Grief not only torments: it teases, too.
Just as you think you might be turning a corner, moving forward, feeling more able to do things grief grabs you again. Stamps on you. Rips the scabs off the wounds that have been carefully healing, and makes them bleed once more.
This happened to me last week: I had experienced what for me were a really good couple of days. Feeling positive, lively, like the ‘old’ Leigh.
The next morning I woke up feeling angry. The rage was entrapped inside my chest, a mass of fearsome monsters clamouring to get out. Frustratingly, I could not articulate what exactly, specifically I was angry with – I was furious with life, the universe and everything.
I wanted to shout at everyone – even if I have no idea what I would have said. It was an overwhelming urge to express my hurt and my pain to a world that seems to be carrying on as normal when my world has been destroyed.
Objectively, it is understandable that I would feel angry. After all, my ‘normal’ pregnancy ended far too early and in dramatic fashion with a rare, life-threatening complication. My much-wanted, much-loved son Hugo died in my arms after a brave 35 day fight to live.
Anger, in combination with confusion, was an overriding emotion during the earliest days after Hugo’s death. Before this happened, I was generally a relaxed person with a laissez-faire attitude to life. While I would get impassioned about issues that were important to me, I would rarely get really angry with anyone about anything.
Grief can feel frighteningly overwhelming, especially in the early days. That meant the anger felt particularly disturbing to me, and I felt exasperated when it returned – which, of course didn’t help the anger.
During this time, I had another urge – to listen to Nirvana, one of my favourite bands. This in itself represented progress, because I have been disinterested in music for the past few months. One song in particular kept circulating in my head: Come as You Are. I realised this lyric has a particular resonance:
Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, is quoted as saying the meaning of the song is “people and what they are expected to act like.” While others’ unreasonable expectations of a bereaved person’s recovery after grief can be an issue, the lyric helped me remember that the journey of grief is never linear.
Grief exists in a time-space continuum with no respect or consideration for the passage of time.
The Kubler-Ross five stages of grief model is often used to describe the steps the bereaved will follow:
This model is incredibly useful in terms of articulating the emotions that the bereaved commonly feel after losing a loved one. It helps to know that your emotions are ‘normal’, especially when it feels like the world has disappeared from under your feet.
The trouble with the list is that it makes grief seem neat and tidy. It would be wonderful if you could progress through each stage like a project plan, plotted out in a Gantt chart.
But it doesn’t work like that. It is so much more complicated. Grief is messy, ugly and painful.
There are occasions where you feel each of the stages within the course of a day, and even – as I did in the raw days after Hugo’s death – within the space of an hour. My head was spinning, and I did not know which way was up.
Grief cannot be compared with the emotions of ‘normal’ life. I thought it might be useful to compare and contrast non-grief and grief emotions in a (wholly unscientific) graph.
The non-grief emotion graph shows how in ‘normal’ life (with everyday things, everyday troubles) your mood goes up and down, undulating over the course of time. The grief graph is a right old mess: it demonstrates how much is going on in your head, often all at the same time. Highs and lows can happen quickly and unexpectedly.
It is no wonder grief is exhausting.
My heart is broken, and it will remain so for the rest of my life. There is nothing that can repair a parent after the death of their child.
Parents who are further along their grief journey tell me that it does get better. They tell me that you never recover fully – or at least not in a sense that can be meaningfully articulated. The grief just feels different. You find a way to continue with life.
It has been nearly six months since Hugo’s death. The balance of better days against the bad has been shifting recently, and that is a positive to keep hold of.
The graph will help remind me that grief cannot be hurried: it follows its own path, and its own timescale. It will remind me that grief can come crashing down on me when I least expect it. Being prepared for the lows does mean I can prepare some resilience measures to help me get on with life.
Ultimately, though, as Cobain sings: I need to take my time. This is a journey to be taken day-by-day, step-by-step.
I will come as I am.