I was recently asked for advice from a wonderful friend who I care a great deal about. This is my response, drawing upon my own life experiences, which I wrote in one sitting as a direct reaction to someone I care about asking for advice on how to cope with bereavement. Afterwards I was keen to give the person something to reflect upon in the future, and asked permission to blog this, as it might help others who have also recently lost someone incredibly special and important to them too. Here is my response.
Advice used to be hard to give, but as my scenario was so long ago now, it’s utterly normal for me to be able to be objective enough to help someone I care about who is grieving. It’s been 17 years since my dad passed away. I am still grieving, but now, I am happy to.
In many ways I find it easier to advise only knowing a very small amount about what has happened in your situation. This is because I am on the other side of the grief that you have just started. Your grief is a journey, an old kit bag that you learn to hide away when the in-laws come round, but where you always know how to find it, and what is inside it, and how it can help you as you carry it around for the rest of your life, slowly loving it more and more and more and more. You are going to fall in love with the grief years down the line, and you will let it hurt you, and make you laugh forever more.
Guilt. You feel guilty. This is FAKE guilt. This is your mind picking at the loose cotton ends on the reel. You will learn how to put your reel into your kit bag in good time. Guilt will make you think simply untrue things, and will try to stop you from being happy and content. It will attempt to bring you down by surprise and it will sometimes succeed. It doesn’t matter if it does. You get up again afterwards. It’s a bit like stubbing your toe. Do you know how many times you have stubbed your toe? No. You won’t remember how many times guilt makes you think incorrectly either. It just will, but you will learn to spot it and stop it when you are ready.
The hole. The hole is the hardest thing to live with. At the start it is all you can do not to think about it. It aches. It tries to remind you at the worst times and can bring you down like a jab to the back of the knees if you let it. You won’t let it. But it will anyway. You will stop and glaze over in Sainsbury’s looking at the cheese section and lose minutes and hours of your life wandering into daydreams. This is normal. They get smaller and happen less frequently over time. This is where your kit bag comes in handy. If you have to get on and have things to do, go and get your kit bag, pull out the smelling salts you stored in there earlier, and put ‘the hole’ in the kit bag. You will put a lot of holes in the kit bag over the next few years. As holes don’t contain anything your kit bag will never get full. Your kit bag will remember everything that you think you have forgotten. That is part of the hole. You will start to convince yourself that you have forgotten unforgettable things and memories about your loved one. A smell? A conversation? A favourite colour? You have not forgotten a single thing. It’s in your kit bag. If your kit bag chooses not to let you have that memory back when you ask for it, then it is because your kit bag knows you are still in shock. You will remain in shock for anything up to and beyond three years. The hole knows how to read you, and how to get your attention. During anniversaries and birthdays, the hole will visit, either a day or two early, or a day or two late, before it will start arriving on time. This is not a worry but is the way your kit bag knows when you are able to cope with a little more of ‘the hole’. At first you fight with the hole, and then you recognise the hole, and then at long last, you cherish the hole, and in turn, eventually it will make you feel at peace, as you learn to live alongside it forever, and that that is no bad thing.
The strength. The strength begins to show up immediately, only it’s the hardest thing to spot. This is a resolve, a sternness and realisation that a clock always remains ticking somewhere and that you have somewhere to be. You have someone to meet, a different person, who you love. Your life is divided between many people who you love, and the strength will stir and guide you into the arms of those who will not speak, but will shut the fuck up and give you a hug. The strength finds your true friends and reveals them to you when you are at your lowest. It will supercharge them and turn them into heroes. It will guide them unquestioningly to your heart when it begins to crumble, and they will deliver it back to you as a rhubarb pudding, all warm and sweet and smelling of memories.
The truth. The truth will take the longest time to reveal itself, as it has all the guilt to sift through, and it has to negotiate with the kit bag for your belongings. Once it has access, in two years or in ten years, it will present you with a clear picture of what has only just happened. You will understand it in a way that brings you peace, and that leaves you feeling full of love and with clarity of feeling. You will at this point understand your feelings once again, and you will recognise pain and anger as separate things once more, and be able to steer those emotions back to the positive things that you did before the grief had a reason to be there.
The end. The end does not exist. That is what everyone does not have the balls to tell you. You will always feel an amount of pain, and you will always know that a hole exists, and although you know it will never close, you will also know that it gets smaller every single day. When I spend time with my father, (which I do whenever I can) I laugh. I used to cry, but I laugh and I remember and I sing and I curse and I laugh some more. I can never change that he is gone. I can change what he sees as a spirit, whether he is really there as a spirit or not, and that’s good enough for me. I feel him standing next to me, hugging me sometimes. That took years to find but it found me, not the other way round. I don’t believe in God personally. I believe in humans being wonderful to each other and that’s about it, but I do FEEL my dad. I don’t need a book to explain that. It’s eternal, whatever the fuck it is, and it’s a damn sight bigger than me. The end is when you realise that there isn’t one, and that it’s ok that there isn’t, because your kit bag has it covered.
With all my love