When I started writing this, I realised that I am somewhat ignoring the whole covid-19 situation. I felt a pang of guilt for sidelining the collective grief that is going on in the world, the overwhelming feeling that our lives are forever changed (though one could argue that this is an opportunity to change things for the better – life & British society at the current time is cruel to many). While I have entered many spaces in which people are offered space to talk about their grief & pain, many choose to talk about the fate of the planet given the climate emergency, the corruption of society & wider issues. I want to address the deeply personal, the griefs we have experienced which we bury deeply & are in need of air.
There is a narrative that when you have lost a loved one, you go through some kind of one-year timeline in which maybe you cry a lot at the start – but by the end of the year, you are ready to ‘move on’ & not talk about your loved one so much. Years later you are not expected to feel the wound reopen & tear you apart. You are not given the same space to cry, & talk about it as you were in the beginning. Life keeps going, your grief & pain are still with you, & you are expected to perform as if your heart isn’t still broken in the place their loss has left you – raw.
The reality of grief, or at least the reality of grief that I experienced after my mum died, does not fit the cultural expectation we see in films. Those ‘5 stages of grief’ modelled by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were certainly not in order, often occurred simultaneously & paradoxically, missing out a huge chunk of what day to day life felt like.
At the start I experienced an anger so intense that I felt it bashing my chest endlessly, which occurred at the same time as a deep emptiness. Every room I was in was filled with space, all I could feel was the crushing emptiness that surrounded me. Ignore the chairs, the tables, the people, the books – all I could see was the space that was filled with nothing. To add to this strange & unexpected experience, I was extremely anxious. About everything. It was as if a fire alarm was going off in my head telling me that something was wrong, something else was going to go wrong & nothing was safe. No amount of reasoning with myself could help, because, having seen my mum die, I knew that my worst fears can come true. The worst can happen.
Last year I bought an illustrated book called ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’ by Jayde Perkin which explores her grief & life after her mother’s death. & it was the first time in which I felt like I wasn’t alone – someone else was sharing their truth about what this grief feels like, how it consumes you. We need more of this. We need to grieve loudly. We need everyone to know that this universal experience shouldn’t be relegated to crying alone, that our loss isn’t contagious, won’t harm others, but can be met with empathy & understanding. We can share our grief, we can talk about our lost loved ones years later & allow it to hurt as excruciatingly as it does.
During the middle of the hard lockdown, I was not doing well. Having lost several people over the past few years, a global pandemic set off my anxiety. & really, all I wanted was my mum to tell me it was going to be OK. Without this being able to happen, my grief reared its head intensely again & I sought to squash it. Reader, I did the opposite of everything I have just purported. In the spaces I was given to talk, I made jokes. I denied the reality I was experiencing & performed the ‘stiff upper lip’ trope.
Living in a capitalistic, patriarchal society which tells us that feeling our emotions is weak, & something not to burden others with – I squashed my feelings again, afraid others would think I am over-sensitive, over-dramatic & not ‘over’ my mum’s death enough.
Fortunately, I was living in a wonderful space with kind people, one of whom told me about the world of professional mourners (read more here). That’s right – there were traditions of professional mourners who loudly & openly sobbed & expressed the grief those left behind are feeling without shame. In fact, after a quick search through the internet, I have found details of this practice existing today (read more here) beginning in England in the Victorian era. The enactment of our grief is not something which has always been shunned to the private, it is something that is ours to do what we want with.
Someone you love has just died? Express yourself however you want. Cry, scream, panic, feel numb, do all of these at the same time.
Someone you love died years ago? Ditto.
Convey your feelings however you want. Don’t buy into this Western idea that we should be fully functioning robots whose grief can be packaged neatly & moved on from. Don’t Mari Kondo your feelings.
We need to be open about how this really feels & manifests for us, because, otherwise – we will live in a world in which we don’t honour each other’s broken parts, in which we all walk around with these losses kept hidden in the shadows.
The more we talk about this, the more we can support one another through the darkness. & normalise feeling all that this life has to offer, both the pain & the joy.
Take the space that is offered to you to talk about your wound & really talk about it. The people who can be there will be there. Know that others are holding their own grief inside too & are privately seeking permission to speak about it in the open.
Grieve wildly, grieve joyfully, grieve painfully, grieve loudly.