We need to talk about death in old age

An anonymous blogger has written this post, which we absolutely love…

I have never understood why we are expected to grieve differently for old people who have died. Firstly, there is no standard definition of old age. Does it start at retirement? Is it contextualised by the average longevity of someone’s relatives? What if someone does not view themselves as old at all? If we presume that someone could reasonably die of old age once they reach their seventies, we could spend thirty years waiting for it to happen. I am roughly thirty years old, which means that I could know someone for a whole lifetime and be told that their death was to be expected at any point. I can’t accept this.

Grief is an agent of chaos

People often talk about grieving families being robbed of time with their loved ones if their loved ones died young. If someone dies old, the implication is that your time with them was not cut short. The problem with this is that it assumes that your timelines on earth were aligned. What if you were born when they were old? You might not have expected to have them in your life indefinitely, but you can still mourn the fact that they will never know you beyond a certain age. You grow up never knowing many milestones you will be able to hit before they die. The clock starts ticking as soon as you are aware that there is a clock, and you may experience a childhood of anticipatory grief as you think about how empty your future will feel without them.

No set formula for grief

Grief is an agent of chaos. It does not fit neatly into timescales, regardless of how much bereavement leave or bereavement counselling we are allocated. It does not lead us through the Kübler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and meaning in any kind of order, and there is no guarantee that we will even experience them at all. There is no set formula for what kind of grief you may experience for the loss of a certain person in your life; no neat category. If only there were. No, the grief you will experience will be entirely personal and will depend on the relationship you had with the person who died, whatever their age, whatever their connection to you. A life lost is a life lost.

Their deaths still came as a shock

I was brought up by my grandparents, so I mourn them as if they were my parents. If I marry, they will not be there. If I have children, they will not know them. We had less time than some other families have together, but I had no way of guessing how much time we would have within my thirty years. Their deaths still came as a shock. I am not tormented by what could have been, because I always tried to limit my expectations. That did not protect me from the pain of losing the two most important people in my life and neither does it stop me from wishing that it could have been otherwise.

In the end, my grief is still there. My grief is no less valid.

Anonymous

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First steps

Lucy shares her story of losing her dad and learning to heal.

As I sit at my Dad’s desk, compelled to write, my mind feels more connected than it has in a while. I’ve just watched the BBC Three Documentary ‘Learning to Grieve’, which centres around the story of the sudden loss of Harriet Shelley, sister to pop star George Shelley, and his journey with grief in his early 20’s. I’ve been meaning to watch this for a while, but have kept putting it off, waiting for the ‘right time’, when the house is quiet and I’m by myself.

There’s many things I feel like this about and have delayed doing, the most overwhelming example of this being when I attempt to absorb my Dad’s archive, for my Dad was a writer, musician, promoter & all round creative. As I sit surrounded by his belongings, one of my Dad’s wood carvings of a kestrel stares back at me, alongside funny cartoons, photographs, rocks, voodoo dolls (he was a Blues musician…) and several quotes, one he hand wrote on a post-it note. It’s as if he were here yesterday, or is still here, even.

And as I sit at my Dad’s desk, I think of how I one day want to be able to write a book as he did, to share my experiences of being on the road, and of being with him, for we played in several bands together, and shared some unique and memorable experiences.

Friday 13th September

As I sit here, I remember what I was doing when I heard the news that was to change my life in a split second, and for my future to come. I was in this exact spot, panicking at the prospect of learning 28 songs for a wedding gig I had just got for the following night. I had less than 24 hours notice and the pressure was on. However, I never got to play that wedding, nor did I have to learn the songs, for another drummer had to stand in for me that night. My Mum’s voice called several times up the stairs. I ignored it at first, but when I detected the urgency in her tone, I knew something was not right. Eventually, the third time, she got through to me. She told me my Dad had been in a cycling accident and we were to go to the hospital right now. It was Friday 13th September (of all dates) and there was a blood orange harvest full moon hanging low in the night sky. I have to work to remember this night, the memories too haunting to visualise.

Without going into the details, after a truly isolating time spent in Intensive Care with my Mum and Brother, by the evening of the 14th September, my Dad, Julian Charles Piper, had left this world; his injuries were not survivable.

I don’t want to confront the reality of my biggest fear coming true, life without my Dad

I’m writing this now, as very soon, I’m to begin a course of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), a relatively new and specialist psychotherapy in addressing trauma. It is designed to alleviate the distress associated with trauma, by facilitating the accessing and processing of traumatic memories. It has been used successfully to combat PTSD, with very encouraging results, and has been recommended to me by several practitioners. Although I don’t truly know what I’m going into, it feels like the right next step.

Whilst I know it’s not going to take away my grief or the pain which I haven’t even began to feel (but which I know is most definitely there), I’m hoping it will enable me to begin the act of processing what has happened. Despite everything that I witnessed, the knowledge of what has happened still doesn’t feel real, as if it’s someone else’s story I’m telling. It’s as if I’m hoping I will wake up from this nightmare, as I don’t want to confront the reality of my biggest fear coming true, life without my Dad.

