A LOUSY GUIDE TO HEALING
We hope this may offer a slight moment of peace to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one.
Know that you are not alone despite your feelings of isolation. You are too loved to feel alone.
If you are struggling, please never be afraid to reach out.
Peace + Love, The TNF Family xoxo
*Content Warning: This work deals with death, grief and bereavement. Mind, a mental health charity, provides informative and supportive resources for those who are struggling with their grief. You can find these resources here.*
Stage One: Reality
As the New Year rolls in, a part of you feels off-kilter; a barely noticeable, inexplicable sense of dread settles in your lungs. Your parents sit you down in the main room where the fire crackles all day long because the pneumonia keeps mum cold. The dread thickens in your chest, a suffocating pressure that weakens your breathing as your mum whispers the words, There’s nothing more they can do. You feel hot tears on your cold cheeks and wonder when you started crying. Beside you, your older brother grapples with breathing, choking on his tears while your dad stands beside mum, his hands on her shoulders, both of them sobbing. How long? You don’t know who asks, it might have been you. All you know is your desperation for the answer. The answer that no one possesses.
Your mum moves back into hospital. Ward 9B. Doctors encourage you to carry on as ‘normal’. What does that mean? Your brother goes back to university. Too numb to question it, you return to Sixth Form, all the while feeling the unfairness of the world. You stop taking everything for granted: show overwhelming gratitude to the smallest kindness; passionately invest in your friends’ trivial escapades; buckle down in your studies. Anything to make her proud. You visit mum every night in hospital. Ward 9B. You suffer through the long journey in the lift; claustrophobia trying to claw at your persistence to see her. You become friendly with the nurses, but simultaneously wonder how they can be so enthusiastic in their jobs. You don’t ask. Still afraid of the answers.
Two weeks was all you had. You had visited that morning; mum seemed worse. The morphine she had been administered to ease her pain was leaving her out of sorts. You tried to tell her about your week; about the girls fighting over a boy in the year above and about getting an A in your mock maths exam but the drugs made her incoherent. Deciding to let her rest, you retreated back to an empty house. Later, you get the call. You need to go back to the hospital, your aunt will pick you up. Your mind stumbles. Goes blank. You gather your things and wait on the pavement.
Ward 9B. Heavy metal doors open into the ward’s foyer. Your dad stands waiting, enveloping you in a hug so tight you know something is wrong. She’s gone, he whispers. Your knees buckle but he doesn’t let you fall. Somewhere through the white noise you hear your cousin whimper.
The realisation is a punch to your lungs, debilitating pain halts your breathing. You don’t know how long he holds you; long enough to learn how to breathe again. Shallow gasps of air keep you alive as your dad leads you down the hall, past her room, to a small dark room you never noticed before. The door reads ‘Bereavement Room’. You walk to the large window overlooking the dark clouded city. Lights glare back at you, eyes settling on a bright white glow in the distance. As your breathing evens the light flickers out, and hysteria hits. You keel over, sobbing into your knees. Arms around your head to shield yourself from the unforgiving world you’ve crashed into. She’s gone. You cry until you have nothing left to give; a numbness washing over you before your dad asks if you’d like to see her. To say goodbye. Fear rips through your veins, stealing any protective detachment, reminding you of your reality. You’ve never liked answers: they’re too finite. Unchangeable. If you see her it will be real. You look at your dad, your only parent left. You look at his kind eyes, encouraging you to be brave like your mum always was. You’ll regret not saying goodbye. You try to remember the last thing you had ever said to her that morning; something menial and then an unimpressive goodbye. You know this is your last chance.
A gust of cold air greets you as you step inside the white-washed room. Lying on the hospital bed is your beautiful mum, dark eyelashes gracefully laying against her porcelain cheeks. She looks peaceful, like she’s dreaming sweet dreams. You wonder what she’s dreaming about. Stepping closer to her, you reach for her hand. Ice cold but still soft. You remember those soft hands stroking your hair as you drift asleep, wiping away your tears after a tumble playing hockey or, as you got older, after your school crush threw your homemade Valentine’s Day card in the bin. You watch her face, willing her eyes to open. Praying to see her shining smile one last time. She stays asleep, so you commit her face to memory, not wanting to ever forget her. Never wanting to lose even one tiny detail. You angrily wipe away your tears; a pointless endeavour. Leaning down, you place a kiss on her forehead like she has done to you so many times before, and you whisper, I’ll love you forever, Mama. Sweet dreams.
Stage Two: Grieving
Monday. You return to Sixth Form; greeted with little eye-contact and awkward condolences from people you don’t know the name of. Those whom you thought were your friends avoid you and the other friends who stuck around don’t know what to say, they’re distant. Or is it you that’s distant? Halfway through the week you try smiling; they look at you like you’re crazy. You imagine your face, wet from the tears that never stop, contorting into what you think is a smile but probably compares more to a grimace. The truth is, you can’t remember how to smile. Not when your world seems so bleak.
Funeral arrangements are painful, the reality of your mum’s death is burying you alive. Arguments ensue between your dad and your grandmother (your mum’s mum) about invitations; she’s a witch. Never liked you much even though you always did your best to impress her. To please her. Nothing you did was good enough. She was the same way with mum.
Waves of cards and flowers find you, the many lives she touched sending their love and well wishes. A few letters arrive addressed solely to you expressing the sender’s gratitude to have witnessed her light and how proud she would be of you. These words shatter you, tearing away your perfect façade for a prolonged moment. You shove all of them into a box hidden under your bed, not wanting the words now but knowing you’ll need them later.
