Six months ago my amazing Mom died, an event we dread all our lives and maybe none more so than those who’ve experienced parental bereavement already. We lost my Dad when I was eight years old and something like that makes you cling figuratively and literally to the remaining parent, fearing them going the same way on a daily basis.
And now she has and it’s as huge and miserable as I imagined and made just that bit harder by the fact that humans, on the whole, are fucking crap when it comes to supporting the grieving.
I’m not quite sure what I expected. I guess something like lots of people coming to see me, lots of people phoning, a sea of flowers, a raft of cards, great sobbing hugs buried in the shoulders of others, basically a Lady Di-like outpouring of love and support with me held aloft by the kind warm hands of my brethren. The reality, though, was somewhat more muted: a few nice texts, a few nice comments on Fakebook, a light smattering of lovely cards and flowers, virtually no calls and virtually no visits. Two people braved my doorstep in the month between losing my Mom and the funeral and the overall feeling of shellshock was greeted by a silence that seemed to echo that shellshock right back at me.
The cliché goes that it doesn’t really hit you until after the funeral and I’m pretty sure that’s not only because until then you’re running on adrenaline to get everything sorted, but also because it’s not until after the funeral that people completely fuck off altogether.
‘Let’s just give them a bit of space,’ thinks more or less everyone.
In the five months that have passed since my Mom’s epic send off I can literally count on one hand the amount of people who’ve checked in on me with a phonecall or a ‘how are you holding up’ message or text. And the number of home visits, six months on, remains stalled at that initial two. Coincidentally exactly how many fingers I’ve sometimes felt like giving all the people I haven’t heard from.
I was having a moan about this on a call to my friend Gareth a few months back (I phoned him), and Gareth, who lost his Mom ten years ago, came back with this:
‘But Mark,’ he said, ‘Don’t hold it against them, because nobody knows what to do.’
It’s probably not just because Gareth sometimes reminds me of a cuddlier version of Robert Powell in Jesus Of Nazareth that this sounded a little bit Biblical.
It also made me remember my Mom telling me something similar about how people were after my Dad died. She not only didn’t hear from many friends during that time, she actually completely lost some in the process. My Mom and Dad’s very best friends, in fact, Bob and Jan, a couple they’d spent years sharing parenthood, nights out and holidays with, went and did a disappearing act almost overnight once Dad was gone and that was that, the end of their friendship.
‘I don’t think they knew what to do with me,’ Mom was always saying.
I distinctly recall the reception I got myself on returning to school after he’d died, and ‘fucking awkward’ doesn’t quite do it justice. I later found out that everyone had been instructed not to say anything to me, but to be honest if they hadn’t I don’t think the reception would have been all that different. I can only imagine the collective sigh of relief on getting the official nod to not mention the Dead Dad Thing, even amongst eight year olds.
When I recently joined a bereavement group out of sheer desire to talk to someone, literally anyone, about loss, the lady who took me aside on my first visit nodded sagely when I described what was happening, and reflected that, ‘People will literally cross the road to avoid talking to someone who’s dealing with grief.’
As time went on I got to speak to a few people who’d experienced similar. Jane from the bereavement group, who lost her Mum just after me, described a familiar dropping off of contact and how the minimal contact she’d had was always through texts or social media. ‘There’s a time and a place for Facebook,’ she told me, ‘But this isn’t it.’ What Jane wanted most was for someone to call or suggest meeting up for a cuppa or going for a walk, and six months on she’s still waiting for that to happen. ‘It’s like my Mum never existed.’ Mike from the same group, who lost his wife in March, said people were avoiding him to such an extent that he ‘felt like a leper’, one of those people being his own father. And the more I’ve spoken to, the more the same story unfolds. A friend of mine, Michelle, lost her Dad three months ago and told me how most of those she presumed would be there for her, ie her closest friends, were not, and how she’d had more emotional support from a neighbour. Another friend, Nadine, who lost her Mum this year too, tells a similar tale, hearing practically diddly squat from her homies and the closest thing she’s received to emotional support a conversation with a beautician. But the one that sticks in my head the most is Hannah. A volunteer at the bereavement group who lost her baby daughter aged eight months (I can’t even begin to imagine the sheer fucking earth shattering awfulness of that loss), Hannah recalled how after her daughter’s passing not one person amongst her friends and family gave her a hug.
I mean WTAF?
Why are we so shit at this stuff?
During that chat with Gareth he also told me to remember that I probably expect too much from people because I’m ‘amazing’ in this area myself. Not true at all – I mean the amazing bit, I always expect too much – and although being smacked in the kisser with a heavy loss in childhood has definitely made me less grief-averse than the average person might be, when it comes down to dealing with it I’m actually just as crap as the next man.
Some quick down to it examples:
I could be here all day with these but here’s a good one. Or not so good, depending on which end of it you happen to be on. A few years ago I tracked down my Dad’s best friend Gordon for a little documentary I was trying to make about my Dad’s life (it remains unfinished as I’m still getting over the cry headache from shooting it), and shortly after filming it Gordon’s lovely wife Paola passed away. A few months went by and I kept thinking I should go round and see Gordon, but I kept bloody chickening out. What would he be like? Would he just disintegrate on me? What would I say to someone who’s lost the love of their life? What about the silences? I convinced myself he wouldn’t even want visitors anyway and that afterall he didn’t know me too well (I was just my Dad’s little kid to him, right?) and so I sent texts and cards – most unanswered – instead. And here we are five years later and I’ve still not seen him and now so long has passed it’s awkward and intimidating in a different way. I feel I can hardly turn up now and say, ‘Hi Gordon, remember me, I’m one of those you didn’t see for dust when Paola died.’
Here’s another. Recently Hannah from the bereavement group lost her dog Ben, and Ben was like a child to her. We were seated in the café when Hannah came over and stood above us, telling us the news with tears in her eyes and clearly doing everything in her power to avoid a complete public meltdown. And what did we do? Give her a hug? A reassuring squeeze of the arm? Ask her to sit down and join us? Nope, we just mumbled some ‘oh no so sorry’s and sat there frozen like fucking lemons, at the meeting of a group that’s supposed to be exclusively about bereavement support. And yes, this is the same Hannah who didn’t even get a hug when her baby daughter died, though in my defence she told me about this later and at the end of that particular meeting I did actually throw emotional repression to the wind and hug her.
Go me, not even ironically.
Actually, Hannah instigated the hug. Scratch that.
A final one, closer to home. We not only lost my Mom in the spring, two weeks before that we also lost my gorgeous Mother In Law, Mary. I know, what a year, and when both of their healths started deteriorating, but didn’t seem terminal, I clearly shouldn’t have joked, ‘Let’s get them all done shall we.’ After our attempt at a holiday this summer Ju brought back a caravan shaped fridge magnet for her Dad Fred, which he opened with us all around his garden table on a sunny Sunday. We knew something was up when his head dipped, cap peak shielding his eyes as he went super quiet, and we soon worked out what it was all about too. An age seemed to go by as Fred forced back sobs at this magnet reminder of many a beautiful caravan holiday with the kids and with Mary. An age of silence and more lemons, on the plus side not lemons at an actual bereavement support group but on the minus side actual close family lemons who you’d hope would have slightly more than fuck all at their disposal. Eventually Ju got up, gave her Dad’s shoulders a quick squeeze and kissed his cap and that was that, apart from the nagging thought in my head (and probably everyone else’s) that surely there’s a way we could do better.
So yes I’m equally crap at this stuff too, raised with great love and emotional openness but when it comes to grief; fourth lemon from the left, that’s me. We more or less all are aren’t we, but back to that question of why.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and I think it’s kind of like bellybuttons.
I know, I should’ve maybe thought for longer, but I’m still in the eye of a double death Twister and it’ll have to do for now.
The problem with grief is that nobody knows if you’re an innie or an outtie.
Some people are happier to express their feelings, others would rather die a few thousand deaths themselves than talk about loss.
I’ve spoken to people who were positively enraged at friends and family avoiding the issue of their dead loved one, and I’ve spoked to people who were equally enraged at friends and family bringing the dead loved one up because they just could not or did not want to face it.
It’s complicated further by the fact that even folk who are outties generally (clearly me) might not always be an outtie when it comes to grief, and might turn into an innie for a bit (also me).
And finally our ability to support grieving friends and family of course depends on whether we’re an innie or an outtie ourselves. An innie supporting another innie through a heavy loss? Just wind them up and watch them not go.
In short, it’s fraught as hell, full of second guessing and infinitely complex, so we do what people have always done, which is hedge our bets and do more or less nothing at all. We give them that SPACE. The Funeral Frontier.
But isn’t giving someone space also a very convenient excuse for us to get the fuck outta Grief Dodge ourselves before things literally get too sticky?
It’s not far off the headmaster telling my classmates it was fine to shut their gobs and completely swerve the Dead Dad issue. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ we all exhale. Heads down boys and girls, lalala, they’ll soon be feeling better!
I eventually asked Ju why we didn’t do more for her Dad that day, why we didn’t all talk about what he was feeling or at least say or do something. The non-lemon part of me wanted to get up and give him a shoulder squeeze too, in fact fuck that I wanted to get up and hug him so tight my dick’d be pressing against him (not in a weird way, just demonstrating commitment to the hug) and that we’d then all pile in on it, group-loving him as he let out some of the hurt that was surfacing. Ju’s reply was that she didn’t want to make too much of it because she didn’t want him to embarrass him. (And no I didn’t even get to mention my desire for the dick press hug.)
And there it is, good people.
Expressing our grief is embarrassing.
Embarrassing and uncomfortable for the grieving, and even more so for those sitting there not knowing what to do. And so we hold it back, push it down, try not to let people see.
With grief, as with the wider issue of how we discuss our mental health, we seem to be making tiny amounts of progress gen by gen but we have a fuck of a long way to go if grief is still seen in this way, something to be expressed in private rather than in public, even when that public is close family.
And that right there is what’s most fucked up about all this and what I’m hoping future generations might change somehow. (No presh, kids.)
Because our shared experience of grief is one of the few things in life that unites us, so why the hell should we feel ashamed?
Someone said to me recently that grief is a very private thing, and in one way it is, and in another way, is it bollocks…
Whilst some of the all out snot bubble wailing or deepest darkest can’t move blues are probably best done alone, I’d go as far as saying that the best way to truly get through this stuff in (sort of) one piece is with other people.
I probably think too much about what cave people would do in certain situations and it’s no different here, cos I’m pretty sure the bereaved wouldn’t be left in the back of a cave for the best part of a year or more. They’d have a bit of that, for sure, but I’m also sure they’d be back around that campfire, feeling whatever they were feeling, pretty soonish.
Cos whether they want to talk about their loss or not, as they readjust to the new order it’s our job to try and help the grieving see that a life without their loved one is still worth living.
Like crowd surfing, it’s all those hands that stop us cracking out heads and get us to the front of the madness.
Not exactly what us friends and family of the bereaved are really wanting to hear is it, because it involves effort and discomfort with a big side order of awkward, but true.
And I’m not even sure what the answer is, but I am sure of one thing and it’s this: that for the grieving, silence is most definitely not always golden, or at least not too much of it at any rate. We’re getting quite enough silence from the person who’s dead already.
As a veteran of childhood Dad loss, adulthood Mom loss and double whammy Mum In Law loss, I’ve had more space than the Hubble telescope at a Star Trek convention and it’s most definitely not what I’ve always wanted. Ditto everyone else I’ve spoken to who’s been through it or is still going through it.
And so here, humbly presented, a few ideas scribbled on the back of a spare Order Of Service. Might be useful or might be the ramblings of a mad fucker still in that Grief Twister, so take or leave! I’m just making this up as I go along, same as everyone:
FOR MY FELLOW BEREAVERS:
First off, a fully committed hug coming right at ya whether you like it or not, it’s virtual so it’s easier for both of us. This shit is HARD and there seems no easy route through. And whilst this blog’s about dealing with other people’s reactions to grief rather than the grief itself (I’m trying to write a book about the actual grief bit) I’m slipping this in anyway: however you do it, pretty please with a cherry on top make sure you try and express what you’re feeling. No good ever came from pushing this stuff down, or ‘bottling it up’ as my lovely Mom used to call it. Talk with appropriate friends or family (if you can see them for dust), think about journaling even though that’s a really annoying word, and consider getting some bereavement counselling (CRUSE are excellent but there are others) or joining a bereavement group. I’ve been doing a group alongside counselling and both have been enormously helpful. And don’t think these things are only for the outties, I know innies who’ve benefitted hugely from counselling and groups once they got themselves through the door, so at least consider it and definitely don’t struggle alone. Always absolutely and every time; better out than in.
Hopefully you won’t expect the Lady Di raft of cards/sea of flowers like I did but if you do, maybe don’t. I mean you might get a stack but sympathy cards do seem to have gone the way of Christmas cards and most would rather do a donation than send cards or bouquets these days. I personally found them pretty depressing anyway, in all honesty, and whilst I really appreciated the effort people had made and took comfort from the lovely things written inside, at the same time I couldn’t wait to get them down and get those flowers in the green wheelie. A display of love and support but also loss writ large all over your living room. And some people know that and worry that they’ll be depressing, and that’s why they don’t send them. Sometimes great thought will have gone into whether or not to send these things, it’s not just cos they couldn’t be arsed.
