Permission to grieve
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
It’s a Thursday morning, I often write and record my My Why episodes in the two days preceding them being released. I like to write something that’s on my heart at the time. At the moment as I look out of my cold UK window, the sky is blue, which is rare here in winter. One of our neighbours is in his garden and I can see his breath as it escapes his mouth, so I know it’s cold out there again. January and February are particularly difficult months for a lot of people in the UK because the weather is not just cold, it’s dark and grey. And when I say cold, it’s not like the cool kind of cold where it hits -15, it just hovers around minus one or 2 degrees sort of cold. If you ever see a Brit point out patches of blue sky in-between the clouds a lot, it’s because it’s such a welcome sight for us, we long for it and wait for it. The other morning I sent a photo of our lounge at 9am to a friend in Australia, who’s in the middle of their very hot summer, it was so dark you can’t see a thing in the room (partly because I was facing the window, but you get the point).
As you hopefully know already, The Silent Why podcast is all about finding all the different varieties of loss, to show it’s not just bereavements that we grieve. One of the reasons this is so close to my heart is that I’ve felt the feeling of loss many times in my life. But ‘smaller’ losses (I’m putting smaller in inverted commas there, because the size is all relative to who’s feeling it and when). And although they might not have the derailing impact of losing a human life, they are nevertheless hard to endure. Each one in isolation could be considered just part of life, but stack them up and you can find yourself in a much bigger loss situation. And this morning it was a few of them ganging up together that was playing on my mind.
I’ll give you some examples of things I’ve recognised as loss in my life (whether at the time or looking back). I’d like to add that I have no regrets over these things, I don’t live like that, I believe I’ve followed my path and my heart in all areas. But it’s important to see a difference between regret and a feeling of loss.
There’s the obvious one, that we couldn’t have children, this will be a loss that will shape my whole life and I really don’t see a way around that. But then there was the expectation that if we didn’t have children, we’d have more disposable money to enjoy other things in life, which leads onto my next loss. Not having a career I’ve found and loved. Like many women I know, and some men, I just never found my slot. I probably had it in the back of my mind that it wasn’t worth entering a career that needed 6-7 years training when I was 20 because it would get interrupted no doubt by children, and at that age I assumed I’d want to stay home to raise kids. So no regrets there. Then as I looked at jobs I was interested in, one of them was a career as a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, working with dogs and blind people, but it needed sacrifices, that I couldn’t make at the time. Moving to London for the position that became available for training wasn’t feasible when I was living in West Yorkshire with a fiance who had a promising career starting at the BBC, and I happily chose being near him instead. No regrets. When my husband’s job moved to Gloucestershire fifteen years ago we didn’t know how long we would be staying here so I took a part-time job locally at a vets to bring in some money and work in an area I loved - animals (plus it gave us cheap vet bills for a while with our dog and large rabbit). Knowing I was good with admin, organisation and communication I followed that job into another one at a large church doing PA and operational work, but, well… that was hard on a number of levels, if you’ve ever worked for a charity or religious organisation I think you’ll already know why, they all share similar traits. Then I started to lose energy, drive and self, and for five years we couldn’t work out why, as I struggled through two more jobs in PA work and marketing, social media, copywriting and proofreading - all areas I enjoy and can do well, but physically could only manage part-time. Then there was ongoing infertility decisions in the background. Along the way I lost health, brain function, energy, income, relationships, self esteem and self confidence.
Since 2016 to work out what was going on with me I’ve had two lots of surgery, seen nine different doctors, consultants or specialists, have over thirty pages of A4 on appointments, notes and medications, seen a GP at least forty times, had at least ten blood tests, tried 11eleven different medicines or treatments, tried measuring blood pressure, changing diet, eliminating foods, exercise, grounding, rest, stopping work, kefir, chiropractors, vitamin injections, the list goes on. I’m not even sure what all the losses are associated to these, but I remember a real low point when my stomach wasn’t tolerating anything except the blandest of food and being forced to turn down an offer of cake and feeling like right there, at that moment, it was the bottom of the pit. Further afield in relationships we were also navigating our friends starting to have children and the shift in those relationships, my brother battling through cancer, all of our grandparents dying, our dog dying (who had been more of a comfort and stress release to me than I realised), and then moving house 48 hours after he died.
I just want to point out that at this bit, as I glance out of the window, the sky is now full of a dark grey, mauve cloud and all the blue has gone. How symbolic.
