I don’t often write about my experiences with grief and loss. I write a lot of difficult posts about my mental illness, but this topic has always seemed too painful to put into words. But as part of my grief, I’m trying to break down that barrier, release the words onto the page. It’s been two years since my father passed away quite suddenly, and I’m finally working through my grief. It makes me realise how little I knew about grief and given that for most of my friends, I was the first to experience such a loss, they had no idea either. So here are nine things that nobody teaches you about grief. Things that are important to acknowledge when it happens to you, or to someone you care about.
I never thought much about grief before it happened; I don’t think anybody does. Maybe you saw someone experience it, so you were a bit more enlightened on the matter, but many of us are not taught the ways of grief. If I had to think about it, I probably would have assumed that you’re really sad right after, for a month or so, then you get less and less sad until you’re okay.
How wrong I would’ve been. Your grief doesn’t start at the strongest level and keep diminishing. It isn’t a perfect line; it’s a messy scribble ripping holes through the page. You may not feel the tremendous sadness at the beginning, as you’ll be numb or not processing it. You could be at your saddest point a year later, or even two. And once you feel better, it doesn’t always stay better.
Things do get easier with time, but there isn’t a set amount of time for each stage. As with my point about linear, it isn’t that a certain distance from the event makes everything okay. Many factors influence this; it would make a crazy equation. The time aspect only starts once you’re truly dealing with grief, not running from it, not blocking it, not numbing it, but actually processing it.
There also isn’t a set amount of time to grieve. I felt like after a month or two, I had to be fine, I had used up my grieving time. Grief doesn’t have any limits, not in time and not in pain. Your grief can take a very long time, and as long as you grant it that, it will be okay.
I experienced loss at the age of twenty-one; it terrifies me that some people go through it even younger than that. I wasn’t ready to lose my father; I wasn’t at all prepared if people even can be. Looking back, it was clear that I was in denial; I was in no way able to let go of the possibility of him. I was waiting for him, waiting to wake up from this nightmare, waiting for him to ring my doorbell and tell me that it was all a big misunderstanding. I was still struggling heavily with my undiagnosed personality disorder, torn between trying to please everyone and act fine, whilst going through hell every single day.
I wasn’t ready to grieve, and I didn’t. I numbed myself with substances, and I distracted myself with the mundane, I pretended to be okay. It took me a year and a half to start grieving. That was when everyone assumed I had completely moved on, but I had only begun my process of grief. I needed the time; I needed therapy to get me to a better place mentally so that I dared to start. And I’m still grieving two years after he is gone, I am still working through it.
Sometimes grief needs a push. It doesn’t need to be right away, but if you, as I did, feel like you’re blocking it and repressing the emotion, then you need to find outlets for that grief. When I feel strong enough, I’ll write an article on how I began to do precisely that.
When people picture grief, they think about sadness and crying. That’s definitely a part of it, but it would be wrong to limit grief to just that. Grief has a lot of anger. Anger at everyone who hasn’t lost someone, anger at yourself and your regrets, anger at the person for leaving you. There is unwarranted anger, quick to jump to anger, miserable anger. For a while, my anger was the only thing that fuelled me.
There are regrets, melancholy, memories that threaten to steal you from the present. There is fear. Fear that you’ll never be okay, fear that everyone else will leave too. Fear about dying, or about living your entire life without that person. There is confusion about who you are without them. There is existentialism, what is the point of anything? Why are they gone when so many awful people get to live? There is guilt, so much guilt. Guilt over how you treated them, everything you did or didn’t do. Shame that you can’t be fixed and happy for everyone around you. There is jealousy, at everyone who gets to live, everyone who gets to be fine. There is disgust, at the way people live their lives, not knowing that your most important person is gone, not knowing that death is so close. The list could go on, but the point is that sadness is a small aspect of grief.
I wish this didn’t have to be the case, but it’s true. People who haven’t lost someone will never fully be able to understand. They may want to, and they could try, but they never will. Once you lose someone, a door is opened that never closes properly, you see and know things that they, fortunately, don’t yet. Your complex range of emotions will be hard for them to follow, the way you seem fine when you should be crying will make them uncomfortable. You’ll make them uncomfortable. The things you talk about, the processes you go through, it will create discomfort for people who have no cause for sadness.