If you don’t hear from as many people as you’d like to, or if they do a disappearing act altogether, try not to take it personally. And remember the gospel according to Gareth: ‘Don’t hold it against them, because nobody knows what to do.’
If there’s certain people you’d like to be hearing from but aren’t, don’t be too proud to reach out. For a good while I was definitely this person but I’ve started to slowly make contact with my Lord Lucans and guess what, most were just giving me the Hubble telescope and waiting to hear from me ‘when I felt ready’.
Remember time often moves faster for the non-grieving. How often have we looked up from our own lives and thought, ‘Oh shit, I wonder how so and so is doing now since they lost so and so?’ And six months have gone by in the blink of an eye, but that same six months may have felt like an eternity for the grieving. And that’s happening to us now, in reverse.
Try to swallow the fact that our grief isn’t the centre of everyone’s lives without choking on it. This is a tough one as we kind of want the world to grind to a halt, Auden ‘Stop All The Clocks’ stylee, but of course it doesn’t and that’s never been more obvious than it is now, with our lives so dominated by social MeMeMedia. And with playing my kid/car/house/job/holiday/life is better than your kid/car/house/job/holiday/life probably not quite what the doctor ordered right now, maybe giving that stuff a big old swervo for a while isn’t such a bad idea. As is remembering that Fakebook and Instaglam are a big old lie and that behind the incessant posturing some people might be going through their own really heavy stuff too.
Or maybe our grief is pretty close to the centre of someone’s life, and that’s why they’re not getting in touch. One thing I only recently worked out is that some people are laying low because they’re hurting themselves. They loved my Mom dearly and any contact with me is a reminder of what’s gone for them too. Wow, and I thought it was all about me.
Just cos someone isn’t calling or messaging doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about you. Lately I’ve had a couple of Lord Luc’s say they’ve actually thought about us loads, even though they never said, and without a doubt many of your people will be doing the same. They didn’t forget your loved one and they didn’t forget you. And I’ll shut my gizzard on this section because I’m starting to quote Linda Ronstadt.
Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight,
Someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight.
FOR TEAM ‘BEREAVER SUPPORT’:
Instead of a hug I’m sending one of those shoulder squeeze/back slaps boxers get before they go in a ring. It’s bloody hard to know what to do for the best but deep breath, you can be there.
Space but not a fucking Galaxy. Of course everyone grieves differently and there will be some people who want the full Hubble and want it for longer, but from what I can see they’re rare and most in fact crave human contact as much as the S word, even at first. And way better to do too much than too little, in my opinion, and they can always tell you to dial it back if needed. That said the initial few days are raw as hell and unless you’re super close probably more suited to written messages rather than visits or phonecalls (cue that communal phew). Commenting on a social media post, sending direct messages or texts or sending a card or a letter are all easy and unintrusive and will be so welcome. I’m kind of with Jane when she said ‘there’s a time and a place for Facebook and this isn’t it,’ and direct contact that wasn’t on a public platform did seem to bizarrely mean more to me somehow, like that thought was mainlined directly from them to my brain, a text or a dm almost like the modern equivalent of a postcard. But maybe that’s just me and Jane. Any method at all better than full Lord Lucan!
Also remember that whatever you say, especially early on, no matter how lovely it is, may be lost in the Twister. We’re in the spin of a lifetime so may not press like, may press other likes and forget yours, may not reply to a message or a phonecall or even multiple messages or calls. Don’t take this personally as life in the eye of a close bereavement is just about holding on, not good manners. Hannah told me the story of a friend of hers who freaked out to a mutual friend because Hannah hadn’t replied to her message of support after 48 hours, and this has now escalated to the point where their actual friendship is in jeopardy. I mean WTF dear friend of Hannah? At what point did this become all about you?
Who knew, but you can get creative with your loving gestures. It doesn’t have to be a sombre In Deepest Sympathy card or the white flowers, though of course they’re good too. My friend Amanda sent us twenty quid from Canada to do something nice – felt a bit weird at first but Amanda insistent that it wasn’t for the charity pot and we spent it on a much-needed picnic, a little glimpse that special family moments were still gonna be out there for us somehow. My friend Jordanna sent us a collection of facepacks and pampery things (totally nicking this idea), a physical reminder of the importance of self care at these times, and a nice nod to the spa days me and my Mom used to go on together. And finally family friend Mig (the only other person to home call) made us a couple of meals in those first weeks, a beaut shepherd’s pie and a bolognese, not only a fantastic, enormously practical idea but also a gesture that felt like something a mother would do. Totally not nicking that one though, as nobody going through a difficult loss needs to have to eat a supremely below par chilli con carne.
