Herein lies an update on my journey with the grief imposed on me by the loss of my beloved parents in 2015.
I’ve meant to write this for a while, and I’m unsure what the roadblock was. Maybe the nature of grief itself?
Either way, I wanted to write this because people have said the blog has helped.
I hope this helps.
The recent loss of our friend and neighbor, Hunter Dilley, just over a week ago reminded me of those fresh days of grief—the abject torture. My wife and I are friends with his parents, and his family is neighbors. His brother is friends with our kids. Hunter used to take care of our plants when we were away—starting back when he was 12! He was only 17. It is awful and tragic. I feel deeply for his family and friends. I hope everyone can be supportive of them in this extraordinarily difficult time. You can contribute to a GoFundme “Hunter’s charitable giving idea was to ensure youth in need had at least one nice piece of name-brand clothing they could feel good about wearing, a portion of the funds raised will go to this cause. All other donations will be allocated to social and/or counseling services in the West Seattle area.” Full details here.
Maybe it was just that I didn’t want to plumb those depths if I didn’t have to.
It’s all still there. In its entirety. All the emotion. But it’s manageable now. It’s manageable because of what I have built around it. Building that was hard work, and it took a long time.
It’s so hard it can kill you. A friend of a close friend of ours who went through a very similar experience to my sisters and I met that fate. He died from complications from alcohol poisoning a few years in.
I have to admit without the support I received, from my wife in particular, I fear that fate may not have been out of the realm of possibility for me.
What do I mean by “it’s still there?”
As I worked on my grief, I built a new life, new coping methods, and new perspectives around my grief. My grief, through my experiences before it and handling it, became the foundation for the rest of my life.
One of the visual descriptions of grief I appreciated the most was Lois Tonkin’s. Thanks to Growing Around Grief – What’s your grief for the graphic.
I can report back that, in my case, this is very much the case.
What does this look like? In a nutshell, I’m a fully functioning human being again. And I wasn’t for the longest time.
There are different levels of grief. I feel differently about unknown people who die in far-off lands than my parents. And everything in between. I haven’t experienced the worst of it, either. Losing a spouse, one worse. A child, worse again – by order of magnitude. I was very close with my parents. What I experienced was in the upper echelons.
I can joke now that my wife had three boys to care for, for quite some time afterward.
Without rehashing my prior blogs (too much) and going into excruciating detail, I thought sharing the general timeline I experienced could be useful.
I hope this can be of use to someone, anyone. Even if it can help one person, I have done my job. A surprising story for you. I was getting my car repaired, and the woman behind the counter asked, “Are you a photographer?” Yes, I replied. Curious as to where this was going. I didn’t know her. Yet she was local to my neighborhood. “I read your blog about grief. And I just wanted to let you know it helped. It really helped.”
It was at that moment I committed to doing this blog. It’s just taken a while.
My general timeline. The beginning will contain many points for a relativelly short time frame. Then it levels out. The first 12 cover those early phases. Jump to 13 to see how things start to pan out. By 27, we’re at the point of the last blog. While I do not want to rehash everything, I think there is value in providing my perspective now on those first 100 weeks.
- July 19, 2015. I get the phone call. Over 4,500 miles away, my parents have been in a horrific and violent car crash. Later my cousin will tell me that one of his friends was an EMT first on the scene and said he had never seen an accident as bad. My father is dead, and my mother is in critical condition.
- I pass out.
- I came back to consciousness, and I’d fallen over and knocked over our stools. My family and my wife’s father are looking down at me
- I can’t breathe, and I have to tell myself to breathe. It’s as if I am learning to breathe again. Learning to live again. I get up and go upstairs to the bedroom. I’m writhing in pain. The grief is tearing at me. Calling them sobs does them an injustice. My body was convulsing and contorting as if it was turning inside out.
- My wife books the flights. I don’t even know how long it’s been. I’m in and out of consciousness and a sort of sleep. But not sleep as I’ve ever known it. I’m learning to live again. First seconds, then minutes. Then hours.
- We’re at SEATAC. I only found out about 4 hours or so ago. A stranger comes up to me. “I don’t know what you are going through, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” [side note: as I write this, a wave of emotion hits me. My body tenses, and my neck and face shake. Tears fill my eyes. Such kindness.
