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How to navigate dating when you’re grieving

Lucia’s dad died after contracting Covid-19 earlier this year. She’s written this fantastic blog as she navigates grief now.

I find dating hard. Confronted with someone I like/want to like me, I can’t help but turn into the worst version of myself: a jarring mix of insecurity and overcompensation. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you, but the result is a veneer of Insta-feminist sassiness masking a deep-rooted conviction that I’m nanoseconds away from being dumped over the composition of my WhatsApps.

According to psychology, I fall into the “anxious” (figures) pool of daters, my need for constant reassurance manifesting as frequent acts of self- and relationship-sabotage. Aged twenty-seven, I seem to be aboard a merry-go-round of suitors, but my “relationships” rarely make it past the three-month mark.

Of course, I know it’s not all down to me. It could be that dating apps are screwing us over or the simple fact that I’m in my twenties (or, most likely, that the men I date are in their twenties). But whatever it is, it’s getting tiring. Even more so during a global pandemic, which has shifted the gears in our dating lives. Before, a bad date could be written off as a funny story to tell our mates. Today, an encounter with a stranger has much higher stakes.

Already jaded and researching womxn-only communes, I face a brand new challenge on top of all this: dating while grieving. Before you say it, I know I should probably be taking time to focus on myself — it just hasn’t quite worked out that way (and I’m a Libra).

I lost my dad to coronavirus in March 2020. I still can’t believe I’m writing those words.

My dad was, and always will be, the most important man in my life. He was everything you could possibly wish for in a father, but also several evolutionary steps ahead of most of the male species. He was wearing pink shirts and learning about intersectional feminism before I was even born. He liked fast cars, but he also wore Vivienne Westwood perfume and was more in touch with his feelings than anyone I know.

Not-so-lucky in love himself, he was the person I’d laugh with about bad Bumble dates or cry with over heartbreak (and no matter how in touch with his feelings he was, he’d still always offer to get out the baseball bat when someone hurt me).

The prospect of continuing my search for love without him in my life is daunting.

Looking for love while I grieve

Firstly, dating while you’re grieving feels ten times scarier because of how vulnerable you are. Emotions veer from being deeply suppressed to spilling out uncontrollably, and you never know when the next surge will hit. An unanswered text from someone I could see myself having feelings for will send me spiraling. Seeing a father and daughter together makes me want to burst into tears mid-date.

Secondly, if something goes wrong, I can’t tell my dad about it. I can tell plenty of other people, of course — but they’re not my dad. I don’t yet know how to navigate my emotional life without him; my rock, my constant, my confidant. The person who would always tell me to stop worrying, remind me I’m still so young, and that I don’t have time for silly buggers.

Thirdly, there is this: how will the next important man in my life ever compare to my dad? That’s not to say I’m looking for someone like him. My dad wasn’t perfect; I’m not sure I’d have it in me to marry someone with quite so many stubborn ways and quite so many guitars. What I do want, though, is to find someone of whom my dad would approve. Not just approve, but like and love.

New priorities and trying to escape

My dad isn’t going to be there to walk me down the aisle (or whatever non-conforming ceremony I inflict on everyone), but I damn sure want to make him proud with whoever I choose as my partner. What my dad had, and which so many of us lack, was integrity. His death has shed new light on the qualities I would look for in a partner. It’s become so much more important to date someone I can truly respect, trust, and feel inspired by.

When you’re grieving, it’s natural to want to escape it. And so we push the pain further down, piling distractions and vices on top of it. I want to remember what it is to feel joyful and free — and falling in love can help us do that. The best I’ve felt this year is being swept up by someone and giving myself permission to have fun again.

Boyfriends are replaceable, fathers are not

The fun, though, is fleeting. Grief is not like a breakup, which you get over via tequila shots, a new haircut, a good yoga teacher, and, ultimately, a new partner. Boyfriends are replaceable, but fathers are not. When I’m dating, I find it hard to distinguish whether I’m experiencing a genuine connection with someone, or merely clinging to a raft in the white water.

