Despite my best efforts I have never found ‘the’ passage or quote that perfectly captures the complexity of grief. Being a writer, this pains me. I long to be able to describe it to you. I have done so for some time now.
When I was 13, my dad suddenly passed away. He was 42. I remember the moment my mum told my brother and I, fighting back her tears as we choked on our own. I have never known such raw anguish. We walked around the block as she tried to soothe us, absolve us of our pain. I wish someone could have held her. She had lost her own dad less than a year before and now the man she had loved since she was 17 years old. We ate Domino’s for tea – I remember that the shock did not suppress my appetite and I mindlessly inhaled food as if it were business as usual. That night I slept in my mum’s bed, too immature to provide her with the words that she needed to hear.
Whilst loss is both universal and inevitable, grief is crudely personal, which is why I can’t tell you what it is. I can only tell you what it might feel like.
“Once I accepted grief and loss are inevitable parts of life I was able to take back my power and start to control how I respond to it.”
The thing about grief is that it isn’t something that can be deemed right or wrong, nor is it a competition to be won or lost. There isn’t an end point or neat conclusion. Even when you think you have progressed, it returns and continues to manifest in the strangest of ways. It sneaks up on you at the most inconvenient of times, it dulls and blunts the sweetest of moments, it makes you appreciate the little things, it chokes you, it scares you, it grounds you.
The year before last I was reminded of the intense power of it when I went through a particularly difficult breakup. The moment I was cast off felt emotionally akin to that summer’s day in June when we lost my dad. It took my breath away, I sobbed until my face ached, I lay on the floor like I used to when I was a teenager trying to make sense of the events that were unfolding and once again my mum slept next to me and told me everything was “going to be okay… this too shall pass.”
Grief is always going to be a part of my life. I am always going to be held in its tender embrace and this is both saddening and comforting. Someone had left me again but that was it – my world did not implode. Once the dust had settled I started again just like I had all those years before. Once I accepted grief and loss are inevitable parts of life I was able to take back my power and start to control how I respond to it.
“Grief has given me an infinite amount of empathy and love. I dish out both as if my life depends on it, because I understand how precious life can be.”
For me, grief is best explained in waves rather than stages. It washes over me. Sometimes its grip can plunge me into deep periods of sadness and sometimes it will fleetingly remind me of that person. A man will pass me in the street wearing my dad’s aftershave and that’s all it takes: I am immediately floating in grief. Then it passes, and I continue with my day, a semblance of normality returns.
I miss my dad every day. His death will always be my anchor, the thing that defines and shapes my responses and outcomes. The hardest part of coming to terms with this is accepting that I will never be the carefree person I longed to be as a teenager.
Trauma has robbed me of the ability to float through life untouched. It has altered the way I function; I will probably continue to be a workaholic, it gives me a sense of purpose and an outlet for my sadness. However, grief has given me an infinite amount of empathy and love. I dish out both as if my life depends on it, because I understand how precious life can be. Loss taught me that grief can be a superpower when we learn to experience every aspect of it.
“[Maybe] the inescapable presence of grief will make you face up to the reality of who you really are, the bits you hate, the bits you never knew you loved.”
The stages of loss have been well-documented over the years and most literature on the subject agrees that we will experience a combination of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as a consequence of loss. Grief can also be feelings of numbness, confusion, despair, hopelessness and frustration, but it can also be relief, closure, resolve and hope.
No story of grief is linear. Grief is a current that runs parallel to “normal” life and much like the experience of losing a loved one, life demands that you carry on as best as you can.
Maybe our collective experience of social distancing and the inescapable presence of grief will make you face up to the reality of who you really are, the bits you hate, the bits you never knew you loved. Maybe it will inspire change, motivate you to remove yourself from toxic relationships and maybe it will force you to slow down, to take stock and count your blessings. I don’t think I was mature enough at 13 to have these thoughts, I simply hadn’t lived. Now, at 26, I feel empowered by grief. I know it well.
Grief is uncomfortable, it cannot be skipped. I believed for a long time that the way to defeat it was to be relentlessly productive. To some extent being busy is still my coping strategy and it might be yours too. To sit with grief, to endure it – that’s hard – but in my experience there is no way around it.
Markers of loss are important, they remind you of how far you have come, that you existed and maybe even thrived in spite of your pain. Over the years I have mentally noted mine as a reminder that while that person, place or routine may no longer be here or be accessible, the emotions you feel in relation to their absence are only temporary. These feelings will evolve and so will you.
Jenna is a writer and editor from Manchester. She is passionate about empowering women through print, the art of the Instagram bio and novels that make you cry. She is the editor & co-founder of NRTH LASS. @jennacampbell93