But the silver lining is that you’ll develop a unique connection with people who have experienced grief. I had a friend who I had never been super close to, we did theatre projects together and enjoyed nights out. I knew she had lost her mother just before we met, but we didn’t talk about it much. After my father passed away, she reached out. She wrote the message that no one else managed to grasp, she understood. There were differences, we went through things at varying speeds or manners, but she got it. She got how it felt to lose someone too soon and to feel so alone in it. She was a rock in the way that many of my friends couldn’t quite manage to be; she was the person that proved that I wasn’t crazy. I hope to be that person for someone else one day.
It’s so hard as you know people won’t understand until they lose someone, but you put every effort into praying that they never ever have to understand this pain.
I mentioned the wide range of emotions that grief stirs, but guilt deserves its own section. Grief comes with so much guilt. The guilt of not being better after a few months, as you don’t yet know that grief isn’t linear. The guilt of being alive when they’re not, the responsibility it brings to do something with that life yet feel like you’re failing them—the guilt of wondering why other people get to live, and they don’t.
For example, I feel intense anger when seeing older adults, those who got to reach an age that my father never will. I feel so unfairly mad at them, to the extent that I have to turn away. And this, in turn, brews guilt, as I blame others for something he will never have.
Grief isn’t just being sad, and it isn’t just emotions, it is a physical condition! Grief is super rough on your immune system, leaving you depleted and vulnerable to infections and illnesses. It increases inflammation, which could worsen existing health problems or instigate new ones. More specifically, grief can increase your blood pressure along with the risk of blood clots.
You’re at an increased risk for depression. There is a disruption in specific hormones which results in many issues. You may have trouble sleeping, loss of appetite and general body pains. Your body will be aching as much as your heart is. You could begin suffering from anxiety.
Whilst studying psychology, I learned that all children have an age where they discover death, where they realise one day everyone will die. It can be quite an existential moment, and different children handle it in their own way. I thought that was the only time someone is faced with this, but it seems that when someone close to you passes away as an adult, you face a similar moment. I always knew that people die, but I didn’t know just how true this is until it actually happened. The difference is knowing that people die and being aware that anyone could die. Death stops being a concept and becomes a reality you’re confronted with. Forever after, you’re aware of death; you’re aware that it could happen to you. Humans have a naivety of assuming they won’t die, they’re the main character, and those never die. But people who have gone through grief know that they could die.
It changes your perspective and priorities. Things that were once important don’t seem that way anyways. It could be petty drama, going along with the crowd or meaningless tasks. You feel isolated from others in that those things don’t matter to you anymore. You have a bigger picture in mind; you have someone to make proud and limited time to do it. You know that you could die any day, and you’re comfortable with that fact and planning your life accordingly.
No one realises how much has to be arranged after someone dies. They think of the funeral perhaps, but do they consider the specifics of it? Informing everyone that they’ve passed away. Deciding who to invite to the funeral, what will happen next. The costs and practicalities of a will. It isn’t like the movies where you’re handed an envelope of cash. There’s insurance to be bought, documents to prove you’re related to them, details to hash out. There’s a home to be packed; you want to keep enough memories of them without hoarding unnecessarily. I won’t go into further details, but my point is this:
Everyone will say how strong you are for making it through, for doing all of these things. People will applaud you as if you had some choice in the matter. But it doesn’t happen like that; you don’t decide to be strong and put on a brave face. It just happens that way. You just keep getting up because you feel like you have to, and eventually it gets easier. You distract yourself with all of these practicalities because someone has to, and it keeps you busy when everything hurts. You keep living your life because what else will you do? You don’t want to worry people; you don’t want to be a hassle.
This isn’t to say that it doesn’t take strength, but rather that the strength is not a prerequisite. The strength is grown through this process, as you have no choice but to become strong. And anybody can. There aren’t specific people who can survive grief and carry on, we all have that potential, and once put to the test, we demonstrate it.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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