But falling in love, like death, is an unknown. They will come for us at some point, whether we like it or not. My dad used to say that love is letting go of fear; so I think that all we can do is let it go and keep on swimming. And if, like me, you’ve lost someone, remember this: they’ll always be there to guide you.

Lucia Fontaina-Powell

Follow Lucia on Instagram and Twitter: @luciafontaina

Three ways Fleabag depicted grief perfectly

In this blog, Kate discusses the popular TV show, Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. If you’re interested to see how grief is depicted within the series, you can watch Season 1 and 2 on BBC iPlayer.

Fleabag, the witty but empowering story of a single woman trying to navigate her way through life. Our unfiltered heroine is admired for her hilarious narrative and sharp one liners, but this is more than just a comedy. The audience is quickly introduced to the perpetual grief Fleabag carries whilst she’s learning to cope with the loss of her mother and the loss of her best friend Boo who tragically took her own life.

Just like Fleabag, I’m also learning to understand my grief

Since Fleabag first aired in 2016, it’s become an obsession of mine. When I first watched series one, I binged it all in one night. Fleabag reminded me of myself; I’m career driven(ish), I’m single and find dating hard, I’m constantly trying to juggle my finances, and I’m slowly learning to balance fun with reality, but it’s a hard thing to get right. And just like Fleabag, I’m also learning to understand my grief. When I was twenty one my best friend killed himself after battling a string of mental health problems. Then, last year I lost my mother to cancer; she died at the age of 57.

As you can imagine, things haven’t always been easy. My twenties have been centred around grief. Recently, a kind work colleague asked, “How is your heart?” I replied with “Honestly? It’s in pieces”. The thing is, I find it almost impossible to describe the heartbreak caused by bereavement; it’s like an entangled tree and every twisted branch represents a new problem. It’s hard to make sense of it.

The reason why I love Fleabag so much is because grief has been depicted so perfectly. There were three moments which really stuck out to me:

1. I just want to cry all the time

This line hit me so hard. Fleabag is sat with her recently divorced insurance broker, sharing a cigarette and discussing their losses. The insurance broker starts by listing the things he misses the most, “I miss dancing with my wife, and I miss taking clean cups out of the dishwasher and placing them on the shelf”.

To this, Fleabag replies with “I just want to cry all the time”.

I probably could cry all the time but, unfortunately, I’ve got things to do and places to be. So, I’m going to allow myself some space, take a deep breath, and keep going.

2. The pencil rubber and the hamster, the smallest of things remind you of them.

Everyday something will bring back the tiniest memory, reminding me of the time I once had with my loved one. After a moment of reminiscing I realise they’re gone and a tidal wave of sadness hits.

Phoebe demonstrated this perfectly throughout both series. At one point, Fleabag looks at a pencil rubber and is reminded of a time when she was reading an unfortunate story involving a hamster and a pencil rubber. Boo responded to her friend “That’s why they put rubbers on the end of pencils, because everyone makes mistake”.

Fleabag smiles to herself, looks into the camera and says, “She was always full of surprises”.

The warm glow in Fleabags eyes as she remembers her loved one is a moment I’ll always appreciate. Grief is unexpected, it’s not linear, and there are no rules to when it’ll re-surface.

3. I don’t know what to do with it, with all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it.

In season two, the audience delves into Fleabag’s memory as she relives her mother’s funeral. As I watched the scenes unfold, I was quickly reminded of my own funeral experiences and the weirdness they’d entailed.

Starting with Fleabags frustration of looking too good, “I don’t know what’s happened, I just woke up looking amazing and now everyone’s going to think I got a facial for my mother’s funeral”.

I can safely say I’ve never experienced this exact problem, but I’ve definitely worried about the insignificant. What shoes should I wear when saying a final goodbye at my mother’s funeral? Your mind creates a minefield of worries which cover up your true sadness.

