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Grief: expect the unexpected

People say grief strikes anywhere. But what does that actually mean? Today I had a sudden stab of grief as I looked at a pot of Vaseline – so yes, grief really can show up at any time.

I used to think that grieving meant crying, or at least being sad. But the two are not synonymous and I have learnt, with the help of others, that grief is a beast with many faces, and it can disguise itself as many different emotions. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is impossible to recognise.

Grief as it looks now

As I write this, on 2nd June 2018, it has been 1,065 days since mum died. Exactly one month from the three year anniversary. Yet still, a pot of Vaseline causes a lump in my throat and the familiar stabbing pain of grief in my heart. Because this is what grief looks like to me now. It is less intense than it was three years ago, when I would howl into the night sky and rage at the loss of the woman I loved so dearly. Now, the grief is quieter, calmer, and less predictable. It shows itself as it did this morning, in the most unexpected places.

Every girl has their lip salve of choice, and mine is Vaseline. I’m somewhat addicted to it and for a few years when I was younger, I collected the tins, and so I had every flavour of Vaseline available. Mum loved it too, and neither of us went anywhere without our Vaseline. It seems such a stupid, trivial thing now but it was a commonality we shared and one of many things that made up the bond between mother and daughter. This morning, as I applied my Vaseline, as I do multiple times a day, every day, I suddenly remembered that mum loved Vaseline too. It was a new tin design, one mum hadn’t been alive to see, and that small, seemingly ridiculous fact was enough to cause a moment of intense grief and longing for mum.

Journeying and learning

As we journey further with grief, it seems that the shock of loss presents itself differently. Gone are my nightmares about mum dying (apart from the occasional one every six months or so), instead I grieve for the things she never got to see. Big things, like the love of my life who will never get to make my mum laugh, or the weddings she won’t attend. But the little things set me off too, like reading a book that I can’t pass on to her even though I know she would have loved to read it. Or like the Vaseline she never got to buy, or the picture of ‘Susan’s Cafe’ that I’m not sure why I’ve taken because I can’t show her.

You’re not alone

Grief is scary and confusing. If you are new to the grief club, expect the unexpected. But take solace in the knowledge that you are not alone with your random, bewildering, ridiculous triggers. We all experience them and the whole nature of grief is that it is not something you can prepare for or control. We’ve all been there and we know how you feel – and it’s normal.

If you are feeling alone, why not connect with Let’s Talk About Loss and meet other young people who have been bereaved. At the moment, we run meet ups in Nottingham every month, and will soon be launching in London, Bristol and Coventry. They are relaxed, informal gatherings where you can come along and meet other young people who have been bereaved. There is no pressure or expectation to talk about your loss, just come along and get to know us, and see that you are not alone. Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com for more information or drop us a message on Facebook or Instagram.

Grief doesn’t have to be isolating – let’s work together to talk through the taboo.

Who is looking after you?

We’re all supporting someone who is grieving. Whether it’s a close family member, housemate, colleague, or the friend of a friend – we all know someone who has been bereaved, or is struggling with loss.

However, we can feel at times like we are not close enough to the bereaved person to support them. Perhaps you barely know them, or they are the friend of a friend and it would feel awkward to talk to them? This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week and maybe you’ve been thinking about how you could support others who might be struggling.

Who could you support?

Perhaps the only person you could think of, who you know is grieving, is someone who is a friend of a friend. Or a distant relative. And now you’re panicking, thinking – do I have to support them? I barely know them! Well the answer is – no, you don’t have to support them. You’re not the most appropriate person. But you could support someone who is supporting them. Confused yet? I’ve drawn a diagram to explain my point…

There are concentric circles around the person who has been bereaved – the above diagram is merely an example of what this could look like. It will be different for every person, but the reality is, there are always people close to you when you are grieving who you rely on for support. For me, it was my immediate family. I spent two months at home after mum died and so we spent a lot of time together. I did see friends, other family members, and we had plenty of visitors, but it was my close family who I turned to for support in the first few months.

