I’d thought today I’d tackle a topic we’re all - especially in Britain – not great at talking about – grief. As its father’s day, it only seems apt that I talk about the loss of my own father 9 years ago. This is not a post hoping to gain sympathy but simply to put my experiences into words and I hope in some way what I talk about in this post may be helpful to some.
My dad died when I was 19 after many years suffering from cancer. As if being a teenager isn’t tough enough, trying to watch a parent suffering is traumatic. Unfortunately, I was quite used to losing people – I had lost 3 grandparents by the age of 16, a friend when we both 8 and due to being from a large Irish Catholic family, I’ve been to more funerals than I can count.
I came back from university a few weeks before my father passed away in December 2011, when he found out that there was no more treatment available for him. At that time, we all still hoped he’d be around for some time yet, not less than a month. I went back to university after Christmas because that’s what my dad would have wanted – the university was very supportive and gave me special consideration for my winter essays and exams but after that, it was business as usual. I had struggled during my first year anyway due to being homesick and only making a handful of friends and now all I could think of was completing my degree and getting home to my family. At no point do I feel like I buried my grief. I cried a lot and I never avoided talking about my dad or what had happened.
A few years went by and it was now the lead-up to my wedding and I was buying a house with my fiancé. As expected, these milestones all brought up thoughts of wishing my dad was there to give advice, walk me down the aisle and give a speech (I know it would have been hilarious, mainly at my expense).
Six months after my wedding, I got what I still consider to be my dream job and my dad still wasn’t around to see what I’d achieved – it may sound strange but even years later you can still feel like they will walk through the door and say it’s all been a big mistake. When I was younger and my grandpa had died, I used to make up stories that he had actually been living as a secret agent. That’s one of the things about grief, it isn’t always rational and you can find yourself making ridiculous bargains in the middle of the night for a chance to change the past.
One thing I have struggled to get past (in some ways I blame films and tv for this) is that my dad never left me a letter. In Hollywood, if someone is dying they’ll record a message or have a package arrive for a special occasion. I used to hold onto that idea and on my 21st birthday, my now husband gave me a letter. I ridiculously thought it was from my dad and that he had been holding onto it until this time. It was in fact a lovely note telling me to a pack for a surprise trip. I was distraught and also guilty at being upset at what was a lovely present. I’ve since learned to accept that I won’t be getting anything from beyond the grave. Maybe he thought he had more time, maybe he’d said everything he felt was important or maybe he didn’t know what to say? I can’t begin to imagine what a letter to any children I may have talking about my impending death would look like so why should I assume my dad would find it any easier? There are some things we cannot change and that sadly is life.
Grief has many stages and makes you feel many different things – some seem illogical for those on the outside. Guilt and blame are the two hardest to deal with. If someone has been suffering, you may feel relief at their death as they’re no longer in pain, and then hate yourself for wishing them away. I was, and occasionally still am, very angry. Angry with the cancer, with my dad for leaving and with myself for things I said/ didn’t say/did or didn’t do.
A few months after I’d settled into my job, was comfortable in my house and with my husband, something still didn’t feel right but I couldn’t explain why. My life was good right? I was happy wasn’t I?
In myself I didn’t feel right so I got some help. During my talk therapy sessions, stuff about my dad would inevitably crop up and she suggested I go to bereavement counselling. At first I thought the idea was silly as it had been so long but eventually I plucked up the courage.
My counsellor at Cruse was brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, it was strange at first and it took me a few sessions to be 100% honest as I was so determined not to cry in front of a stranger but then it became liberating talking to someone who didn’t know anything about me or my dad. She made me realise that in some ways I had buried some aspects of my grief by carrying on and getting on with university, my career, wedding etc. and when the rest of my life fitted into place, the grief was still there. In some ways, I had skipped some stages.
A lot of the anger I felt was towards myself and she got me to write a letter forgiving myself – the majority of these things are still things that bother me today but are things that I cannot change and only seem big to me.
If I could give advice to anyone suffering from a bereavement, whether new or old, all I can say is that it doesn’t leave you but you learn to live with it. It will change you. I grew up very quickly during my teenage years. Get help if you need it and talk to people. Your feelings are valid, even if they’re different from other people who share the same loss.
Remember that no one copes with things in the same way and there’s no shame if you’re struggling, no matter how long ago the death was. Even for me today it can feel like I lost my dad yesterday and many years ago at the same time – the idea that I haven’t seen him in nearly 10 years can be suffocating.
If people ever tell you that you should be over it by now, ignore them. Obviously, if a bit of time has passed and you’re struggling with everyday life then a bit of help might be a good idea, but otherwise, cope in the way that is right for you. Even if that means having a massive cry. As we know now, mental health is super important and it’s ok not to be ok. Greif can get caught up with anxiety and depression and they feed each other so dealing with your grief could make a huge difference to your life.
If you want to support someone who is grieving, most importantly be there for them. I have a very supportive family and husband who I wouldn’t have been able to cope without. Don’t deflect to your own situation and don’t ignore the person who has died – unless it’s clear someone doesn’t want to talk about them. So many times people have said to me that they hadn’t wanted to bring my dad up in conversation as they were worried about upsetting me. I love talking about my dad – he was the funniest, cleverest and kindest man in the world. A few years ago I went to a family wedding – it was a wonderful weekend but for me, the highlight was reconnecting with family, some who I hadn’t met since I was a child. I learnt so many stories about my dad and it was great talking to new people who knew him before me.
Don’t be afraid to find out more about your lost loved one. At the suggestion of my bereavement counsellor, I met up with my dad’s best friend recently and we grabbed a pint. At first, I was nervous as he’d be gone for so many years but in the end, it was a brilliant idea as I learnt so many things about my dad when he was growing up.
Cruse are a brilliant charity who support those who have lost someone so I recommend for anyone to get in touch if they need help and also to support them in the brilliant work they do. The Good Grief Trust is also a brilliant resource and has so much information and support for those who have lost someone or are trying to help someone who has.
I hope this post has been helpful in some way and finally, if you’re ever struggling and would like a sympathetic ear with someone who’s been through loss, I’m around.