Some of you may be aware – perhaps through my inconsistent post rate of late – that the last 12 months have been the most difficult, sombre, yet most enlightening period of my life. Tragically, last May I lost my father to cancer quite suddenly. Just getting through each day is a battle not just for me, but the whole family. In the midst of this grief, my family suffered another tragedy this week with the loss of our grandmother – my mother’s mother.
I’m writing this in order to express the experience of grief in a semi-coherent form so that I can better understand it. I confess that eloquence and writing style are secondary for the moment, but please bear with me. I’ve been told that writing is one of the best ways to understand the myriad thoughts running through our heads on a daily basis. Instead of letting those thoughts stew aimlessly in my head, I’ve decided, perhaps misguidedly, to share my experience.
Before somebody very close to you dies, one can only understand grief and loss conceptually. This is not at all a criticism but the reality of life. Before losing my own father, I remember that if I heard news of those who had died, while feeling extremely sad, I was incapable of genuine empathy as I was unaware of the reality. Grief is such a minefield emotionally that simply observing it in somebody else conveys a fraction of what is actually going on.
One of life’s great ironies is that of the few things of which we are certain – like death – we spend our lives in relative denial that it will happen.
Conceptually we all know that someday we will die, but we subconsciously assume that it won’t happen, at least not right away. We take life for granted thinking we have all the time in the world. In another ironic twist however, when it comes to worrying about the mundane irrational bullshit in life which may never ever happen, we can spend hours, weeks or even years obsessing about them – like stressing about what some no-mark boss may think of us or whether we get found out at work as being a fraud.
It is because of this jaded mental state that we take the loss of loved ones so badly. We are shocked, in denial, angry, depressed, and regretful. Indeed, when it happened to me I finally understood why people said there were “stages” of grief. In that immediate moment after you find out a loved one has passed, you are confronted by a sickening devastation that is very difficult to describe – almost suffocating.
About an hour before finding out my Dad had died (I am sure he actually died an hour before I was informed) I remember playing football. Strangely, I could feel something wasn’t right quite, I felt weak and out of breath, as if something was seriously wrong. I had never felt anything like that before, even in my fattest most unfit moments. I put it down to me being tired, but sometimes I think I felt and experienced the very moment somebody who is a part of you is no more.
Nothing can prepare for this type of loss. In a way this is one of the most beautiful things about life – a wilful denial that death hangs over us. I can honestly say that having the ability to mentally and emotionally prepare for death would make for a distressing life and is an ability I would never want. By our historic societal conditioning the death of a loved one will shock, invoke extreme sadness, appal and infuriate – and that’s how it will always be.
Loss and pain
Encountering the loss of a parent was also the most profound experience I have ever had. In that moment, the truth of this life shines so blindingly on your consciousness. You realise how fragile life is, how that standard work anxiety means absolutely nothing and how all of those conflicts and resentments you cling on to are worthless when you go.
After suffering such a devastating loss, at least in my case, I found that I desperately tried to busy myself and look after everybody else around me, neglecting myself. I understand now that this is a form of denial, shame and even fear in being unable, or under-prepared to face the reality. It took me a long while and the amazing support of my wonderful family, girlfriend and friends for me to realise that I needed to grieve too. As soon as I was able to grieve, I could see why I was resisting it so much. Grief can be terrifying in that there is nowhere to go mentally once you’re in it. One just has to accept it. However, I had to go through the process as all of the pent-up emotion I had stored needed an outlet. Without that outlet the consequential internal suffering would have needlessly turned into something far more detrimental.
One does not ‘get over’ a loss. However, the emotion of grief does subside. As with everything: it will pass. The grief never quite leaves you, but it’s easier to deal with each day and it’s only after a significant period where you can meaningfully measure your good progress. In my own experience, grief was also emotionally cleansing. I found I was free to be angry and sad without judgment. I was able to forgive all those I had thought wronged me in some way. I could be at peace. The amazing, yet pitiful reality with this was that it needed a tragic death for me to reach this place.
An enhanced sense of perspective is probably the biggest ‘gift’ (I use that term loosely) that one can acquire following the suffering of a loss. I already try to find something positive in every negative experience I have, and the death of my father was no exception. I was able to clearly see those who were genuine in my life, those who were fakes, those who I loved, and those who loved me and just how pointless so many of our anxieties are. The fragility of life is also amplified and a new sense of humble gratefulness consumes the soul.
This humble gratefulness is still with me today. Part of why I am writing this is to thank all of those special people in my life who were there for me and my family when we most needed them, and who continue to be there for us. I cannot adequately express the love and gratitude I feel towards each and every one of you. You gave me the strength to be the best man I could be for my family and for that I am eternally grateful. I appreciate many of these loved ones didn’t know how to react to my experience. However, what was so beautiful was that etiquette and form went out of the window as there is no way to ‘act’. All you can do for someone who suffers any tragedy is just be there in whatever way works for all parties.
To my extraordinary girlfriend for immediately leaving work and seeing me when I was trying to do too much, for taking me away and focussing me; to my friends who just sat in the car with me, took a day off to come to the funeral, took me to Costco, laughed with me, watched football and terrible reality TV with me and to those who simply distracted me, were patient and non-judgmental – I humbly thank you. Please know that I love you all and count myself incredibly fortunate that I have you in my life. I hope to be there for you too.
My wonderful family remain strong because of the love and support. My inspirational mother who has very recently lost her mother continues to be a hero. My brother and sister fill me with so much pride. Life doesn’t wait for us. Each day we continue to do our best.
Life is not fair and it’s hard. But, I’ve realised quite starkly that we don’t get another chance at this. We tell ourselves that we can do it tomorrow, or a few years from now, but that day may never come. This fearful procrastination, of which I am guilty, is all of us slowly dying rather than actually living. Worryingly, I am even finding that as the grief subsides, the regular anxieties of modern life continue to creep back in to my consciousness. The increased perspective I have worked so hard to acquire is slowly being lost. My obligation is to stay vigilant in the face of these sneaky, useless anxieties and remember to recall the truth of what is really important in this life.
If you hate your job, quit. If you want to move abroad, do it. If you want to leave somebody or get married, do it. You will not get another go. This is not a dress rehearsal. Stop worrying about the irrelevancies work, let go of grudges, be happy. Live life and do your best living it! As Michael Jackson once said: “This is it!”
“Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations