The Aftermath – Living with Grief

Grab a coffee, stick this on Instapaper, take a break to read this – it’s turned into a bit of an essay.

Wow – what a cluster f*ck the past three months have been. I’ve come back, with my blog, for two reasons. One, I get something from every time I publish one of these. There is something about the clarity obtained by putting it all into cleanly typed sequenced words. Secondly there is you, the reader… I’ve heard from so many of you. From the comments to personal notes. The fact my words can help in any way is an honour. For some of you, having gone through some kind of loss, the knowledge that my words have in some way helped you make sense of what you are going through is quite simply put the highest of highest honours. And then there are those of you who, despite having not gone through such a loss yourselves, have taken a mote of understanding away and have gone back out into your lives changed, made the most of your loved ones, your parents… in some, even if a small way.

It’s been hard. Impossibly so. It happened six months ago, tomorrow, the 19th of July 2015. The first month was hell on earth. The second was this sort of realization that I was living in a hell and I had to try made head and tails of it. The third month was this sort of “I think I’m getting myself together” month which ended with the damn breaking. In the process of making it through the daily grind, with work, with just putting myself out there, that I had been putting up a façade. And come the three month mark it all started to crumble. It was around about that time that I headed into a whole slew of date milestones and more. There was my birthday and a visit from a family member. That all lead up to a trip back to Blighty for the Inquest into my parents death. Then I came back, at the same time my parents were meant to come visit us in the USA. Which happened to be for the weekend of my wife’s birthday – and a milestone one at that.

The façade I had built up cracked. Then it broke. It flooded me and my life away in a wash of turbulence I wasn’t prepared for. And then there was the Inquest.

In the UK in cases of unexplained or violent deaths, let alone both, let alone when it happened to two people… at once, there is an Inquest. It’s like a trial. Replete with court room and “judge” (coroner). There are witnesses from the scene and the medical professionals involved. In the lead up to this there can, and was in our case, details from the police about the accident. For us this involved details about the collision itself, the trajectories, the impact and the medical findings… The sort of stuff you really never want to be exposed to, trust me.

You know, you watch horror movies, or action movies. You see car crashes or people being killed in all sorts of reality isolated ways and you build up this tolerance to what it feels like to experience that. None of that crap is real, it’s all just kids playing with toys. Special effects and an insulation from the visceral real thing. I’d go so far as to say our ability to “play” at scale with such things tricks us and sets us up to be ignorant of the real pain and hurt from such things. I believe, having lived the pain and torture of understanding what happens to you loved one in a violent accident, that we generally as a society do not know what this pain and horror feels like. That we believe the Hollywood “play time” version of it and therefore don’t ever truly understand the pain and horror involved in the torture and violence involved. I don’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone. I can say with confidence that if you have been through such a brutal loss that you won’t view the insanity of gun culture in the same way.

And so with the inquest I found myself in the lowest ebb of my life. You may not have realized it to look at me. People said I seemed “so strong” or was “doing so well”. And I’m sure many of them were honestly just saying it to be nice and offer some words of support. Yet I was working to pick up the pieces. I was shattered inside. Learning to live again. Few things were so true as that. I really was learning to live again. I mentioned in it my earliest of blogs and it continues to be true. It’s a new life. A life without the mainstay of my life.

 

It’s hard to understate what a colossal loss it is to lose your parents like that. When we lose our parents, normally one at a time, we slowly start to be introduced to this new life where there is no parental authority, no parental check and balance. Look, you may not have the best of relationships with your parents but I promise you one thing; you have judged your decisions and your life on what the reaction and response would be from your parents. Even if you hated your parents with all your heart. Even in that case you would live your life in a way the embraced that and made a point of boldly living to defy them and trounce them for all the reasons that you despised them. In my case I loved my parents deeply. I respected their input and their guidance. I actively sought it out. I remember having a conversation just a month before their deaths where I went to them for guidance and advice on how I felt about my career. My mother, as always, was totally supportive, and my father carried great, deep and meaningful insights. I was lucky compared to some. Whatever you relationship with your parents it is a very large and meaningful part of your life. I of course have deep respect and compassion for those in a place where they may never have known their parents, or had their parents snatched away from them at such an age where they were never to develop any sort of relationship. To you I tip my hat and hope I can learn from you what that experience is like.

I have become very attuned to the sense of loss in the world. A spate of school and public shootings horrified me. I felt both for the families of those who were killed, acutely so. And also for being in public in the USA and fearing for the worst. I’m not going to go off onto a rant about guns on this blog beyond saying I’m continually horrified at this countries selfishness and short sightedness when it comes to this topic. I have also become aware and sensitive to the impossible nature to feel all peoples pain, that we can become immobilized by the horror others experience and that we have to firewall ourselves off to much of the pain in the world. Yet we must try, we really must try and empathise a little bit more.

It’s not a far jump from the loss and horror in the world, especially when you are living such a hell yourself, to wonder about meaning and the point of it all. We really are only here very briefly. There are few of us who will ingratiate ourselves into the annals of history but in the big scheme of things those people are far and few. And most of them end up coming to untimely ends for one reason or another. For most of us we are just another brick in the wall and are faced with living our existence in this beautiful world and universe. Yet we still must wonder what the point is of all of it. In a time of loss we realize something quite profound, whether we had an inkling of it before or otherwise, and that is the meaning we make of our own lives and thus the impact we have on those that surround us. We live at a point in time in this thing called ‘humanity’ this vast, growing, matrix of souls, ideas and culture that flow with and through each of us. It’s in loss that we realize what our loved one meant to us. How my Mum and Dad in all their lessons and love, al their coaching and coddling, all their challenges and criticisms. In all of who they were that they left a deep and abiding impression on the very make up of my being. In their loss I have become deeply aware of the lack of their presence. Be it in person or being on the end of a phone. That I no longer have this wonderful part of my life. For all its positive and negative factors. I’m not ashamed to say my relationship with my parents wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t. And we had our own fair share of disagreements and didn’t see eye to eye on everything. Yet their presence was important, it was constructive and to the day they died it added deep and meaningful value to my existence. I wondered what they would think, or say about a decision I made. Sometimes I’d guide my decisions based on this, sometimes I’d relish the reaction they would have when I told them of a path I chose that I knew they wouldn’t approve of. Either way they were there as a truth north in how I navigated the world. The north star doesn’t judge you. It is just there. It helps you find your way as you sail the choppy seas. You can be good or bad at it is always there. It is in its essence unconditional love and in losing your parents you lose that one true unconditional love of your life.

My true north is gone. My north star is gone. I’m afloat on the sea of existence and my compass is spinning and spinning. I’m learning’s to sail without it. Looking to other stars. Both within myself and without to make up the difference. I can only speak from my own experience, now in my mid to late thirties, that losing them is both deeply painful and enormously confusing. I was lucky to have parents who were so involved to their dying day. It has given my aspirations of how I want my own children to view me. How I want to be involved in their lives for the decades to come. Which hopefully I’ll have, after all we never know. Therefore I must live today as if it is my last. I have felt cast adrift. A cast-a-way who is working to come up with new ways to understand direction, and meaning and purpose.

Much of how I viewed the world before has ended. It’s been tidied up into a neat little box and put up on the shelf of memories as “the time before”. I’ve been feverishly been trying to figure out what it looks like now. Think about that for a second. Here you are, in a storm of loss and grief and you are also forced to reassess how you view the world. How you make sense of your place in the world. It’s no mean feat. And it takes oodles of energy. It still does. I’ll never be done, and you know, the experience of what I’ve been through leaves me with some comfort; it doesn’t matter. Life can be snatched away from you, scrambled, destroyed, and you just have to keep on living it. You keep on soldiering forwards and figuring out a way. It’s all you can do. It’s important at this point that I don’t dismiss or depreciate grief itself. I’m not saying “just solider on” or “time heals all wounds”. It’s not just soldiering on and time doesn’t heal all wounds. If you don’t deal with and work at grief it will not get any “better” you have to stare it cold and hard in the face and fight it to the ground. You have to wrestle with it. Fight it. Listen to it. Learn from it. Let it beat you up and go full bore into it, fists wailing and beat the shit out of it. You have to do all that and more. My point is that you have to solider on. You have to be a warrior in your grief and do everything you can. It’s a journey, it’s a fight, it’s a teacher. It’s so many things.

And ultimately, ultimately it’s life. Life is death. I’ve met more people who have lost that ever before. People who have lost children (the day after my parents died, they lost their son), parents, husbands and wives. Fathers and step fathers. Brothers and sisters. Death is everywhere. Just ask people. See what happens. It really is the one thing that binds us all together. In this day of age in the West we are shielded more that the majority of human history from death. Elders used to die in their 30s, at a push their 40s. Those in their 50s or above attained a godly status. Our whole paradigm has shifted and death has all but been snubbed out – save for accidents. We wrap ourselves up in nursing homes, string ourselves out on machines and drugs until the last possible moment when we “pass away”. Losing my parents has been an education in what the school of hard knocks taught to many of our ancestors and that is that for most of human history we have been faced with losing those we love when we ourselves are more likely to be in our prime and when they, in many case, were a far cry from the common image of an invalid many of us associate with advanced age and end of life.

Anchors are everywhere. I’ll watch a movie and think that one of my parents (or both) would have enjoyed it and I have a positive flush of emotion. Of feeling close to them. People talked about this in the early days. It is true, certain things will make me feel like they are “nearby”. It’s this sort of mental simulation of them. And of myself and how I’d feel if they were nearby. It’s quite lovely. Music is the worst though, that just continually seems to trigger sadness. Even if it’s an enjoyable rush of emotion – that’s a hard one to wrap your head around. As I’ve moved further from the moment of their death and just had to deal with daily life the more I’ve been aware of emotional triggers that are likely to bring deep rushes of emotion. Mostly its an active avoidance of these, because most of the time I’m dealing with life, with other people, with the fact society and people in general are not prepared for such onslaughts of emotion, and I’ll push those things aside. Other times I’ll actively seek out the rush of emotions. Especially if I’m alone and the conditions are right for me to plumb the depths of how I feel. Emotions on a daily basis were so much less complex before. There seems to be oodles more layers and perceptions and complications now.

As I rushed into October some of the biggest anchors I had yet to deal with awaited me, and many firsts. My Birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas were just a few obvious ones. The fact my parents had visited a year previously and I was traveling back to England when they had flow home, or when I returned from the Inquest was when they had booked to come stay for us this year (OK, 2015) were all date coincidences that were incredibly hard to stomach and move through. The date issue still rings true for me. Weekly it is Sunday at the time they died. Monthly it is the 19th, the day they died and so on. I never knew dates and times could hurt so much, just being, just living with that symbolism. It really is “just” that, symbols… the passage of days, weeks, months and years. The definitions we use to carve out our world. Yet it is our world, defined by such things, and thus there is much meaning carried in the monikers and anchors we use to structure and understand our world.

Relationships and people have continued to be both a source of strength and a confounding and frustrating part of my existence. I’ve come to appreciate relationships much more and become far more aware of my own limitations as a human and the imperfections in relationships. I’ve also come to recognize what I value and care about in relationships. There are people who have really stood up and been counted. The people who called, relentlessly, the friends who turned up when it was either a hassle or inconvenient for them, who have gone out of the way to be there for us. The people who have cooked for us, brought us meals and helped out with the children. Some people doing all of the above. Then there continue to be people who we expected much more from. Who have done nothing. Not even offered words. How these people can possibly expect to play a meaningful role in our lives moving forward is quite simply baffling to me. People who quite frankly should know better, who should have made the effort and who have totally failed us. I wonder if you even know who you are. These people are a huge disappointment and luckily we have people in our lives who are as far from that as you can imagine. People who have trekked across states and countries to spend time with us, to prop us up and care for us and be there with usyou see it’s not always about being there for someone. Sometimes presences is all that is needed.

It’s oft just about being there with someone. The difference between some kind of required action and just being. I kid you not there are people whose effort just to stop by and chat with me in my office at work, to take the time out to listen and ask and be with me for a bit that makes the world of difference. The opposite of this, one of the least helpful things I have found, is that of the just saying “If there is anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.” Let me set the record straight on this one… if you are not interested in how you can be better at helping or supporting the bereaved then please just walk away. So why is saying that a problem? Aren’t people just ‘trying to help’? Saying what they can? Yes… in the majority of the cases when someone say that their ‘heart is in the right place’, you see the thing is when you are engaging with a person who is suffering a devastating loss having your heart in the right place really is only a step in the right direction. Honestly you might as well not say anything, just avoid the person, avoid saying anything and stay well out. I know many people have done this and quite frankly it’s OK. There is just too much going on in the world for everyone to deal with this sort of loss all the time. The thing is if you really do care about the person and do want to help don’t delegate to the griever to have them be responsible for your effort to help them. Seriously. I can’t remember all the people that said that let alone come up with a list of things for each of the people who said it to do something. If you want to help. Just do it. Pick something practical and help with it; taking a person out to lunch, spending time with them just listening, doing shopping, cooking, cleaning, anything practical helps because (especially in those early days) getting shit done is really, really hard. Incidentally I’ve put a few people to the test unintentionally on this and asked them for something specific and they have flat out let me down. Which unfortunately has only reinforced for me the fact many people will just say it as a platitude.

I hate to come across as sounding negative. The thing is by in large people who go through this experience do not share it, let alone at scale and putting pen to paper, so to speak. I’m not claiming to speak for all grievers, all grief truly is different. My sisters and I suffered the same tragic loss and are all processing it in very different ways – it’s proved to be a very difficult experience for us to work together with and through our own experiences. That being said there are not enough voices for the bereaved and in reporting back from the front lines I want for nothing more than to share how it feels and how perchance you may be able to help those you love and care about when the time comes. Because it will come. I promise you that.

This has been the hardest blog I have yet written on the subject of the loss of my parents and how it has affected me. I have continued to journal personally every day and that has been a source of great support and relief. I have read a lot; from CS Lewis, to Martha Whitmore Hickman, Elissa Bishop-Becker and more on the topic. I’ve been seeing a grief councillor and other resources available to me to reflect upon and gain perspective. Not least of which friends, some of whom who have also lost parents, have proved to be rocks upon which I have steadied myself in this time of great turmoil. My wife and children have been immeasurably invaluable and I am indeed very lucky to have them. The sheer joy and laughter and childishness of my boys has grounded me in very important ways.

Despite its essay like length I wanted to share in detail what this experience has been like over the past three months. I shared monthly before and it was helpful. I’ve wanted to much to share since October yet it has been so very hard to crystalize the thoughts as I wade through the aftermath of the destruction my parents death wrought upon my life.

I’ve started to live again. I’ve started to have ups that accompany the downs. Colour and hope has started to find a way back into my life. The undercurrent of grief is still there and I’m paddling furiously to manage it yet something key is happening; I’m growing around it. There is no return to normal. There is a new life and at its core is who I am and who I am includes this tragic loss. Everything I knew and was before sits alongside this darkness as parts of the foundation of who I am and I am building out and on top of this core. Just like we move from being a child to an adolescent and then to adulthood I’m now moving into a new phase of my life not defined by grief but made bigger and better all because of it. The sadness and darkness of the loss will always be there waiting for me to get in touch with it be it through memory, music and more. There will always be space for the tears to flow and for my parents to sit there in my mind in all they were and can no longer be. Yet increasingly I am able to light a candle for them both and think of their lives and all they gave to me, all they taught to me, all they inspired me to be, and yes all the disagreements and pains too. I can embrace them in my memory and imagine what they would say to me. I can simulate them in my mind, I can almost hear the faint whispers on the wind with their ideas and advice. And interestingly I don’t’ always agree with them.

I welcome this state more and more. It is refreshing to share and also important that I tell you it is not all the time. There can be moments of strengths, such as on a walk today, when at the apex of a powerful and inspiring song I crumble into tears for the loss and lack of contact with Mum and Dad. I must accept both states for what they are and as many people have said “be kind to yourself”. Advice that rings true.

I miss you, Mum. I miss you, Dad. I love you. I wish you were here. I will endeavour to make you proud. To do the family legacy and your memory an honour in how I live my life.

How are you, today? How has your grief been going? What have you learned? What can you share? I hope to discover more and get ideas from you in the comments.

 

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7 thoughts on “The Aftermath – Living with Grief

  1. Matthew……hello……I am Carrie Jaffe, Jacqui’s sister. I wonder if I am in a new category……someone who knew Judith and John, but hasn’t met you. A “stranger” who reads and is impressed and moved and humbled by your blog, but hasn’t suffered the same awful loss. Someone who wishes I could come round for a cup of tea and give you a hug, but has never told you. I drive up to London quite often, and if I have a bit of time to spare I sometimes come off at Junction 15 and go and say hello to Judith and John. They would be so proud if they could read your blog, but so very sad, like we all are, at why you are writing it.

    Until now I have been reluctant and inhibited to write…….although god knows you have opened your heart to us all……but here at last you now know there is one more person rooting for you over here. Perhaps one day we will meet each other, and I can give you that hug.

    My love to you and your family,
    God Bless,
    Carrie xx

  2. Hi Matthew, Jacqui tells me my comment got lost. I have been reading your blog for a while and am very moved and impressed with how and what you write. I knew Judith and John for many years, via my sister. It puts me in a strange category: someone who knew your parents, but not you. Someone who reads your blog and is touched by it but has never experienced such loss. Someone who reaches out from another continent without you knowing. I have been wanting to give you a virtual hug for a while……maybe one day I will get to give you a real one. Your writing is impressive and eloquent (your pictures are pretty fab too) and I am sure J and J would be very proud of your blog, whilst simultaneously heart-broken, as we all are, at the reason for it.
    I wish you and your family all well, and hope maybe one day we might meet.
    All best,
    Love Carrie xx

  3. Hello Mathew…As I sip a cuppa hot chocolate and process your essay…I may not have met your parents but I feel your loss as I read your post. Thank you for sharing something that is never easy to live through or share. Your piece is also helpful for those in a similar position and for me it is nice how through your experience you are helping others also find a way to cope.

    • Thank you! The fact I’m able to help, even a little, with a sliver of society by being more open and aware of grief is a hidden blessing in my loss. Of course I wish I wasn’t forced into this learning I.e. That I hadn’t lost Mum and Dad but seeing as I am here I simply must find something constructive in it. For construction and creativity are critical ingredients of life and Mum and Dad would want me to keep living. I hope that sharing results in (even just) a few fellow humans being better prepared, or aware or both for the inevitability of grief, and hopefully better positioned to navigate it. That in doing so their journey might be some what easier. Each pain and loss is in itself as unique as the people who experience it and together we can support each other the more we are aware and understand the geography of grief.

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