There was one point in my life when I remembered sitting in our new, rented house, which was lovely, but feeling like I’d lost everything that kept me grounded except my husband. Everything had shifted or changed, our little family dynamic, the four walls around me, and the person I was used to being. It turned out, life without children wasn’t all holidays and last minute weekends away, and nights in hotels and shopping in Waitrose (a fancy supermarket in the UK). And at this point you start to feel like you’re letting your husband down too. Yet as a composed, organised, doesn’t-fall-apart person, I literally wouldn’t have even known how to fully fall apart or show it. I’m the dependable one, the one that people need to be strong, the one that’s there for others when they are going through stuff, I wouldn’t have known how to change that or even explain it. Plus I didn’t realise how much hormones were starting to control my brain at this point.
So, all those depressing facts aside, I started to realise more recently all the losses I’d encountered and worked through, and it made sense that I wasn’t always able to show up in the way I wanted for others (internally, I mean), physically I was still trying to do all I wanted to do for those around me, whether it was new mum’s with new babies, family commitments, work, church, neighbours etc. But internally I was suffering and I didn’t realise it till much later.
And that’s when I started to get more passionate about the losses that people feel that aren’t on display, that they battle through silently. I especially have a soft spot for those who don’t know how to stop and grieve or understand their losses. Slowly, as PMDD (the condition I was diagnosed with) took hold and I was out of work completely, I was forced to rest, I didn’t have the energy or the brain clarity to do much else, I was forced to sit and I’d like to say contemplate but as my brain wasn’t functioning on a normal level that wasn’t possible, it was more of an endurance through each day, bearing all the anger or sadness that descended. So I learnt to communicate it instead to keep my marriage on track and help Chris try to understand what was going on. If you’ve ever been in a room of people you know well, but can’t think of a single thing to say and everything inside you is blank, when normally it’s the easiest thing in the world for you, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t experienced your body doing that to you, then trust me, it’s not fun. And I’m an introvert anyway, so there’s nothing I love more than watching rather than interacting.
The reason I’m dwelling on this is because I still get days when all this stuff comes forward and I’m left feeling the loss and the struggle to find the things to celebrate. I get stuck knowing how to give myself permission to grieve these losses and the time lost - which was a huge chunk of my 30’s, if not all of them it one way or another.
For some reason giving yourself permission to grieve losses that are more hidden, or that others can’t see or understand, feels so much harder, because to grieve them might mean you have to explain them and, well, you just don’t want to do that, or maybe don’t feel you can.
On Instagram this week I saw a post that stood out to me.
“It’s not about how old her grandma was, but rather how much she loved and now misses her.”
And it struck me. It doesn’t matter what the loss is, or how others view it, if something feels like a loss to you, then it’s a loss and it needs grieving. Doesn’t matter how ridiculous that might seem. We’ve all watched something on TV or the internet that’s made us cry, that’s touched us in some way, and chances are it was linked to a loss. Ever shown someone that clip only to find they don’t react at all? That’s because we’re all different in what we feel and empathise with.
In the same way it’s dangerous to compare griefs, it’s dangerous to assume the level of the grief. Loss is loss. Much as this might anger some people, I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s the reality of life. To some people losing their rabbit, is going to be as traumatic to them as losing a human is to someone else. Hear me out. I’m using rabbit because most of us identify with loss of a cat or dog to a degree, and I think people are more judgemental on other animals like rabbits. We had one and his character was no less than the dogs and even though we adopted him when he was abandoned, old and sick, and only had him a year, it was a sad loss. Now, I’m not saying this is right, because it’s not how the world is intended to be. In the right world a rabbit wouldn’t compare to a human at all because we’d all be in secure family units and understand the value of a human relationship versus an animal relationship. But that’s not the world we’re in, and if you’re able to grieve a rabbit, as a long-eared animal and not a human, then count yourself as blessed that’s been your life. That you haven’t needed a rabbit to step up and provide the love, comfort, security and companionship that a person needs is a huge benefit to you.
I have an adopted Auntie that’s 103 in May (we sort of adopted her into the family, she wasn’t adopted herself). She’s been in my life since before I was born when she met my pregnant mother, just after her husband died. She was unable to have children herself due to a hysterectomy at a young age unexpectedly. She was like a fifth grandparent to me and when I couldn’t have children I realised the preciousness of our relationship and the role model she was to building a busy, eventful life even while living alone. There’s never been a time when she hasn’t been overjoyed to see me arrive and when I was at University I regularly jumped on three trains to get across London and kip on the floor of her lounge and study there (while being supplied with great food). She’s the last lovely old person I’m related to (even thought I’m not) and in the absence of my grandparents, I feel like the loss of her will cement them all together.
