100 Weeks With Death

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photo by thesucess at Morguefile.com

Introduction

I’ve been trying to write a follow up blog since November. Between being a dad of two small boys and the fact I made another career change early in 2017. I set up my own marketing consultancy (Go Narrative). Things have been crazy. I’ve always put great thought and feeling into these blogs and I wanted to keep doing so.

As it happens I believe this will actually be a very interesting blog. By its nature, being published such a long time after my initial stream of mourning blogs, it has afforded me much time for reflection. This blog will cover what it’s like to live with grief. After the dust settles, so to speak. I will share how it has affected relationships and what group therapy was like. I share what daily life with grief is like, and how it rears its head. Importantly I talk about what my relationship with Mum and Dad is like now, it’s still there. I explain how grief can change your sense of self and make you feel like a teenager again. You’ll read about the changing sense of ‘home’ and what it means to truly be present in the moment. What I have gratitude for. What it feels like. We’ll even touch on a little neuroscience.

I’ve always been very open and public in my grief, not least of which because those of us who have been on the road for a while can offer a hand to those who are fresh into the hell of loss.

I hope this blog can bring comfort to some and awareness and improved empathy for others.

100 weeks since the accident – Sunday 18th June 2017

That first year was impossibly hard. The first six months were hell and the initial three were just unbearable. So, what of the second year? Which we are fast approaching the anniversary of.

One thing is certain – you start to understand, deeply, what it’s like to live in a post-loss world. There was life before, and there is life after. As time goes on, after those hellish periods, you are forced to face a simple fact: life goes on.

“Keep calm and carry on”

Horrific attacks “close to home” and the Grenfell fire… I’ve found it hard to allow loss, knowledge of death into my conscious… Maybe this is similar to how we as humans tend to be naturally not understand grief until we’ve lived it? Is it something to do with survival? “Keep calm and carry on”. The world doesn’t, it can’t care… we all have limited bandwidth. I don’t hold this against the world. If you are not close to the person who was lost its really hard to empathize. Every bombing on the news, every car crash I see, I think of the survivors and what they are going through. It’s impossible for me to maintain that focus for long. In most cases I don’t even know who the people even are.

A friend of mine who also lost her father on the 19th sees the 19th each month as a stinging milestone. Honestly for me it’s been every Sunday. Still. Possibly forever? In the Pacific time zone it happened as the day is getting going. I look at the clock. Ten to nine in the summer. Ten to eight in the winter.

There are times when grief surges. When I’ve been ill. Over tired. High stress situations. When something damages Mum and Dads artifacts, even just a coffee table. For stressful moments I’m getting better and it takes more to rattle me now that in used to – it’s odd to have an awareness of when the walls start crumbling and the black water of grief rises up over the pontoons and spills into my mind. It ends up triggering all sorts of other emotions, frustration, anger, not just sadness. As I’ve become more aware of it I’ve become better at managing it when it surfaces. Most people will never see or know it’s happening.

Resources and Support

About a year in my wife started researching group therapy options. Eventually we found one, conveniently located (most were not) in the downtown Seattle area. The separation and loss services at Virginia Mason proved to be one of the most positive components to my relationship with my grief. I cannot lay enough praise on this service and the team. They offer 1:1 services for a fee but the group sessions have no cost.

Group therapy has a structured program

It’s not a support group (think Fight Club). A support group is a self-managed collective who share their experiences. Group therapy has a structured program (10 weeks in this case) with a curriculum that leads you through the pain. From the negative and into positive constructive tools. The death imagery component was being followed by the celebration of life, for an example. Another key aspect is that it is managed by therapists. In our case there were four participants and two therapists. Another benefit of the program was the ability to have two hours per week of camaraderie and people who just ‘got it’. It was a safe and welcoming environment. If you or anyone in your friends or family have been through loss and live in Seattle I cannot recommend it enough and would be happy to discuss it in more detail 1:1 (reach out in the comments, twitter, email etc.).