A new chapter

Due to the traumatic nature of the death, my mind has unconsciously numbed itself. I have tried to connect with and almost coax out the grief: I’ve enjoyed Let’s Talk About Loss meet up groups, had a course of counselling with Cruse, and I even went on a solo trip to one of our favourite family holiday destinations, The Isles of Scilly. But with the second shock of the arrival of Coronavirus in March 2020, just six months after my Dad’s death, living in a world in lockdown for almost a year has further thwarted my attempts at moving forwards, or so it has often felt.

It is said that trauma latches on to the part of your brain responsible for emotions, and the process of EMDR is to redirect the trauma to the memory part of the brain.

Whilst it feels like I’m about to embark on a mountainous expedition I’ve not yet packed for, I’m hoping this may start a new chapter in learning to feel again.

Lucy Piper

Would you like to write for our blog? Email blog@letstalkaboutloss.org and we’d love to publish your story.

Breaking the trauma taboo

In this fantastic blog, Emma discusses significant trauma that leads to loss, and the impact it has on the grief experience. Please note, this blog contains the personal testimony of someone who experienced the death of a family member to domestic violence.

It’s difficult to interpret our thoughts and feelings when we are grieving, but it is harder to understand how to react when the death of a loved is caused through a criminal act which leaves us to have little understanding how to process our emotions. But how do we find the ability to cope with trauma in a bereavement when someone dies unexpectedly?

Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. In June 2010 my sister was killed through domestic violence, she had an altercation with her boyfriend which led to her falling from a multi-storey car park; it was nearly 24 hours that had passed before police broke the news of her death to us. The range of emotions at that point were incomprehensible, there were no words to describe the way I felt that evening.

A lack of understanding of what was happening

A death through murder or manslaughter often results in police investigations, a post mortem, trials and court attendance. It’s a frightening and frustrating time, with what seems like a never ending cycle of procedures. Dealing with the anguish of hearing what had happened to my sister often left me feeling mentally unstable as I didnt know how to address the trauma. I realised quite quickly that my ability to understand what was happening was non-existent and I was unable to cope being left with my own thoughts for too long. In time the trauma had such an impact on my focus in life to the point I could only show anger, I showed resentment towards everything and everyone and felt I had no control over my feelings.

I have realised from my sister’s death that we as survivors of trauma must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, for our sense of safety. The natural reaction to this loss is grief and you need to go through a grieving process in order to be able to live your own life again. I struggled in the early days, the intrusive memories I would regularly have was a struggle and is a continuation of trauma to this day. For me this is commonly expressed through nightmares, guilt or thoughts around what had happened on that day and my inability to stop what happened.

“I still don’t cry”

I also had a sense of avoidance and numbing – I didn’t cry when I heard the news of my sister’s death and I still don’t cry. I ended up putting myself in a bubble of safety in order to suppress my emotions and whilst that is not the healthiest option when coping with trauma, it was my only safe way of coping at the beginning and is still a way of maintaining safety now. The most difficult aspect relating to the trauma around losing my sister was physical or emotional symptoms of hyperarousal: for about a year post trauma I displayed a sense of irritability, anger, trouble sleeping and decreased concentration. I still fear danger daily because I don’t want to lose another person I care about in the way I lost my sibling.

I have however, taken time to understand my own triggers when dealing with grief through a traumatic bereavement. Over the years I have learnt to process the trauma around my sister’s death emotionally and while this has been a difficult journey, my ability to cope has become easier. Have the symptoms of trauma gone away? Truthfully, no. There are times where I can’t show emotion well and I refuse to look weak when I’m at my most vulnerable, however I have learned to maintain my happiness and health on this journey of self- preservation.

Some tips from Emma on how to cope

The three valuable lessons I have learnt within this process and dealing with my own sense of loss through trauma is to:

Try to seek the cause of your feelings. Triggers based on past trauma show us where the past invades the present which has an impact on our ability to cope. But they also allow us to look directly into the hidden world of who we are and understand why we are feeling the way we are and that it’s a normal way of feeling.

Practice acceptance of your feelings. As upsetting and challenging as triggers can be, it can help to remember that they are one of the body’s ways of pointing us toward our own healing.

Validate what you are experiencing. What you have experienced is real and hurtful, there is no denying those feelings. Having the context of trauma lets you know that how you feel is not your fault. It’s important to remind yourself of this and there is nothing “wrong” with you, what you’re going through is actually a normal response to abnormal experiences.

Trauma changes us, but should not feel like a punishment.

Emma Robb

How my mum dying at seventeen has made me a happier person

In another incredible blog for Let’s Talk About Loss, Louise has written the following blog with a title we just love: “How my mum dying at seventeen has made me a happier person – no you didn’t read that wrong”. Here, she explains what she means.

