit more and the thought of the future did not cause me the same panic, sadness or pain. I still cannot fully imagine the future without Paul, but my experience day after day after day shows me that there is one. By living your life moment by moment your future is unfolding all the time. You do not need to know what this future is going to look like. Life often takes care of itself.

I have learned that I can find beauty in grieving.  Of course, my grief is very painful for me and I miss my man terribly and wish he were still with me, healthy and well.  But the more I have accepted that Paul is no longer here with me the more I have felt able to find a certain type of beauty in and perhaps through the grieving itself. For example, I was sitting on a bench by the sea on a glorious day in the sunshine last October and I was thinking of Paul and feeling very heavy-hearted that he was not here to experience this moment with me, but then I suddenly felt a lot of peace come over me and I thought something like: But it is only because of Paul that I am able to experience this moment of beauty as beautiful and Paul has taught me to really appreciate the experience of beauty. Look at what your loved one has taught you to appreciate.

I have learned how important good self-care is. It can be so difficult to look after our own needs when we have looked after our loved one’s needs for a long time. In the first couple of months after Paul’s death, I really did not know how to do this “self-care thing”. My natural instinct is to be a caring person for someone else. After the loss of a loved one for whom we have been the sole carer, we do need a lot of self-care because we are physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. But we also need a lot of time to learn to look after ourselves. The exhaustion after Paul’s death was a physical one because I had neither slept nor eaten much particularly during the final weeks of Paul’s life and then there was all the crying and all the pulling-my-self-together moments when that was necessary which took a lot of extra energy. The exhaustion was an emotional one because I was dealing with all my sadness, pain of loss, panic about the future and longing for Paul. And there was mental exhaustion too because I had been doing so much thinking for months. I felt so run down and tired for the first couple of months after Paul’s death that I often thought I would get sick. And it was during that time that I started to do things for myself again. It did not feel comfortable at first, but over time, very gradually, I started to enjoy preparing  meals for myself, making healthy smoothies, listening to music, watching films, getting back into walking, getting back into reading, returning to meditation. I am a work in progress. I think I will never be a person who is particularly good at looking after herself. But I am better now and I can feel that it is good for me. So, even though it is difficult, try and give something back to yourself when your loved one is gone. Even though this thought may be very unfamiliar to you, you do deserve it.

Paul always told me that he would love to leave a legacy or that he was wondering what kind of a legacy “somebody like him” would leave. When he said “somebody like me” he meant somebody like him who was not a famous artist, musician, singer, somebody who had not done something of huge importance in the world. In my view, every single one of us leaves their own legacy behind. We do not have to be famous to do that. There is not one person who does not describe Paul as gentle, kind, loving, and caring. He touched the hearts and minds of so many people with his beautiful personality. And that is a truly beautiful legacy to leave behind.”

 

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