For someone else, it could be their housemates, their partner, their best friends, or even their work colleagues. That first circle of people are the ones who really need to support their bereaved friend as much as they can. Talking with them about their loss, checking in with them regularly, perhaps even helping them practically.

Being there for someone can be hard

Imagine this – your colleague at work tells you that their friend has recently been bereaved. You want to help – so you start thinking about the ways you know how to support a bereaved person. But you don’t know this person, so actually you can’t help at all. Except – you can.

When we are supporting someone who is grieving, it’s challenging. I know that when I have been at my worst, that has been really hard for the people around me. But they love and care for me, so that’s fine! But they need support too. If you’re in one of the inner concentric circles, you need to protect your mental health too and make sure that you are supported.

Supporting the supporters

And that’s where the outer concentric circles come in – the distant friends, the work colleagues, the football teammate. They can’t help the bereaved person – but they can help you. We all have a duty of care and we can all support someone, so I invite you to consider where you might be on the concentric circle diagram, and then look at the next circle in. This is the person you can support. You can check in with them, make sure they are coping, ask if there is anything you can do that will ease their burdens.

Talking about loss, together

I’m a firm believer that the conversation about mental health will only change when we all talk, together. Whether the bereaved person you know is a close family member or someone you simply know about from a friend of a friend, you have a role to play in that story, by supporting them and the people around them. As we reflect on the past week – Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 – perhaps you could take a moment to consider: who is it that I could support, today?

If you have a story to share, email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com and start your conversation.

Riding the wave

Sophie writes this beautiful piece inspired by her own journey through grief in the hope that it will help others and show you that there is always a break in the waves – however scary they can seem.

In the hours, days, weeks – even months – following the loss of my mum, I often wondered: does it get easier? Will I feel like this indefinitely? The death of a parent is unimaginable for most people and it is something that we can never be fully prepared for.

The first wave is always the worst

I lost my mum in 2013. She was an incredible, strong woman and a single mother; when she passed my whole world came crashing down. Her death was unexpected and sudden. I was two months into my first year at university when my sister phoned telling me to come home as soon as I could because mum was in hospital. We spent a week in hospital and she passed away two days before my 19th birthday.

I felt like the overwhelming grief I was feeling would never subside

Following mum’s death, I went straight back to university. I went to class. I went out with friends. I suppose I did everything in my power to distract myself and try to function normally. I tried to do all the things I had done before – except now with the occasional spontaneous public crying session. As much as I tried to continue with university normally, the grief was still there and it demanded attention.

On nights when I couldn’t sleep I would sometimes google other people’s experiences of grief, just wondering how on earth they got through it. I felt like the overwhelming grief I was feeling would never subside. One story that stuck with me was the story of an old man reflecting on the people that he had lost in his lifetime and his journey through it.

He described grief as a wave.

Shipwrecked by grief

At first, you feel like you’ve been shipwrecked, you’re drowning, struggling for air and you keep getting dragged under. The waves are 100 feet tall and 10 seconds apart – you can’t catch your breath. All you can do is float and try to hold on. This is the worst part, and you’ll think you’re going to feel this way forever – but you won’t.

After a while, the waves might still be 100 feet tall, but they’ll come further apart. Sometimes things might trigger waves unexpectedly – a photograph or a song on the radio. They still knock you down when they come, and they can still be crippling. But in between blows you can breathe and you can function.

I’m reassured in the knowledge that the wave of grief will not last forever

It’s not plain sailing and there’s no specific formula to it. But as time goes on, the waves will seem smaller and they’ll come further apart. You begin to see them coming – knowing that specific dates or times will be harder than others. You can, to some extent, brace yourself for impact.

Learning the rhythm and riding the waves

You learn that that once the wave has hit, you will surface again because you’ve done it before. You will be able to catch your breath. The old man says the waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to stop. You learn that you can survive them, and that is enough to keep you going on.