- It’s a 9-hour flight. The British Airways staff were awful. Zero compassion. I won’t get into it, but in hindsight, how they acted toward me was flabbergasting. That flight was sheer hell. Not knowing how my mum was. Not being able to sleep. Being sick to the stomach. Not being able to eat or drink. Hell.
- We land. I call my brother-in-law as we are on the tarmac. He breaks the next awful piece of news. My mum is dead. The woman who raised me. Who did everything for her family and her children? The woman who lost her own sister in a car crash some 40 years previously. A woman of great compassion and love. Not to undersell how much dad meant to me, but at that moment, finding out mum was dead. It was unbearable in ways I can’t express. I cried out, wailing in agony. In my pain I was incapable of giving a f*ck what those around me thought.
- The first 24 hours in England continued their torture. Returning to mum and dad’s home. Seeing it as they left it. My heart broke over and over and over again.
- As a few days passed, I found myself numb. Oscillating back and forth between that and the visceral, searing hot pain. I realize now that I was in shock. I went through the bargaining, the denial, and all of the stages you hear about.
- We spent the next two weeks (my sisters and I) and a procession of family and close friends working through complicated emotions. We were both supportive of each other yet also in our grief. It’s personal, you see, and everyone processes it differently. True, there are some ‘meta’ aspects, but it is personal.
- We bury mum and dad. My god. That walk to the village cemetery. My eulogy that I’d spent the prior week writing, practicing, and practicing. In part to process, and a part of MY process of grief. The ceremony. The two wicker coffins. They were laid side by side. A quantum of solace was the outpouring of love and friendship from the number of lives they touched. It’s hard to understate the pain of these first few weeks. Getting through the day was almost impossible.
- It was just after this that I returned stateside. Work. Ugh. Each day it was a challenge just getting out of bed. I started going back into the office. Working from home as much as I could. “Did Granny & Granddad bring you to the airport?” The children didn’t understand, they couldn’t process. They knew enough to smother me with hugs.
- In general, my team and the broader organization were very supportive. Unfortunately, after about two weeks back in person, I had a scheduled one on one with my manager. “I know you are going through some things, but you need to leave that at home.” I bit my tongue. So hard it bled. I can still taste the iron as the lesion let flow across and under my tongue, down my throat.
- The first few months were raw. The pain was constant. I drank a lot. I put on a lot of weight. I was 45 pounds heavier than now. “The weight of grief.” It’s heavy in many ways. I was able to go out into the world. But I was scared all the time. Scared of the possibility of a mass shooter at the Sunday market. Scared of loud sounds. Scared of crowds. It was always a considerable effort. One day our three-year-old (now 10) got lost in a crowd. I almost died from stress.
- A few months in, I got some counseling. It helped for a session or two, but the therapist wasn’t equipped to deal with the depth or complexity of my grief. Nihilistic 17-year-old Matthew was back. My wife and boys gave me a reason to live. But apart from that, I couldn’t much see the point. Grief did that to me. Made me question the point of everything. My wife helped me so much. I credit her in large part with the fact I made it through.
- We did have a bump in November. I got back from the inquest, and the bandaid had been ripped off. In grief, jetlagged, booze-fueled anger, I punched a hole in a wall and destroyed a door. Totally destroyed it. Luckily it was a hollow core. It still hurt like hell. Bloody knuckles. The whole kit and kaboodle. But it wasn’t her fault. It was me and my grief and all the factors. She truly was my guardian angel.
- My three-year-old was too young to understand. But he knew something was wrong. My five-year-old was close to my parents. My dad, in particular. He felt it. He provided me with such warmth. The hugs, the look in his eyes. He continues to be an extraordinarily compassionate human being. When he hugs me if I’m sad, to this day, his brother also follows suit. They are both so kind, such empathy. Nature? For sure. Nurture? This experience forged them both.
- So the months passed by. Seven months in, I quit Microsoft. I had to. Not only had I been seeking counsel from my parents on my next move, but I needed change. I realize now that no matter where I was, I’d have to leave unless that place had infinite patience.
