The festive period, for most people, is a time of fun and excitement. A chance to reflect on and wrap up the year gone by and to look ahead to an hopefully even better one. However, for many of us, the holiday season is one where attempts at good cheer compete with feelings of sorrow - or a period that is frankly, just shit.
In this piece, three of the Unleashed team share their very different experiences of grief. Anouk shares her ritual of celebrating the life and love of her brother, Logan opens up about his experience of anticipatory grief, and Jo talks from the perspective of supporting a loved one going through grief. Our aim in sharing these deeply personal experiences is to remind everyone that Christmas, more than anything, is a time for kindness and compassion — to yourself, and towards others -because ultimately, you don’t know what this time of year might mean for someone.
My brother Eric, died on March 22nd, 2015. On February 22nd 2015, he had been diagnosed with terminal melanoma in his anus (and no, I also didn’t know you could get skin cancer where the sun doesn’t shine). One month. One month from seemingly all ok to death. That kind of grief doesn’t leave you. Does any?
As Eric was severely mentally and physically disabled and 9 years older than me, life with him in it and me caring for him was all I knew. The night I came home from the hospital after having been born, he refused to go to bed. He stood over my cot all night watching me. Not sleeping for one minute. We had a bond, he and I. And my heart was filled with pure and unadulterated joy anytime he was around.
As I write this, Eric’s birthday is in two days. There are two days a year where I still stop functioning, I drink and I cry. No, I wail. I stare at photos of him with love and I get angry that he died so young — at 45, and so quickly. I am a complete mess on those two days.
Those two days, the days I allow myself to pause from ‘ordinary life’, are the anniversary of his death and his birthday. It has taken a few years to get here — in the first 3 or so years, each day was hard and not a day went by where I didn’t think of him and cry, even if just a little. I couldn’t escape Eric’s absence, I felt it everywhere I went. I had to force myself to do everything, anything. I hated the space that Eric left in my heart. It should have been filled with him. Not grief. In the words of one of my favourite authors, “Grief was all I could feel. It crowded my thoughts and filled my heart. It left no room for anything else.” This was true for me too.
Now, the same happens but only on those two days. It happens twice per year. But I let it. I don’t fight it. In fact, I invite it in and actually, I look forward to those days now. I cherish them as time with and for him. As soon as I wake, I light a long burning candle. Everyone in my house knows that this candle is not to be blown out until it fades naturally. Once I light the candle, I feel his presence and I talk to him. I say “hello Eric.” And silly as it may sound, I feel he is there with me. When the candle dies (around 5 days later), in my mind it is Eric telling me that it is time for him to leave again and I remind him that I love him. I look forward to this ritual now.
As a result of my own personal experience, I’m a firm believer that intentionally making the time to grieve, to yearn, to love, to feel the pain, is the only way to make it through the rest of the days.
It’s two days until his birthday and I’ve already not been able to stop thinking of him for a number of days in the lead-up. And as much as I still feel my broken heart (I doubt this will ever pass — which I simply see as my love for him so actually I hope it never does), I know that in two days, he will be back by my side.
Following a number of health issues, in no small part due to alcohol and substance abuse, my father was placed in a medically induced coma. We’ve not seen or spoken to each other in a number of years, the majority of my adult life in fact. Yet still, receiving the news of his declining health impacted me. With our relationship what it is, I have questioned whether I am allowed to grieve and asked myself how I am supposed to do it.
‘Allowed’ is a weird word choice, but in society, we have a myopic accommodation for the intensity and duration of our grieving. (The average/typical length of bereavement leave from the workplace is three to five days and in some cases, this applies only to immediate(?) family) . We learn to assess how a person should grieve and for how long, based almost entirely on the relationship they had with the dead.
What then, for instances of anticipatory grief, or the loss of an estranged person?
My fathers declining health came as a shock but not a surprise. Outliving my father is something I came to expect, both because the expectation is that children outlive their parents, but also given his lifestyle. I know this isn’t always the case but in a small subconscious way, we try to prepare ourselves for this outcome early on.
That subtle, in the background, expectation to one day receive this news is by no means preparative.
If we define grief as an intense sorrow, what about the expectation of death? Is there a lessened sense of sorrow, is it diluted because of a vague timeline?
Are the early (warning!) stages of loss / expectant loss still a valid form of grief? Can I get three to five days to process this, please?
As if the questions I have on anticipatory grief aren’t quite enough to contend with, in my own mind, I find myself considering also whether I can grieve for a person I’m estranged from?
Unsurprisingly, I’d never given much thought to how someone (I) might react to the news that an estranged person or relative has died. Would they (I) feel grief? Intense sorrow, or would there be a feeling of relief, that the person is no longer a part of their (my) life. Will they (I) feel guilty if the latter is true?
I guess, no matter the duration of the estrangement, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, death affects us intensely and in often unexpected ways.
I grieve what could have been, reflecting on a time when I loved my father, wanted to love him or when I wanted him to love me and how. Grieving for a relationship that now has a deadline for mending. Is there unspoken hope either of us holds that the relationship might be restored somehow?
The impending arrival of death somewhat closes the door on reconciliation. I can’t avoid my feelings by focussing on this sentiment though as the ‘door’ isn’t closed, really. I’m anticipating death, I have the luxury of at least some time. Something I’m sure others would take in a heartbeat.
