"SIXTY IS GRIEF & GRATITUDE, SORROW & JOY ALL TANGLED TOGETHER." Katrina Kenison
These beautiful words really resonated, taking me back to one sunny evening last summer. It was intended to be a beautiful night spent with family and friends celebrating my big six-oh! As I welcomed my guests with a glass of bubbly, I could have passed as relatively “normal” but, the truth was, my heart was broken and my mind and body exhausted. I was basically a shell of a person standing in a black sequinned dress at my birthday party. All I really wanted to do was run home, pull on my softest PJ’s and cry into my pillow. Fortunately, I didn’t mention any of this to my husband who was, at that precise moment, handing over his credit card to the restaurant manager!
You see, five months earlier, I had lost my darling dad after almost a year spent fighting for his life. I had given it my all and he had too, but the ever changing tides of incredibly hopeful highs followed by the crushing lows of disappointment and set back were brutal.
I held dad’s hand every step of the way but as the weeks and months passed, our hopes for his recovery were slowly and torturously dwindling, He knew it and I knew it but still we wouldn’t give up. Like it or not, we are genetically programmed that way.
The truth is, I couldn’t imagine a world without dad in it. He was the heart of our family. So when he passed away it was devastating to all of us. Dad had made me promise that I would celebrate my 60th no matter what and to be fair I gave it a really good shot but it all seemed flat and meaningless without him. I realise now that I was an imbecile imagining I could host a party in the state I was in. My grief had remained untended over the five months since his death. I was paralysed.
My mum was already living with us when dad was in the hospital so I felt I needed to stay strong for her and of course I was worried about my kids who were grieving. They’d had a very close and loving relationship with their grandad. I am sure there was an element of fear too. If I let it all go I might fall to pieces entirely and never recover. So, I continued to do what I had been doing….. I set my emotions to one side and kept marching forward, focusing on everyone else. As women and mothers I think this is what we naturally tend to do.
I have come to realise that grief is a very complex and unpredictable process and something that everyone experiences in very different ways. For me there were many physical and emotional issues. Some I expected, others I didn’t. By the time I had a consultation with my friend, the brilliant naturopath Justine Evans, I was a mess. She warned me I needed to take time out to actively work onmy recovery both spiritually and physically and she was there to help me.
It’s been eighteen months now since dad died but just last week it occurred to me that, despite corona and lock down and all the terrible stories, for the first time in a long time I was feeling lighter. I was able to write again, laugh again, feel physically strong again, find the joy in the moments again. My husband noticed too, he commented on it.
It dawned on me that despite or should I say because of the bedlam currently ensuing in our home on a daily basis, I am healing. I am not healed but I am aware of the shift in myself.
My daughter and grandson’s presence has unwittingly nudged me in the right direction and allowed me to recover a little more each day. My shoulders are lower, I am no longer shut down, I am able to cry but then feel better for it. I feel the warmth from their hugs thawing my body. I find comfort in a busy family home and I remember one poignant moment just weeks before dad died. He was using a walker to make his way from the kitchen to the lounge, which I knew was tough for him to swallow having been a pro athlete back in the day and always mentally and physically strong. Harvey was sitting on my lap reading a book but jumped up, climbed into the centre of the walker and pushed hard. Dad spoke to his great grandson, in what was almost a whisper, “that’s it Harvey. I’m passing the baton on to you.” A few weeks later he was gone.
The truth is, grief can knock you to the floor and render you helpless. You just have to find a way, your own personal way, of dragging yourself to a standing position and begin the forward motion towards the rest of your life. I am sure so many of you reading this can relate to loss and have your own personal stories to tell. Losing a parent is by far the toughest thing I have ever had to deal with but I know there are so many worse stories.
My dad had a wonderful fulfilling life. When he passed I received thousands of letters from his former pupils from around the world saying what he had meant to them. He left an amazing legacy. He also survived pancreatic cancer for 15 years after being told he had two months and he died of something totally different. They were precious, bonus years in which he saw his grandchildren graduate, his eldest granddaughter marry, and met his first great grandchild. I feel incredibly grateful for all of this but it doesn’t take away the gaping hole in our family.
Loss is something we will all have to deal with in our own ways but I have shared some of my personal experiences below in the hope that they might, in some small way, help you should you ever need it.
For me grief impacted in the following ways:
Pain around my liver and back
A constant cough
Inability to sleep despite being on a loop with the sleep meditation apps
PTSD. I witnessed some very traumatic medical procedures with my dad. Watching someone you love slowly being drawn further and further from your reach is tough.
Hypochondria… I was constantly overly anxious about my own health convinced there was something seriously wrong with me, which apparently can be quite common after spending months in a hospital surrounded by sick and dying people.
Severe general anxiety especially if the phone rang as that used to signal dad was in trouble
Anger and rage that would come out of nowhere (this is why my liver was hurting… Justine explains in her Blog- LINK AT THE END OF THIS ARTICLE.)
What I’ve Learned That May Help You:
1. When caring for a loved one its so important to factor in your own health. The fight can be a marathon and what good are you if you collapse before the finish? Obviously I didn’t do this and look where I ended up!
2. Know that your loved one will never leave you. When dad passed I asked Charlie, ‘how will we all survive without him and his advice?” He replied, “ask the question and you’ll hear his answer.” This is so true and I do it all the time.
3. You may or may not be surprised by your friends. Some will be there for you on the end of the phone all day while you sit in a jam packed hospital ward terrified, and again all night when you get home and need to talk it out, tears and all. Thank you Carol, Alice and Justine. Others will disappear but it just means they don’t understand the severity of what you are experiencing and that’s OK.
4. It hit me that my youth is officially over now that my dad has gone….. not that it wasn’t anyway but his loss just reinforced those feelings that I have lived more of my life than remains… by a long shot. That can feel depressing but it can also help you refocus and reboot your life to ensure the years ahead are lived well.
5. I had an overwhelming desire to retrace the steps of my life and dragged my husband to see my childhood home and primary school, then to to the flat I lived in with five other BBC girls. We spent time taking lots of photos of me outside but got home and realised it was the wrong flat! Mine was a few doors up. Yep! It’s official. I have lost my mind! Apparently revisiting your past is quite a common side effect of losing a parent.
6. Take comfort in the good stuff. I realise just how similar I am to my dad in so many ways. More than I had realised. For instance every time I look down I see his legs, every time I laugh I know he’d be laughing too, when I see my grandson kick a football (dad was a pro soccer player back in the day) I take comfort in these little things.
7. Finally, but most importantly, I had a husband who stood by my side every step of the way and didn’t falter, not once. He fed me, put me to bed, held me while I cried and made me laugh whenever he possibly could. As my dad said just before he left this world, “I am leaving you in good hands.”
To find out more about my amazing dad and have a few laughs after this serious topic, read my article which was published in Woman and Home UK.
For brilliant information on how grief effects us go to my guest blogger Justine Evans