- By this point, I was able to fake being normal. My old Microsoft manager finally got what he wanted “Leave it at home.” By in large. It still colored me. I was jaded. Worried. Scared. But it was complicated. I was starting to feel like living again. It was around this point I started group counseling at Virginia Mason. Natural Death Services (vmfh.org). It was extraordinarily helpful for me. I had to leave work early on Tuesdays to get to the session, and the people I worked with were not tolerant of this. In general, there was little to zero empathy demonstrated. If you are reading this and you know someone going through it, please be patient and respectful, especially of the work they must do to move forward.
- The remainder of the first year continued much like this. Learning to live again. Framing and managing my emotions and being kind to myself. I was reading and seeking out any advice or ideas about the process. The first anniversary was, as I’m sure you can imagine, painful, to say the least. My eldest started kindergarten—usually a happy time for families. Parenting reminded me of my parents. Ugh.
- Year two was much of the same. Much hard work. It was rocky for us siblings. That “grief is personal” was never more apparent. We are a tight-knit family. We had great relationships. And it was still hard. Unsurprisingly, families get torn apart by this stuff. And it’s not just the subject of inheritance – I always thought that was the reason it destroyed families. And I can see how it can be. But just as if not more important is the communication and interaction on such choppy seas.
- Halfway through year two, I decided to part ways with the company I had landed at post-Microsoft. And I started my own company, Go Narrative. My energy was returning, and a view of the future. Hope. But boy, oh boy! First, quit the cushy corporate gig for smaller pastures, then start your own business. What was I thinking!?
- Between my wife and children and Go Narrative, I had a lot to keep me busy and work on. We traveled. My father retired in January 2015. You can’t wait to live. My parents did live, and they did make the most of life. But they did have plans. Dreams. Hopes. All gone.
- Two years in. After six weeks of a big trip that summer, I was starting to see things differently. I appreciated things again. I was beginning to have enough capacity to empathize more with others.
- Two years in really marked a seachange for me. I worked for over a hundred weeks to build scaffolding around my grief. With that scaffolding, I would be able to build beyond.
- I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my friends. My framily. There are so many of you. From old school pals to best mates from university. Lots of people. Some made big, brief gestures, and some continuously checked in—a whole kaleidoscope. People did what they could. We found new friends out of acquaintances—people who really stood up. We also lost some friends. People who didn’t get it and didn’t make an effort to get it. Those who were incapable of providing support for some reason. And I’m sure some just were not equipped. A few people have stood out and gone far, far beyond. These are people who have stayed the course. Steve and Ian. From airport taxi services to constant visits. Friends like Nick. Joe and Amy. Adam. John and Diane. Again, made an effort to visit over time. People who, unprompted, are always there. Every month, Brenda sends me a message on the 19th celebrating mum and dad and checking in on me. And then just amazing friends like Andrei, Timur, Alistair, Pardeep, Dave, Ollie and Ben have stuck by me and tried to connect whenever possible. You all made a huge difference. And if you don’t see your name there and you know what you have done to support us, please be safe knowing that I appreciate you. You helped.
- One of the reasons I haven’t blogged on the topic since June of 2017 is that it is difficult to describe, or pin down, what the process has been like. That scaffolding is see-through to start with. You see, you feel the raw pain quite frequently. I’ve never used the word Triggering so much in my life. The fact that my kids don’t have their grandparents brings deep sadness and pain to this day.
- And it’s not linear. I did slip back on occasion. Having to take my time with myself. Spend time in my diary with my loved ones.
- But gradually, I built up the first façade of the new building. Then I’d renovate. I can still go inside. I can still rest with and be with my grief. Sometimes it catches me by surprise. Storytelling. Movies. Music. Sometimes they cut right to the core. I’ve never cried so much at movies as you can imagine anything about parents and children. But “silly” stuff too. Happy stuff.
- We honor them. We put pictures up. We do the day of the dead. Every night at dinner, we ask each other, “What was your favorite thing today that you’d tell granny and grandad.” And while I cried just now writing those words, it’s usually a celebration. We are keeping them involved in my children’s lives. We look at photos. We tell stories. I take every opportunity to speak with my mother’s sister Aunty Pat because she always has a rich flood of stories of the family. She has he own OneNote notebook where I save it all.