You try to be okay, and when that inevitably fails, you pretend to be. Funeral planning is interspersed with numbing normalcies of party planning for your friend’s eighteenth birthday. You attempt to be enthusiastic when with friends, trying to have something to look forward to beyond the inevitable pain an official day of grief will bring. On the day of her funeral, you wear a simple black dress. In bittersweet reflection you realise it’s the one she bought for you not two months earlier. Your grandmother eyes you with disdain, pursed lips of disapproval. That skirt is far too short, your mother would be disappointed, she says in your ear. You feel nothing. During the service, your grandmother sobs into your brother’s shoulder, her back to you. You cry for your mum, weeping and praying for this to be a nightmare you can wake up from. But it’s not. She’s gone.
Days pass, weeks even. You don’t know. You don’t care. You drink far too much at your friend’s party; the concern emanating from the crowd surrounding you is almost palpable. You don’t care. Stumbling, you hear murmurings of pity. It makes you feel sick. Who are these people to pity you? They know nothing about you. Questionable substances decorate the surfaces, the smell of cheap alcohol permeates the hot, sticky air, uproars of carefree laughter irritate your senses. Finding an empty room, you collapse onto the floor, dizzy and sad. The tears return, a welcome relief. No one disturbs you. You’re alone. Always alone.
Stage Three: Coping
Your family hosts a memorial at the local church to give everyone that knew her their opportunity to say goodbye. Beforehand, your grandmother makes another comment about your dress being slutty. You don’t change. You don’t care. Over one hundred people attend. You and your brother, home from university, quietly listen to people’s sympathies and tales of their memories shared with your beautiful mum. You comfort your brother when the words get too much for him, flooding feelings stealing his carefully constructed composure. You read a poem at the service, encompassing your grief and hope in six short stanzas.
You can shed tears that she is gone
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she’s gone
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
or you can do what she’d want: smile, open your eyes
love and go on.
Fresh tears melt away your make-up; your mask, your war-paint. Choking on the final line, you lift your eyes to the sea of mourners. Grief has tainted you all. As glassy gazes follow you back to your seat, you can feel their kindness. A kindness so wholesome and full you feel overwhelmed. In your peripheral you’re aware of your friends sat clustered in a side pew. There for you, if and when you may need them. You feel supported. You feel loved.
You begin penning letters to her late at night when heartbreak and insomnia plague you. It’s your way of keeping her with you. You write your sadness, your anger, your hurt. You write your hope. You write until you can’t hold the pen any longer, until the pages are smattered with your tears. Sometimes it helps. Not always.
In other aspects of life, coping is harder. You quit your hockey team. You avoid her favourite songs. Anything you shared is stowed away, an obvious evasion of your feelings. Out of sight is out of mind. You cling to this ridiculous statement, hoping it will provide some peace. Of course it doesn’t but you tell yourself it’s what you need to move on. To get over it. That’s what everyone says; you’ll move on from this. Don’t worry, it’ll get easier. You don’t want to move on. You can’t. If you do, you’ll forget her. She’ll drift into your past, eventually becoming a ghost within your memory. You’ll forget her melodic voice, her contagious laugh, her beauty, her kindness, her generosity. You know you have to face the bad in order to keep the good. Knowing doesn’t make it any easier. It hurts.
Stage Four: Healing
After a few months a new light sweeps away the shadows you had settled in. You reintegrate with your friends, a noticeable optimism pushing you forwards in life. You sit your exams despite fierce deterrence from your Head of Sixth Form. She doesn’t care, she’s just concerned your ‘personal issues’ will affect the grade statistics. You think they go quite well. You receive acceptances to all four of your university applications. You ease back into hockey, leading your team to a regional league victory. Your dad tells you how proud of you he is; how proud she would be too. For the first time in a very long time, you feel good. Ready for answers.
In June your friends convince you to go to the local festival. She used to take you every year since you were ten, until the cancer became too much. In a bittersweet coincidence, her favourite band is headlining. You remember watching them together at the same festival years ago. You had snuggled together on a tartan blanket beneath a tree, singing along. She consistently denied it but she had a perfect voice. You remember her sweet singing as she stroked your hair. Nobody said it was easy, it’s such a shame for us to part. Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard. The lyrics hold new meaning for you now.
When Sunday evening rolls around you prepare to detach yourself from the group to watch the band alone, planning to wallow in your misery and grief. Before your great escape, your friends take a firm grip on your hand sliding a bracelet onto your wrist. You’re not alone in this, they say. Familiar tears fill your waterline but they don’t fall. Instead, you smile and head to the tree. The same tree you and she sat at years ago. As the band takes the stage, the bracelet circling your wrist emits a bright light syncing with the melody of the song. You hold your hand up high, hoping she can see it wherever she is. You dance, you laugh, you cry. All of you, together; lost in the music and the memories.
After the high comes the fall. It’s inescapable. Perhaps expected even. You grapple with a cruel world, screaming at the moon about how unfair it all is. There’s no answer. You’ve come full circle, furious and unaccepting of your reality, which only serves to shove you further into a downward spiral. Withdrawing from everyone and everything, your dad watches; helpless. But without fail, and a lot of love, you find yourself transcending from the dark. Ready to try again.
Healing is a slow process. It’s gradual and subjective. Yours may not parallel another’s. You may experience the highest of peaks followed by the lowest of valleys. But you carry on walking. One foot after the other. When things get tough and your mind stumbles, you remember your dad’s aphorism; Never a backward step. You may be still sometimes, reflecting. You remind yourself to keep going, steadily and on your own schedule. Slowly but surely. You’re healing.