In my experience, he has it completely right. I couldn’t picture any possible break from the grief and heartache immediately following mum’s death; you might have to wait a little while, but it will eventually come.

Of course there will be waves that hit that you don’t see coming. This week, four years on, I’ve been caught off guard by waves I didn’t anticipate. They can still hit just as hard as they did the first time around, but I’m reassured in the knowledge that the wave of grief will not last forever.

Grief isn’t something we automatically know how to deal with, but we continue to learn about it as time passes. It can be a rough sea out here, but we can all learn to ride the wave.

Sophie Message

Do you have a story to share? For young people who have been bereaved, just a blog post from someone who is struggling too – or has struggled before – can let them know that they are not alone and how they are feeling is totally normal. We all need to get better at talking about loss, so get in touch today and we can talk together. 

The insistence of grief: a conversation with Richard Beard

Richard Beard is the author of The Day That Went Missing: A Family Tragedy, a book that follows Richard as he attempts to piece together the events of 18th August 1978 – the day his younger brother Nicholas died.

The book is a heart-breaking memoir, an ode to nine year old Nicky and the events of that tragic day. Richard fights through a wall of silence put up by his father to talk about the loss with his family, and find out exactly what happened that day. The book is superbly written and I found it immensely helpful in processing my own loss. I was lucky enough to chat to Richard about the book and ask him some questions about it.

The thing with grief is, if you don’t talk about it, it will come back

1. What prompted you to write the book?

In a practical way it was the family situation – my dad had died so it was easier to think about the possibility of talking. He had been the main engine of repression, resonating a broadcast of silence that said ‘no one is talking about this’. His death was a catalyst for wanting to suddenly talk about it with everyone else.

The thing with grief is, if you don’t talk about it, it will come back and insist on making itself known. It is good to talk about grief when you are young because talking about emotions is admitting they exist and addressing them – and that’s with all emotions, not just with grief.

2. We feel like we are going on a very personal journey with you as you write the book. Did it come easily to be so brutally honest throughout the narrative?

Once I started, I thought ‘I have to be as open as I can be’. In early drafts I was avoiding emotion, and my editor Stuart Williams at Harvill Secker said “you’re re-enacting the denial in the style you’re writing this” – he was absolutely right. So then I had to go back and recognise those bits and edit them, so it became more honest as it was edited.

Grief is not always a word, it can be a groan

3. I hope it doesn’t offend you if I say that at times the tone of the narrative becomes slightly childish – youthful is a kinder word – but it is especially when you remember like when Nicky was alive. Your childhood was clearly affected by that loss – do you think some part of you will always be trapped in 1978?

There is of course a theory that if you suffer a trauma as a child, you remain stuck in that time. But more than that – my brother is lost but also my own childhood is lost. I’m not connected with my own childhood because we didn’t talk about that time. Not only do you not grieve the person who is gone, you also don’t grieve the change in yourself. In writing the book I was trying to get Nicky back, but I also had to try and get back a sense of how I was, which had been lost.

I think it could help a lot of people to write down how they feel

4. You talk at the end of the first part of the book of “inarticulate pain, grief that doesn’t know how to express itself”. Do you think you had grieved before you started writing the book?

I must have grieved in the days and weeks immediately afterwards. There are the letters I found that talk about me breaking down, waking up in the night and screaming. But once everyone else around me agreed – and I’d agreed – to the silence, that cut the grief short. There was all this grief wanting to come out, that is shown in the book by the sobbing when I found the place. I still feel like this now – grief is not always a word, it can be a groan; your whole body needs to feel the pain. It doesn’t have words and that’s a funny paradox of writing a book about it.

I think it could help a lot of people to write down how they feel, and I know that is what your blog is attempting to do. Writing has helped me grieve. You could even say that it is a way of people talking to themselves, when talking out loud might be too hard.

5. Do you wish you had grieved differently, that you had been allowed to grieve at the time?

It was very excessively painful at the time, hence why we all shut it down. I suppose we could have helped each other as a family more by talking about it. We all had a completely different idea of what happened because we had never talked about it.

You can really only talk about grief when you’re ready. This was my time, I was ready

For young children, and perhaps for teenagers too, I think it would have helped to see adults feeling the same way as I was feeling, which was completely destroyed. We didn’t go to the funeral so we never saw my mum collapse and we thought our feelings were childish and wrong, because the adults were appearing so strong. With my own children, when their grandmother died in a car crash, I was very keen that they went to the funeral.

6. How did your family react to you writing the book and do you think it was helpful for you to start talking about what happened with them?

It certainly was helpful for my mum – she had so much stuff that she had wanted to say for years. For my brothers I wasn’t so sure. It brought us closer as we were talking about something important to us, so it deepened our relationship. But you can only talk about grief when you’re ready and this was my time, I was ready.

7. In the book you say “on the day itself, nobody paid sufficient attention to Nicky. I can now rectify that error”. That was hugely powerful for me and stuck with me after I’d finished the book. Do you feel guilty that you survived and Nicky didn’t?

Yes I do. Particularly because of the situation, I was older so I should have been looking after him. I think there is an element of guilt in all grief. I should have known, as if we should all be gods and know exactly what will happen. If I had known, I would have made so much more of all the time, especially the last few months we had with him.

I know that it was as hard in 1978 as it is now to write those few paragraphs in a card to say you are genuinely sorry

8. I got the sense from the book that you were careful to document everything very precisely. Why did you feel such a duty to pay close attention to detail?

It was a way of respecting the event and ensuring it was not a memory that was distorted by grief. Mum’s first memories of Nicky were so wild and I felt a duty of respect to Nicky. How can you get one day back from the past? You need to be as accurate as possible. The reality is it was a long time ago and there wasn’t much left. Now I suppose there might be a different problem – the person is always alive around you, in pictures. You want to get a truthful picture of the person who has died, not the person they wanted to be on Facebook or who they were remembered to be.

9. Nicky’s death was reported in newspapers and so lots of people would have known about it – even people who didn’t know you. Do you think there was a level of interest in how you as a family were coping?

Some people love a drama and they want to be involved. Other people genuinely want to help but some find strange ways of expressing themselves, which you can see in the book. I know that it was as hard in 1978 as it is now to write those few paragraphs in a card to say you are genuinely sorry.

There wasn’t the support back then that there is now

10. The book has been really helpful for me, but who did you write the book for? Was it for yourself, for Nicky, for your family?

I’m a writer and I always knew I was going to publish it, so there was a public element to it. But the closer motivation was that I wrote it for myself. I wanted to feel what I hadn’t felt at the time. When you live in denial you start denying all your feelings, and everything gets really neutral which is not good.

It was for Nicky as well. Who else was remembering him, if we weren’t?  It was to say that he did exist in a real way as a human being among us. I think it’s possible that I wrote it partly as an act of defiance against my father, saying ‘look, I am going to do this now’. There was a motivation to do it that we should have done it before and now we have.

It’s important though not to be ungenerous to the generation that my dad was part of. Not addressing grief was just how it was. They did genuinely believe that they were doing the right thing and it was the best way for us all to deal with it. There is weakness in that but they thought they were being strong and it was for the good of everyone involved. There wasn’t the support back then that there is now. There weren’t those networks.

Everyone is going to experience grief. Therefore it’s something that we need to get better at

11. It shocks me that the family returned to Cornwall after Nicky’s funeral. Do you wish you hadn’t gone back?

The fact that myself and my two brothers had completely forgotten that we returned to Cornwall for another week was because it was so horrific. It could have been a positive thing if we’d gone back to the place and talked about it – made sure everyone knew that it was an accident and no one was to blame. We could have remembered Nicky and his happy days.