“Be kind to yourself”

In the cold light of day we get a new view, a new understanding of grief. To start off with it is all consuming. Eventually it becomes more manageable, but still dominates. Then as time goes on the need to operate in the world increases so much so whole days can be tackled without collapse into a teary heap. It’s then that the new view of grief starts to form. It’s always there. Reflected in songs, memories, smells, photographs… It’s there but it isn’t all consuming all the time like it once was. It is hard to describe. It’s like a companion. A pet almost. It nudges into you. It needs to be tended to. Cared for. Sometimes it wanders off into another room only to spring out at you later on.

“Be kind to yourself” is something my wife has said many times to me, and it is so true. My wife has been a rock. From the beginning when she quit her job to take care of me and the boys and focus on the moment and family and life. To running with that role with her career on hold so that she can be the foundation for her three boys. She has felt their loss very deeply and it has affected and changed her profoundly. Not only was she very close to my parents, she truly loved them and had said only days before their deaths how lucky she was to have my family. And that she felt a part of my family. She has also felt the sting of other loss, and let downs from people close to her. Knowing I have her and we have each other has been at times the only thing that keeps me sane.

The depth of grief is directly proportional to the depth of attachment

After a while it becomes clear that managing grief is a lifelong project. It is a part of life now. Death is. Those in the club are now more complete as humans. They have experienced more of the human experience. They are wiser having been dragged down into the depths of pain and had to figure out the long and torturous journey back to the light. They bring something back from the depths. An awareness, knowledge.

Something that has become apparent to me as I consider my own grief and loss vs. the loss of those around me, or of terror attacks or accidents. I have come to understand that the depth of grief is directly proportional to the depth of attachment. Traumatic loss brings a whole new level to this. When the Grenfell tower burned I could see the family members screaming out as life and love was torn from their souls.

When we started in the traumatic loss group they asked us what we wanted to get out of it and this forced me to rationalize a goal to all of this suffering. How I characterized it was that I hope to get to a place where I’m at peace with the fact they are not here anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m over them. It doesn’t mean I’ve found some abstract form of “Closure” – which is bullshit by the way. I’ve read a lot during my healing process and Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us was good. I felt it was a bit light. The general message of the book however is a good one: that we, in the west particularly, treat grief like it’s something to be dealt with and moved on from. Which may be the case if you have very little attachment and/or the death was expected and natural. This article here also explores the topic. It covers many of the expectations people have about grief and what the reality is. Here is an excerpt:

Expectation: The grieving need about a year to heal.

Reality: Sometimes grief does not even get started till after the first year. I’ve heard countless grieving people say year two is harder than year one. There is the shock, end of life arrangements and other business matters that often consume the first year and the grieving do not have the time actually to sit back and take the time to grieve. The reality is there is no acceptable time frame associated with grief.

Those friends who have shown up and been there. Travelled over oceans to see me, multiple times. Those who have gone out for beers with me and been a sympathetic ear. To those who have pinged on occasion but always with a sense of regularity and great genuine care and interest and showing me they are thinking about me. I’d start listing names but I’m lucky to have a long list and I’d worry I’d accidently leave one of you off.

His voice waivered then cracked

Then there are my boys. I never in a million years would have expected a then 3 and 5 year old to be as supportive as they have been. It took our 3 year old (now 5) a year or so to start to more overtly manifest their memory in words and discussion. But he was just so young before. He now empathizes deeply and talks about them and includes them in his life. It is bitterly sweet. And our now 7 year old has been, since day one, the most amazing nurturing and loving soul when it comes to his late grandparents. Just tonight he said “I miss him so much” as we talked about Granddad (with it being Fathers-day tomorrow). His voice waivered then cracked. He looked down tears filed his eyes and he thrust his face into the nape of my neck and hugged me with all his might. I am so very lucky to have them.

A New Relationship

Something that I’ve learned to develop is a relationship with the memory of Mum and Dad. Yes, this sometimes manifests with me having conversations in an empty room. It’s deeper than that but the concept is helpful to convey what it feels like. Asking for advice. Hearing advice un-prompted. When I was growing up and I’d get in trouble my Mum would say “Imagine a mini version of me is sitting on one shoulder and a mini version of your Father is sitting on the other and we are watching you, what would we say?” Generally, it didn’t stop me from getting into mischief but oddly now I remember it clearly and while they not be on my shoulders I do imagine that they are there. I used to speak to them so much…

Identity and purpose

It very much feels like my sense of self has changed. We come to view ourselves in a certain way (incidentally this is always different to how others view us) and when we lose someone so close to us it literally changes how we feel about ourselves. Our loved ones are actually a part of who we are. Our interactions with them fuel our ideas and feelings. We anticipate sharing things with them. We enjoy life more when we are with them. We know they will be mentors to us – I’ve even felt that way with my two young sons! For me having that ripped away so violently and suddenly, with two of my family, has left me feeling adrift. In many ways, I feel like a teenager again. Additionally, when we lose a family member, or a close friend, that loss is felt throughout the family or group. It changes the dynamic between those left in the group. For us a simple example was our Mother was the connector to each other and the extended family. While my sisters and I have kept lines of communications very much open and talk/message all the time the relationship web is forever changed. No longer do we have our oracle, our confidant, out advisor… our mother to interject her thoughts and perspective. Often, she and my father, also played a mediating influence between the siblings.

I’ve thought a lot about how I left the UK and moved to the USA. How I missed out on time with my parents. As much as we all visited and travelled across the Atlantic Living in America… the times I missed. I’ve thought of the trips “home”. Before they died I felt like I had two homes. Mum and Dads and mine, here in Seattle. That home has gone now. As much as I love my sisters and visit and think of the past and how I used to live there. It’s just not the same any more.

I think of the times they’d come and visit or when we’d pile the whole family into a plane to go back to England. No more times like that… gone…

Living in the Moment

All of this has made me realize more than ever how I have to make the most of life. It’s not easy! I’ve found myself getting wrapped up with work or frustrated with minutia even though I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to this ‘bigger perspective’. What I’m saying is: you can do your best to live in the moment and still not manage to do it all the time. It’s OK. You are not alone. I can however also report back that when you do live in the moment it does really make things much better. I’ve always loved my children deeply and now I feel like I’m able to be even more present, in the moment. I understand that I have to admit that it is this that is the silver lining of their deaths. And in so much proof that no matter how dark or terrible things are there is always a silver lining.

The Big Let Downs

Hello! I’m grieving, I can’t articulate what I need for help right now.

The flip side to this is I have very, very little tolerance for douche bags. I have been able to rise above things more than I was before but I still find myself getting to frustration quicker than perhaps I did before grief began. Pro tip: rising above is a byproduct, not a thing in itself, the thing itself if choosing what you care about and what you prioritize. In other words choosing peace and calm and growth and whatever other positive things you are after – through that you will find “rising above”.

Another thing I have very low tolerance for is people who should know better. I’m not going to publicly name and shame any specific friends or family members but I can tell you that there are an unfortunate group of people who we considered close who never stepped up. People who literally just ran away. Then there are those who claimed to be there for us and were not. I’m not talking about acquaintances or well-wishers who said “tell me if there is anything you need” – Hello! I’m grieving, I can’t articulate what I need for help right now, my whole world has collapsed… just show up, act. Those people were mildly annoying but I understood that they were not that close and how hard is for many people to ‘get it’. I’ve heard the ’maybe they just didn’t know how to engage you’. To which I say “I’m sorry, why are you defending them?”. Back on topic: I’m talking about the real let downs. People we expected much more from. For example, there is someone who was in one of our more inner circles that never, EVER, muttered so much as a word, nor a pat on the shoulder and a sullen look, or an email or a card. No communication regarding my loss whatsoever. When you act like that to someone who is grieving you are making a bold statement: I no longer wish to be in your life. And I tell you what, if you make that statement to me now I have no patience to test you on it – I will immediately accept. I will drop you like a hot potato and never look back. It’s hard to overstate how let down we have felt by some people. I say we because this has deeply affect me, my wife and my children. Both my wife and I have felt this when it comes to relationships. I know my sisters have had similar experiences.

That last paragraph had a whole lot of negativity in it. So, I’ll move swiftly on. I’m grateful that now I have the ability to feel happy again. Enjoying time with my boys, and gazing upon a beautiful view are just two examples of joy. It’s true that many times such things are soon followed by the deep pang of loss – not being able to share that thing with Mum and Dad. The end of the school year had plenty of those feelings. But I am grateful to be able to feel happiness again. Even if just a little. The frequency and duration of that happiness is gradually getting longer.

Neuroscience and the Evolution of Grief

In short, my grief is much more manageable now. I’ve come to realize it is a part of who I am. I will, for the rest of my days, have moments and wish I could pick up the phone or shoot a message to Mum or Dad or both of them to tell them. Likewise, there are times when all I want is to call them for some counsel. They were such good listeners.

I’m on my own now, so to speak. I have my wife and my boys. I have my sisters. But the unconditional love of my parents has gone. I’m on my own. I’m where the buck stops. There is no Mum or Dad to help any more, literally or figuratively. This in itself has also feeds into the new sense of self.

Have you heard of the Jennifer Aniston neuron?

There are memories. So many memories. They catch me at all sorts of odd times. I’ll be looking at the furniture (some of which was horribly damaged by Pickfords) and I think of them so clearly. Maybe commenting on how the furniture looks in our house (which of course they’d never have done). Maybe it’s just a random memory. The visions are very clear, very fresh. Yet it’s 100 weeks. That coffee table traveled half way around the world and through the Panama Canal to get to me. It seems time just breaks down and it feels like they were here yesterday, or even today.

As time has gone on grief itself has become increasing abstract and complex. That’s much of what I’ve been attempting to share with you here.

It’s not surprising with how the brain works (have you ever heard of the Jennifer Aniston Neuron?) – all interconnected neurons. Any relationship in your mind between one thing and another means there is a neural pathway connecting the two. So, if you think of a certain house and your mother then every time you think of that house the pathway to your mother will light up. In my brain now there is the pain and loss of death collection of neurons which connect to Mum and Dad. Then when a memory is triggered which connects to Mum or Dad it also lights up the grief center. The deeper your relationship the more of these connections. The more triggers there are. As time has gone on and I’ve built up the coping mechanisms to manage the grief center and in turn that has added whole new sets of neural capabilities. A simple example would be: how do I channel my feelings when I’m in public? Or: who do I allow myself to mention my loss to? These are all new structures that add complexity to the times the Mum or Dad neurons are triggered. On the flip side my coping mechanisms (both those I had before, and the ones I’ve developed since) are also now connected to my grief neurons. I’ve found myself dealing with a petty issue and suddenly I’m thinking about Mum and Dad. Up pops up grief again. Like I said, increasingly abstract and complex.

Closing Thoughts

What I’ve been trying to do in this blog is give a sense for what it’s like to be living with such a deep, wrecking grief, such as mine, 100 weeks on.

It’s still there. It always will be – because it is a part of me. It’s more manageable and it’s more complex. My memories of Mum and Dad are as fresh as ever. There are moments of debilitating grief –that is far less often but the full, raw power is there. Our relationships have changed. People who were main characters before have now left the show and bit players are now major characters who have brought immense value to the stage of our lives.

I’m more compelled than ever to throw myself forwards into life

It’ll keep shifting and changing. I’ll keep writing my journal but we’ll see about this blog. With the understanding that grief will always be with me I’m more compelled than ever to throw myself forwards into life. They’ll stick around. I know that. I know I’ll spend time with them. I know I’ll miss them. I know I’ll cry. So in the meantime it’s time to focus on this moment. Enjoy this one life we have and do our best to bring some joy into the lives of others while we are at it.

You are not alone and if you ever wish to talk about your loss I’m here. Reach out to me and I’d be happy to chat.

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2 thoughts on “100 Weeks With Death

  1. I love this, Matt. You bare your soul in order to help others get a grip on their own grief. This is truly magnificent. I feel much of the same way because of how deeply I love your parents. They are always with me, too.

    You are so blessed to have the absolute love of Marisa and the boys. What a gift they are.

    Sending all my love and best wishes,
    Diane

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