I want to die young at a ripe old age. Ashley Montagu
Covid has meant my Auntie has been shut in the home she was moved into at the age of 98, and slowly everything she’s enjoyed is being taken away, socialising, freedom, shopping, reading (as her eyesight deteriorates) and now phone calls (as her ears and mind slowly go).
Last night I phoned her (she lives near my parents, three hours from where we live) and for the first time she was unable to really hear me at all. She knew it was me and was delighted to hear my name, as usual, grateful for any contact, but then she couldn’t hear anything else and I was left trying to tell her that we’re thinking of her and miss her, and I just hoped the message that got through. I hung up heartbroken that another step had been taken towards me losing her.
When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. African proverb
Now people will say she’s ready to die, she says it herself. People will say she’s had an amazing life, she has, considering (if you discount losing everyone you’re related to and watching your friends die), in fact it’s not that she’s had an amazing life, it’s that she’s built one despite all she’s been through. But does that mean the grief is easier? Because it doesn’t feel like it’ll be easier because of any of that. Losing a human from this planet is always sad, isn’t it? We are all here, who knows for how long, and then we’re gone. No one lives forever.
We often we lose a grandparent when we are young, or that’s the way it used to be, so maybe the loss of it is minimised somewhat, because our parent loses a parent and that’s seen as a greater, more direct loss. But what if we’re adults when we lose grandparents, what if that relationship is so special to us as an adult that the loss is felt more keenly. Does it matter at that point that they were old or lived a good life? Since when has that ever made a loss more bearable in the moment? Sure, it might be what helps you over the grief at some point or helps you process it, but it doesn’t minimise it. You’d never say that of a child; ‘well they had a great life, all the best bits really, no stress of being an adult or dating or mortgages or climate change stresses.’ That would be seen as heinous. Maybe it’s because it’s out of the natural order, we put up the expectation that a parent is never supposed to bury a child, yet millions do every year. And if that was the case, does that mean a married couple that are separated by death two years after marrying is more devastating than a couple that are married for 70 years before one of them dies? If we’re honest, isn’t it the couples married for decades that are separated that make our hearts ache more.
Death is as near to the young as to the old; here is all the difference: death stands behind the young man's back, before the old man's face.
All this to say that ultimately loss is loss. They can’t be compared and we should never judge them, even if we can’t fully comprehend it. We have to remember the filter we view losses through is not unbiased, it’s based on your circumstances, your own family set up, and your own losses.
So if you’re feeling sad over something that doesn’t feel like it’s yours to feel sad about, that’s ok too. Recognise those feelings, why are you connecting with it? It wouldn’t feel sad to you if on some level you weren’t connecting with the loss. For some people moving house is a huge loss, for others it’s just bricks, for some changing jobs (even if it’s their decision) is a huge loss, for others it’s ‘onward and upwards’, for some losing a grandparent or parent is something they never get over, for others it’s the end of a life well lived. All these viewpoints are valid.
And because not everyone will understand, sometimes you just have to make it your own little private grieving space, and know it’s ok to not let in those that can’t or won’t get it.
Only you will walk your journey, so only you can decide how, and when, and how long, you stop along the way to mourn.
Ha! Look at that, there’s actually blue sky again outside the window.
As I was pondering this subject and whether to write about it this morning, my friend sent me an Instagram post knowing I would appreciate it (https://www.instagram.com/p/CY7UDW6vgap/ ).
It was seeing this post that sealed my subject for the day and the thoughts I was having. In the post from poet.sew.it.grow.it (a name that I’m loving already), Amy talked about grieving the loss of someone she didn’t know and a neighbour she wished she’d known better. She felt the loss for those going through it and for the awful thing that death takes away every time a life is claimed, and she used it to appreciate a day-to-day moment with her husband.
Loss, whether a person, a thing, a dream, a skill, an ability, a body part, a hope, a relationship, a set up, a job, a building, an animal, or a sense, is still loss, and you have every right to feel that loss as it affects you. Don’t stay in it, but feel it and work through it. It’s a journey, not a destination, it’s a process, not a sticking point.
In Amy’s Instagram post she wrote a poem and it’s this poem that I’ll finish with today.
Lamentation The day you died hummingbirds held vigil around the feeder’s red plastic flowers. Like the prayers of saints, their wings never stopped and the hum was a lamentation without lyrics because who can put words to such grief? Surely, their song was heard in heaven as it was on earth. Surely, their Maker wept. Amy Woschek Schmidt