The two people I’ve loved the most are now gone and I’m left with all of these emotions and nowhere to put them

Later, we see Fleabag successfully hiding her emotions with small talk, food, and regular cigarette breaks. But, as she listens to her father express his love and loss, tears appear in her eyes and a moment of sadness finally breaks through.

The episode is deeply reminiscent, but the point that really resonated with me was Fleabag’s conversation with Boo, “I don’t know what to do with it, with all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it”. Boo responds, “I’ll take it”.

Where do you put that love? The two people I’ve loved the most are now gone and I’m left with all of these emotions and nowhere to put them. But I guess Boo is right, take that love and focus it on other parts of your life, let yourself grow, and share that love as you move forward.

Grief is hard, it creeps up behind you and gets under your skin. We like to fool ourselves into believing we can wash the grief away and start anew, but that’s not how it works. We grow around the sadness and slowly learn how to carry it with us, a new layer of skin bound together by love and loss.

Kate Mabbett

“Cheers to Phoebe for her excellent writing. Cheers to my Mum and Greg, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them.”

“I also lit the candle for future us – in the knowledge that next year, Maisie may not be with us”

Hannah writes a beautiful post about her daughter Maisie, her book Yellow Day, and her connection with Baby Loss Awareness Week.

I first heard about Baby Loss Awareness Week four years ago via an Instagram account I followed. A wonderful mum had lost her son to stillbirth, and I was devastated to hear of her heartbreak. A year later, I was suddenly thrown into Baby Loss Awareness Week on a personal level.

“We thought we’d got through the worst thing in the world”

Five months earlier, our second child, Maisie had been born. Seemingly happy, healthy and simply beautiful. However, when she was two weeks old, she needed emergency heart surgery. She made it through, and we thought we’d got through the worst thing in the world. But a couple of months later, doctors gave us the devastating news that although Maisie still looked perfectly healthy on the outside, her heart was still too big and they suspected she had a metabolic condition of which there was no cure. So when I lit a candle for the Wave of Light at the end of Baby Loss Awareness Week that year, I lit it not only for all the babies that had been lost, but I also lit it for future us – in the knowledge that next year, Maisie may not be with us.

Hannah with Maisie, and her husband and son

Having a baby with a life-limiting condition is terrifying. There would be days where I would just sit and stare at her, trying to memorise each tiny part of Maisie: how her tiny hands wrapped around my finger tips, the shape of her head in my hands, the beautiful curve of her tummy. I’d try to photograph and film each moment for future me to watch so that it would feel like she was still here. And I’d rock and sing to her to George Ezra’s ‘Give me a minute to hold my girl’ with tears streaming down my face.

I also lit it for future us – in the knowledge that next year, Maisie may not be with us

But there were also days of pure joy, which we appreciated more that I think any other parent ever has. Family days with our two children were just filled with happiness – and I look back on them knowing they are likely to be the happiest of my life. I won’t ever get them back, but how lucky were we to ever have them? We will never forget them, and they’ll live on in us for the rest of our lives.

She was unlikely to live past her first birthday

After we were told Maisie was unlikely to live past her first birthday, we felt we were left with only one choice in a largely uncontrollable situation: how to deal with this information. We decided to react as positively as possible. Inspired by others, we wrote a bucket list for her – it gave us a physical focus, and made sure we spent as much time as possible making memories. We took her to festivals, blew her bubbles, had overnight stays in hotels, took boat trips, dipped her toes in the sea, and spent as much time with family and friends as we could.

We always wanted her to be with us for longer

Sadly, it wasn’t to last, and on 21st November 2018 at a routine check-up at the hospital, Maisie suddenly went into cardiac arrest, and we lost her a few hours later. She was just a week away from her six-month birthday. We always wanted her to be with us for longer – just one Christmas, just one birthday – but it wasn’t to be. Maisie had given us so much joy, when she must have been in so much pain.