But you can’t just go back and pretend it never happened, as we did. When I was writing I actually felt most sorry for my younger brother, who was only six at the time. How can you ask a child so young to understand why you are going back to that place? Psychologically and emotionally it was a very odd decision and I still don’t fully understand it.

12. You call grief an “inconvenience” in the book, which it really can be sometimes, but what do you think of grief now, having written the book and processed more what happened?

I can’t fully remember the context in which I call grief an inconvenience but it is inconvenient at times. But it is a part of life. It is going to happen to everybody, unless you are the one that dies young, and no one wants that. Everyone is going to experience grief. Therefore it’s something that we need to get better at. It stops you living because it makes you think about death, so we all need to get better at dealing with it.

Thank you so much to Richard for speaking to me and being so honest and open about your loss. It was a privilege to talk to you.

The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard is available to buy from all good bookshops and online, including from this website. I really recommend that you read it if you are grieving a loved one, though it may upset you as it does deal with the death of Richard’s brother. If you’ve read this book, or another one that you’d like to recommend to our community, let us know in the comments!

My depression is legitimate, so why am I ashamed of it?

People know I have depression.

With hundreds of followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and over 1000 unique visitors to this website since I started it, I think it’s safe to assume that quite a lot of people, in fact, know I have depression. I’ve had panic attacks at work, at church and with friends. I’ve sobbed, I’ve screamed and I’ve spoken up about my struggles when others may have stayed silent. Why then, am I ashamed to simply say, “I can’t make it, my depression is really bad today”?

C’mon Beth, let’s talk about this

As the founder of a support network dedicated to encouraging people to speak honestly and openly about their emotions, grief and battles with mental health, it may be surprising to hear that I am not always honest about how I feel – either with you or myself. Sometimes it seems too big to admit, or I worry that people will judge me.

I can often seem completely fine, and I am aware of that, battling to stay that way. I don’t like to show weakness sometimes – hence why speaking to a counsellor, in confidence, was extremely useful. But maybe you have depression yourself and you won’t be shocked at all but what I am about to say, because you feel the same.

Depression makes me…

Depression makes me tired. Depression makes me sad. It makes me angry for no reason. It makes me shy and scared when I’m usually so confident. It makes me want to crawl into bed and never leave. It makes me doubt myself or feeds me lies that I’m not good enough. Depression stops me doing things that I want to do. Sometimes I can put a brave face on and sometimes I just can’t – however much you or I want me to.

Will you accept my apology?

I wonder if I have let you down recently, frustrated you with inaction or seemed lazy or grumpy. I am so sorry for that – but the thing is, I have depression. And that is not “just an excuse” – it’s legitimate. It’s a diagnosed mental health condition for which I am receiving medical and psychological help.

Those of us with depression – and there are more of us than you realise – are going to need you to cut us some slack. If you roll your eyes when you hear “I’ve got depression”, assuming the person is lazy, just whining, or not ill at all, I hope you might research depression and educate yourself further on the crippling effects of the condition.

I’m banishing the stigma

Depression is no longer a dirty word. I’m tired of thinking it is. I’ve said it – the stigma is smashed, at least on this website. I will no longer feel guilty for – or ashamed of – my depression. Honestly, I’m pretty proud of how well I’m coping after everything I’ve been through – and whatever you’ve been through, you should be proud too.

Having depression doesn’t make you weak – it makes you a fighter; a survivor. There is light in the darkness. Whether you choose to tell others or not, don’t hide your depression from yourself – accept it, embrace it and it will become simply one small part of the great big wonderful human that you are.

As for me, I hope to soon stop taking my anti-depressants, which will in itself be a challenging process. I know that sometimes I’m distant, absent or complicated, but I’m still me and with a little bit of TLC I’ll have a big grin on my face in no time. Thank you for all your love and support, and please share this if it could help other people that you know.

Beth x