Now I know what you’re thinking… *heartless*, but let me explain…

Losing any loved one is rough. Losing a parent whilst you are still a child is double rough. I can’t summarise the time surrounding and just after my mum’s passing, other than to describe it as a blur. I’m 23 now and whilst it may be nearly 6 years later, in a way it feels like a different lifetime of mine, whilst also feeling like yesterday.

Teenage angst

I was a typical teenager, and probably a brat a lot of the time. I have a lot of guilt when I think back to the misery that I could be in my teenage years compared to who I am today… but hey that’s puberty right? I used to get so down and depressed, usually because of some sort of idiot boy I liked at the time; I thought I was so hard done by.

My mum first had breast cancer around years 2005-2006. I was only young maybe eight or nine, and my only real memories are of her wearing a bandana. Fast forward 10 years (yes 10 years into remission – she was so unlucky) and the cancer struck back. My mum found out at the time it was secondary and effectively terminal, yet she chose not to tell anyone this until the very end. She went on to live for 2 more years knowing that she had a terminal illness and kept it from her whole family. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this.

You’ll be fine!

I remember telling her oh of course you’ll be fine. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that she wouldn’t be. She’d beaten it before, plus there was no way this was going to happen to our family, you only ever read of this kind of thing happening to others. Part of me is not surprised that my mum didn’t tell us it was terminal, she was extremely stubborn and refused to be defeated, she was unbelievably strong willed. Whilst I thought she could be so hard on my sister and I sometimes, deep down I admired this so much about her.

When I try to remember those two years of not knowing, I do carry a lot of guilt. All of our fights and arguments, all of the times she probably thought I was being ungrateful; this guilt will always stay with me. On the flipside part of me is glad I didn’t know. How depressing, waiting for death.

I am grateful for the person I have become

I feel guilty to admit that since my mum passed, I am a much happier person. Part of this is probably because I’ve grown up, (I didn’t really have a choice), but also because I have such a different mindset and outlook on life now. I really just have learnt not to sweat the small stuff, and that has made me a much happier person.

The past six years have been a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but I can’t believe how I have turned out to be honest! Sometimes I have to remind myself what I went through, and am still going through. When I hear of someone my age losing a parent, I feel shattered for them and think wow, what an awful thing they have to go through. But also, I know from my own experience that there can be better days and a positive future.

So yes, if I can take ONE positive (and really just one), from this awful experience, it is that this has shaped my life in a way that would not have happened otherwise, and I am grateful for the person I have become. I am a strong willed, just like my mum, and we really would be the best of friends.

Louise Lawrence

The bubble of loss and what gets you through

Grace-Marie shares her story of losing her dad in March 2019, and how she has coped since.

My dad died in March 2019; I was scuba diving with him on a holiday in South Africa. I want to share my story.

Witnessing his death was one the most horrific things a 21-year-old could witness. My head was ablaze with thoughts, and the hour I spent not knowing whether my dad was alive or dead felt like years.

It is like your house is falling on top of you. I was scuba diving with my father when I lost control of my dive. He was with an instructor; however, unfortunately, had an aneurysm in the water and drowned whilst I was getting on the boat. As soon as we realised they were shouting for help, I instantly knew that it was my dad in trouble, to this day I could not tell you why.

The pain of the formalities

Sitting on a small boat whilst they were giving my dad CPR is something I will never forget. I will also never forget the hour that followed, trying to get hold of my mum, who was also in South Africa on holiday at the time with us. Having to tell her that her husband, my father, was dead over the phone is something no one wants to do. The grief that followed was as horrific. Firstly we had the issue of being in South Africa at the time. We had to make sure all formalities were sorted (for repatriation) before we could fly back. Luckily we had a very good friend who flew out to help us.

Friends supporting me

Once I got back, it was like being in a bubble, and I did not know what was going on. I was carried by visit after visit from friends. I was surprised that my friends who lived hours away were able to commit to visiting me and helping me get through my dads’ funeral. It is something I will never forget.

I also will not forget the love and kindness shown by my local friends as well. I was informed how this is the time when you notice who cares for you, and in the months that followed, it became clear who stood by me. We had the comments from people saying we ”should be over it, he has been dead three months now”. You learn to ignore these comments. I will never get over it, I am learning step by step and starting to except what I have been through.

Making dad proud

I love to talk about my dad with my mum and friends, bringing him up in conversation is like he is still with us. I always am thinking about whether he would be proud of me now. I decided that September 2019 to continue to become an architect by enrolling in a Masters course which I do not regret, a lot of people told me I should have a year out. Still, I knew what I was capable of myself, and I knew that work would be good for me. Not only is it a good distraction, I knew deep down my dad would be incredibly proud of me.

Throughout these one and a half years I have learnt about grief and understanding what it means to grieve. Not many people at my age go through what we have been through. It’s okay to be not okay.

Grace-Marie Spencer