Maisie smiling

The Baby Loss community

The day after we were given the news Maisie was unlikely to live long, I desperately needed to reach out to other parents in a similar situation. Not only to hear from others who understood our situation, but to find others who had survived it. When you research baby and child loss, all you generally find are poems, quotes and posts about how it is an indescribable pain – which really isn’t helpful, and just made me all the more anxious.

I learnt about self care (not just bubble baths and face masks, but avoiding certain people and places, and just giving myself a break when I needed it)

But then I found the loss community on Instagram; I found other parents who had gone through the imaginable – and they were there, existing, surviving and even thriving. The more I read and researched, the more I realised there was certain terminology, a baby loss language, posts about different types of loss, information about difficult milestones and turning points, and even people creating and selling things to remember their loved ones. What’s more, anyone I contacted was always so keen to help, they were so supportive offering advice and their own stories. It was an incredible community to be a part of – one which no-one wants to be part of, but those in it really make the most of it.

Finding the strength to carry on

With these incredible people alongside me (most of which I still have never met in real life) – I was able to find the strength to move through each day. I learnt to anticipate certain dates: Christmas, New Year, birthdays, Mother and Father’s Day, death and funeral anniversaries. I learnt about self care (not just bubble baths and face masks, but avoiding certain people and places, and just giving myself a break when I needed it). I learnt how sharing the bad days, along with the good days with others helped both myself and others to feel less alone. It sounds ridiculous, but I honestly don’t know what I would have done without Instagram – it was my saviour.

Pages from the Yellow Day book by Hannah Chapman

Our other saviour after Maisie died was focusing on positive things: such as fundraising, running and gardening. Together our family and friends have raised over £23,000 in less that two years for the Lily Foundation – a charity campaigning for Mitochondrial Disease. My partner and I have run out first marathons and half marathons. We also decided to finally get married to give ourselves something to look forward to. And I ploughed my maternal energies into growing thousands of beautiful flowers from seed.

Time to publish my book

I also knew that I needed to stop taking life for granted and just get on with doing all those things I’d always said I wanted to do. One of those things was to write and illustrate a book – something I’d wanted to do since I was a child. Bizarrely, years before we had Maisie, I had an idea for an illustrated poem about grief, despite having little experience of grief myself: it’s almost as though something was preparing me for the future. I’d worked on it for some years before Maisie died, but now she had gone, I knew it was time to finally publish it.

The book is called ‘Yellow Day’ and it is a journey through loss. I deliberately made it quite open ended, so that hopefully anyone else experiencing grief would be able to relate to it. Each page consists of images of objects and places that remind you of a person after they’ve gone: an empty bed, an empty place at the dinner table, clothes that hang unworn in wardrobes. The illustrations are seasonal with spring daffodils and autumn leaves, indicating the passing of time and the world moving forward when you don’t want to.

Hannah Chapman holding a copy of her book and a photo of Maisie
Hannah holding her book and a photo of Maisie

But it is also a book about hope: showing how it is possible to still relish life, whilst keeping your memories of that missing person alive. I really hope that readers will find some comfort in it. I wanted to make it something really beautiful that people could treasure – or give to others suffering as a gift – so the illustrations are full colour, with yellow binding, a hard cover and thick, creamy pages. It’s my way of keeping Maisie alive, not just in our memories, but in others’ too. A way to keep her light burning – because a parent’s biggest fear is not only the death of their child, but that their child may one day be forgotten.

Hannah Chapman

You can pre-order a copy of Yellow Day by Hannah Chapman here: https://amazingmaisie.com/product/yellow-day-book/

You can follow Hannah on Instagram: @our_amazing_maisie

Ragdoll Mummy, by Martha Lane

Martha Lane has written this beautiful piece for Let’s Talk About Loss to help us mark Baby Loss Awareness Week, which is 9th – 15th October every year. If you would like to find out more about Baby Loss Awareness Week, and specific support available, you can click here to be taken to the website.