Yet I’m in limbo.
Not quite ready to explore reconciliation or rekindle a father-son relationship, not sure if that’s even what I want? But I struggled to process my own feelings of grief because, I guess, there’s not been a death yet.
There is a great sadness for many things, however. A sadness not exclusively my own but with empathy for the people close to my father, those adjacent and far removed from me, who will grieve this loss both similarly and differently to me.
I read somewhere once (can’t remember where) that pain demands to be felt.
We believe an immediate and unexpected death deserves our care, warrants compassion and needs time. It’s a personal and individual process. Allowing that pain, that intense sorrow to sit with us can bring far more comfort than questioning our right or motive to the sadness.
So with all these questions, with each new space to explore in the landscape of grief, I’m finding solace in one single truth (I might be holding onto this a lot actually) pain does demand to be felt, and for a myriad of reasons I’m yet to understand, I do feel pain, I feel sorrow, personal and nuanced.
As it has been for the majority of people, 2021 has proven to be an exceptionally difficult year. For myself and my husband, Adam, it has no doubt been the toughest year of our lives.
Adam sadly lost both of his parents six months apart. On both occasions, he was trapped in hotel quarantine in Australia unable to see them, whilst I was in the UK with our young son. We have always been avid travellers and, like many of us, took the freedom of travelling for granted.
Covid changed all of that.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in October 2019, not long after our son was born. We visited her twice within the first three months of her diagnosis, but March 2020 soon put a stop to any further travel.
The rest of that year was spent phoning and FaceTiming her as the only way of keeping in touch. We knew that Christmas 2020 was likely to be her last, and after numerous conversations, we made the tough decision for Adam to fly out on his own to visit her. Our son was 18 months old and with strict 14-day hotel quarantine on arrival into Australia, we thought this was the least worst solution.
Two days into his quarantine, Adam had a phone call to say his father had unexpectedly died from a heart attack. To make things worse, he wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel until he’d finished his full 14 days of quarantine. He was on his own, stuck in a small hotel room, grieving for his dad. Unimaginable.
Fast-forward a few months later to May 2021. Adam had returned to the UK in January and we were finally emerging out of a tough winter lockdown. We had recently been told his mum now had three months to live and had planned a final trip to see her. A couple of weeks later we received a phone call to say that she had gone into hospital with pneumonia and three months was now looking like a few days. Adam jumped on a plane to once again endure the agonising torment of hotel quarantine, in the hope that he’d get out in time to say goodbye to her. The Australian government made no exceptions for an earlier release. After numerous requests, phone calls and emails, he did get an exemption to leave the hotel for a few hours (in full PPE kit) to say goodbye to his mum, who at this point had rapidly declined and had mere hours to live. Tragically, by the time he got to the hospital, she had already passed away. Adam was then forced to return to his hotel room to complete his remaining 13 days of quarantine, only this time grieving for his other parent.
I’ll never forget the moment I ran up to him at Arrivals in Heathrow airport a few weeks later (queue a very soppy Love Actually moment!). Being reunited as a family, I naively thought that the hardest part was over. But it was at this point that the grief really hit him.
Over the summer, there were a lot of dark days. Emotions of sadness, anger, guilt, love, resentment, helplessness, and Adam even questioning his own place and purpose in the world.
I desperately wanted to be there for him, to listen, to support him, to let him grieve properly, for him to know that we all loved him and that it was going to be ok. A lot of the time I didn’t always know what he needed, and when I asked him, he didn’t know either.
One of my biggest learnings is that grief isn’t linear. I remember one morning (a few months since his mum had passed), Adam seemed to be doing ok. He’d got up, gone for a run and had more of a spring in his step. An hour later I found him sat on the bed with silent tears running down his face. Grief is messy, unpredictable and can creep up at any moment.
There were days when I felt completely helpless. To add to everything, I had found out I was pregnant whilst he was still in Australia. We were of course delighted, but it was another big life event that we needed to prepare for, whilst still processing the trauma of the last few months. I think for a while, we were both operating in a state of existence and trying to get through each day as best we could.
A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of his dad’s death and seven months since his mum’s. Whilst Adam is doing better, we’ve accepted that grief will never go away. Christmas is fast approaching which is going to be difficult for him (his first without both of his parents). We are taking some much needed time off — partly as a chance to unwind and relax — to reflect and celebrate his parents — but also to look ahead to the future and the possibilities it holds.
I can only speak about my own experience of supporting someone through grief. There is definitely no right or wrong way and each person will be different. All I can say is let it in and feel it. Let it be messy and let it be unpredictable. Because that’s really the only way it can be.
Grief is many different things. Sometimes we expect to feel it, and other times we don’t. However, it affects us all in very different ways. Anticipatory grief, unexpected bereavement, loss of a loved one, estranged, reconciled, unbroken or otherwise… there is never enough time to prepare our minds and bodies for the process of grieving. But there is so much time to become better acquainted with these feelings if we just afford ourselves the permission and kindness to let it in and feel.
We would like to thank Jo, Logan and Anouk for sharing their stories so vulnerably. We would also like to wish everyone a safe, peaceful and healthy holiday season full of kindness, love and compassion — both for yourself and for others.
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