- As for documentation, there is something else I ascribe to a vital role in my journey. My diary. I started this handwritten document sporadically as an eight and three-quarter-year-old in 1986, and in February of 1990 went daily. There have been days when I would write for hours, especially early on. Page after page of my feelings and thoughts. Hours on end! My own personal paper therapist. I’m lucky I had the habit ingrained already. I would highly recommend it. Reading back through those first few weeks the pain is almost unbearable to read, even now. Mixed in with the state of mind are memories. So many memories. As if I was trying to document things from before my regular diary writing. I wrote about the chaos in my mind. The slipping gears. How time itself seemed to break.
- Something that still cuts to my core is that of the lessons lost. As a young parent, I remember the stories my parents would tell me. “Matthew, you used to do the same!” or “Matthew, let me tell you about what you were like at five!” But that stream of invaluable knowledge is gone. Their stories have gone. No longer sharable. Lost to time. Their perspectives. The lessons they learned. All gone. Only three people left in my gene line are older than me. I’m a family elder now. And it feels wrong. I so want to hear the stories of when we lived in the USA in the early 80s. There are so many things I wish I could ask them.
So, after that first 100 weeks, things got more stable. Choppy to start. More and more durable as time passed. The floods of emotion are still there. But it’s more about me letting them be there. OK, so a movie can get me bawling my eyes out. But in general, I’m now the gatekeeper. I can choose or not to “go there.” To open the door of that façade, so haphazardly built with so much blood, sweat, and tears, and take a step inside. To the past. To those early days of grief when it seemed impossible. And was, in many ways. To touch the love lost when they died. I am no longer permitted to express my love to those I have loved and lost.
It took much work. But life now is about the moment, the now. Investing enough in the future to have a now in the future to enjoy. And there will be pain and death. Every day my children leave for school, I have butterflies in my tummy. A heightened sense of anxiety bubbles up. Will I ever see them again?
When I say “Goodbye” now, when I say “Take care.” It means something more than you may realize. When I hug you, it might seem like it is tighter than other people do. It is. I’m truly hugging you. I am with you. There. At that moment. In the now. I understand, with dark irony, how my mother truly meant it when she said “Drive safe” to me as a young man. She knew. She had lost her sister in a car crash. She told it with all her being.
And without life, grief is nothing if we don’t live. If we don’t love. If we don’t invest in ourselves and each other, then we have nothing to grieve. But we do. No matter how rough life can be, we have each other.
Be kind to each other. Life is challenging. You never know what someone is going through. I know that better now. I hope people can feel it. I don’t need them to recognize it. Or acknowledge it. It’s not the customer service rep’s fault. They are just doing their best. And maybe they just lost someone.
Grief takes time and hard work. It’s never truly gone. Grief is unique, but it is also a shared experience. We will all feel it one day. Sooner or later, we will all navigate its depths. We will feel different levels of grief for our acquaintances, friends, loved ones, parents, and, god forbid, our children. The latter is honestly a massive one for me. As bright and hopeful as I can be about building a new life after grief, I honestly don’t know if I could survive the loss of a child. If you have lost a child, please know you have a special place in my heart. While I have not lost a child and hope beyond hope never to experience such loss, I understand the gravity. I might not be able to feel exactly what you are feeling, but I empathize more than I ever thought possible.
Be kind to each other. We are all in this together, and none of us are getting out alive.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. I understand that now. It will all end one day. No matter what you believe in. No matter how confident you are in an afterlife. Or reincarnation. No matter what, we know one thing. That we have now, we have this moment. And at this moment, we have a choice.
Be kind to each other. Choose love. Choose compassion.
Be kind to yourself. Charity, as they say, starts at home. And the home of the heart is our own being.
Be kind to yourself. It’s not easy. It’s hard. It can get easier. I promise it’s possible.
I miss mum and dad terribly, but I cherish my children. My wife. My sisters. My aunts and uncle. My friends. And I know they love me.
People cherish you too. You are important.
Be kind to yourself and others; with enough blood, sweat, and tears, you can find a way through grief. There is no way around it, no way over it, and no way under it.
You have to go through it. But on the other side is a new life. A life with all the lessons and memories of the old one. But a new one that you get to build yourself. It won’t be overnight. And the more profound the grief, the longer it will take. But you will get there. You will get back to living again.
I hope these words can help in some small way, that my journey can offer ideas and resources. But your journey is yours.
If you happen to see me out and about or check my car in for a service, don’t hesitate to stop me and chat about grief. Society could do a better job of that, and I’m here to play my part.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.
Everything is going to be OK. Eventually.