Content note: although not graphically, this post does detail some elements of my mums terminal illness and subsequent death and should be approached with caution if you feel that discussion these topics and of bereavement may distress you. Whilst I have done my best to give insight for those going through a similar ordeal, or whose loved one may be going through a bereavement, I am not an expert and all I can do is call upon my own experiences.
Life After Death: A personal account of dealing with the death of a loved one.
Today is February 4th. Exactly one year ago today, my mother passed away following a prolonged battle against cancer and my own blinkered little world crash landed. In the past year, I have done my very best to deal with the premature death of an extremely well loved, cherished and deeply missed parent. I have learnt a number of lessons with regards to dealing with death and getting on with life following a death. My hope is that by sharing these insights and lessons learnt I can help any other people dealing with a similar situation.
The first and most important thing that I learnt is this: there is no right way to deal with this.
Everybody deals with loss differently. Do not feel pressured by how other family members are reacting, or with how you feel you should be reacting. I didn’t cry for months following mums death. I think perhaps that this is due in part to the nature of my mums illness; we’d known for a long time that she was terminally ill and that eventually she would leave us. I think I did most of my mourning and coming to terms with it a long time prior to her eventual passing. Do not feel guilty if you feel a sense of relief. This is one thing that I personally really struggled with, especially given I hadn’t cried about losing my mum. When the nurse came and told me and my dad that mum had gone, I was struck by an enormous wave of relief as well as sadness. Everybody reacts differently. My reaction was one of mingled relief that the ordeal was over – for both mum, and for the rest of us – and absolute fury at the world. How dare the world steal my mum, how dare fate chose her. This is a feeling I’m still wrangling with a year on. My point is this; however you are feeling right now is perfectly fine. This is a great emotional upheaval. Of course you’re gonna be feeling some weird, horrible, conflicting stuff. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Accept help when it’s offered. Don’t be afraid of being a burden. If there’s ever a time to accept offers of help, it’s now. If you’re offered counselling, special allowance during exams or compassionate leave from work, don’t be afraid to accept it if you feel it would aid you. Obviously if you really don’t feel comfortable doing so, you needn’t pressure yourself in to it either. Just know that generally when people offer you warm thoughts and help if necessary that they do tend to mean it sincerely. I was very dubious, but found that I needn’t have been. People tend to come together in times of crisis and very few people will want to allow you to suffer if they think they can help. People are well meaning - I know it may become a bit wearing to hear constantly how sorry people are to hear of your loss, but try to take it as it is meant.
Take as much time as you need. When my mum passed, I was 2 weeks away from my already deferred dissertation deadline in my final year of my degree. This, mingled with the general sense of anger I was directing at the world, made me extremely unpleasant to be around. After I handed in my dissertation I had a series of (deferred) coursework deadlines, followed by my final year exams. It was at around this time that I became extremely active on Twitter and published a great wealth of angry and/or self pitying blog posts. In my blinkered determination to carry on as normal, I returned to my part time job within 4 days of mum dying. I ended up making myself ill. I was unhealthy, angry and exhausted. With the gift of hindsight, I wish I had been a little kinder to myself. Self-care is extremely important. Since graduating in July, I have been working part time at my 0 hour job, fitting children’s shoes. I have nurtured my hobbies; taking up swimming again for the first time since I was about 13, watched a lot of junk on TV, baked a lot of cakes and generally concentrated on getting myself back in to a happy place. Given everything that happened from October 2012 (mum’s diagnosis) to about July 2013, I feel I owe it to myself. It’s been a year since her death and 7 months since I graduated, but having driven myself in to the ground I have decided to give myself as long as I need to get back up speed. Has this already been too long? Maybe. But frankly, I need to be kinder to myself. That’s the most important lesson I give you, if you’re going through something similar: be kind to yourself.
Remember that everybody reacts to bereavement differently. This is evident within my immediate family. I reacted with absolute fury, and a blinkered determination to get on with life regardless. My brother went the opposite direction; becoming extremely introverted and avoiding talking to people about what had happened. He certainly didn’t speak to me about it, although I don’t know whether he turned to his friends. My dad went down another route again. He attended bereavement groups and became more deeply involved with his Christian faith. The important thing to remember here is that although we all reacted different, none of us reacted wrongly. Of course you’ll hear stories about people who developed a drink or drug problem following a bereavement, or who took out their emotions on themselves in a destructive way. Be kind to yourself, allow yourself to grieve and don’t beat yourself up about how you’re feeling.
Advice for those supporting the bereaved
One thing I learnt is that it is extremely important to have a good support network in place. Your loved one is going through some horrible feelings right now; if they need their space, give it to them. Keep an eye on them, but allow them to come to terms with what happened in their own way and in their own time. Remember that when they’re shouting at you for putting an empty milk bottle back in the fridge and becoming unfathomably hysterical about seemingly inconsequential things that it probably isn’t the milk bottle at all. Be a shoulder to cry and a crutch to hold them up if need be.
I hope that this has been a least a little bit instructive or encouraging for somebody going through an extremely difficult time in their lives. Obviously this is dealing with death following illness and I don’t know how the reaction to a sudden death differs, but I’d say the fundamental points stand: allow yourself to grieve, give yourself time, don’t beat yourself and be kind to yourself. This is a difficult time but time is a great healer.