Ragdoll Mummy

In a room designed for someone else, she took up crafts in the dark. Told to take up a hobby, to distract her. Sitting through long nights with her back against white painted bars. Humming wordless lullabies, she used glue. Sticking not fixing. Bits of nothing pieced together refusing to make something, anything. Refusing to be anything more than nobody.

She roared at the nightlight shaped like the moon. Shredded cotton blankets, a breaststroke of fury through pastel fibres. She wrenched the bars from the bed and snapped them to splinters. Picked up two sticks, started to knit. Trying to give form to the shapeless. She spent her hours entwining threads. Not sure what she was making. Trying to get it just right, even though she didn’t know what that was. When the thoughts grew too large, she rested her head on still-furled balls of yarn.

The room’s heartbeat was wooden – clack clack, clack clack, clack clack. The blood drawn from her fingers its food. She couldn’t pinpoint when it happened, but one day she looked up and the doorway was blocked. She was woven into the lumpy wool bodies she’d tried to create, unable to stand. Still she knitted. Searching for that shape that was just for her. That fit perfectly in her palm, against her collar bone, under her cheek.

Her knitting needles wore down to stumps and her fingers seized into branches. She couldn’t knit any more. She lay back on the cascade of discarded dolls and closed her eyes. She dreamt of milk breath and wisps of curls, flat soft feet and fingernails sharp like sparrow beaks. She dreamt of trees taking root, splitting the Earth from beneath. Of Lava bubbling, flowing red, slowly turning black. Of the sun setting and forgetting to rise, a hollow purple spot in its place in an overstretched sky.

Martha Lane

You can follow Martha on Instagram @poor_and_clean_

If you would like to submit a blog or piece of creative writing, please email blog@letstalkaboutloss.org.

Karate helped me through bereavement

In this blog, Emily reflects on her passion for Karate and how it’s helped her to regulate her emotions and find a family after her Dad passed away. You may also be interested in reading Emily’s other blog ‘A different kind of grief‘.

Life turned upside down

On Wednesday 7th March 2012, my life was turned upside down when my Dad passed away after a long battle with cancer. At the time, I was 17, and I was studying for my A Levels, hoping to go to University. Finding out that my Dad had died was difficult, and I always found that I was either completely numb and apathetic, or over-emotional and crying at absolutely everything.

Life at home was no longer as it used to be, and I no longer had my Dad to talk to. I could talk to my Dad about anything and everything – the good stuff and the bad stuff. When he died, it was like all of that went too.

Regaining a sense of normality

One of the things that helped me after my Dad died to regain a sense of normality was going to Karate and staying focussed on my training. It always felt like that during the lesson in the dojo (the training hall), nothing else mattered, except Karate and spending time with fellow students and instructors, who were so sympathetic towards the “situation” that my brother and I were in.

My Dad always adored coming to watch me do Karate, especially at the bigger assessment events, so continuing to pursue and persevere with my Karate training absolutely felt like the correct thing to do. There were also people there who I could talk to, not in the same way that I could talk to my Dad of course, but they were people who I could trust and open up to and be honest about how I was feeling.

Having something to focus on

Reflecting on that time, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have Karate in my life to focus on and help give me a sense of normality. One of the many benefits of Karate – and any martial art in fact – is that it helps you to keep your emotions under control, as well as keep you physically and mentally healthy.

That’s not to say that my mental health hasn’t been affected by my Dad’s death. I have struggled with depression and anxiety ever since. However, it has helped to get advice and support from others who have been through similar experiences to mine. Especially as now, the Karate club I train in is called Kazoku Karate-Do (Kazoku actually means family in Japanese) – and I genuinely feel as though it is a big, second family with unconditional love and support.

Sometimes, I do feel sad that my Dad will never see me progress all the way through to my black belt (hopefully – one day) in my Karate journey, but I have gained a second family through my Karate journey and that means more to me than anything.

Even now, more than eight years since my Dad passed away, going to Karate still helps me to maintain that focus and I also hope that my Dad would be proud of me for persevering with my training

Emily Maybanks

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