Don’t rule out a visit or a phonecall, even pretty soon in. Says he who crapped out for five years on poor Gordon. I know I know, it feels Shit Yourself Big. What will I say? Will they just crumble in front of me and get snot on my jumper? Will they even want me to call or visit? First up, maybe ask them. Message that you’d like to phone or meet up and see what they say. Or, riskier but by no means off the table, just drop it on them! Cos maybe they think they can’t quite face it yet but it might actually be surprisingly helpful for them when it came down to it. Most screen calls they can’t face these days anyway and then at least you get to leave a nice voicemail – voicemails an excellent middle ground where you get to speak your love with about 70% less of the awkward. And if you call at the house they can of course door screen too – ie peep through the blinds, think ‘fuck that’ and hide quiet as a mouse until the person leaves, or maybe that’s just me. My friend Chris came round unannounced in the first couple of weeks and although it felt a bit too early for me and was pretty damn flat and uncomfortable for the both of us, I was so touched that he’d made the effort. In fact the more distance I get on that the more it means to me. One of only two people to brave it. Feel the awk and do it anyway. Go Chris and his big balls.
If you do brave a call or a meeting, don’t think you have to have all the answers or know what the fuck to do. Chris didn’t have any answers and nor do any of us as far as I can see. There’s no quick fix for grief and the grieving aren’t expecting your wisdom. The best thing you can give them is the knowledge that you’re there, the whole lot of you, not knowing what the fuck to do but showing up regardless. If they lose their shit and you don’t know what to do or say, just admit you don’t know what to do or say. This seems particularly worrying for those who haven’t experienced a close bereavement before, cos you can only guess at what it feels like, but my best advice is to just roll with your limitations and fucking wing it. (And maybe not offer too much of your own advice, however well-intentioned, cos platitudes like ‘time is a healer’ and ‘remember all the good times’ might be hard to take if your biggest losses so far are a tortoise and a great aunty.) There’s good news though, cos the subject might not even come up much at all, and things may not get as heavy as we fear. The bereaved might want to talk about anything but, in fact, and be keen to get back to the same kind of nonsense you normally talk about instead. Often just having someone to hang with for a while is all that’s required. Literally just company. And if you’re stepping up to be that company at such a sticky time, go you and your big balls.
Who knew, but physical hook ups can be creative too. A bit out there this one maybe but it doesn’t have to just be a flat as fuck cuppa, it can involve actual activity that might take the heat out of the awkward. Mike from the bereavement group recently suggested that me and him go canoeing. ‘Fucking canoeing?’ I thought he was joking. All our previous contact has been over cups of tea at the group or in the café downstairs. And I still don’t even know him too well and he’s now asking me to go canoeing, which seems a bit odd but maybe it’s a bit brilliant too, back to the idea that it’s our job as friends (and maybe even as fellow bereavers) to try and help the grieving see that life’s still worth living. Canoeing though? (Doesn’t have to be canoeing.)
Be mindful of the drop off. This is The Big One. Every single one of the people I’ve spoken to, to a man, has described the same post-funeral drop off, and how the weeks and months after was the time they needed people the most and the time when people were largely nowhere to be seen. Hannah described the silence as ‘almost deafening’. So if you’re thinking of someone, don’t just think it in the old noggin, fire off a quick message and tell them. They might have a brand new relationship with the dead but they can’t read minds. And if life’s craziness just took you and you forgot to think about them for a few months there (whoops, no end of times have I done this) then it’s never too late to reappear, and way better than sheepishly hiding away a while longer (done that no end of times too). I’ve come to realise that the people who’ve been there for me the most have all been brilliant at what I now think of as ‘the art of the gentle check in’. Every week or two or few weeks, up they pop. And even if I was having a bad day and didn’t reply the last time, up they pop again, unconditionally loving from afar. ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Thinking of you all.’ ‘Still up for that brew when you feel up to it.’ With grieving not measured in days and weeks but months and years, messages like these can be an absolute lifeline.
And finally, if you qualify, think about signing up for the Grief Marines. I’ve thought about the Grief Marines a lot lately. They don’t exist, I made them up, but they could do. Cos what I’ve wanted more than anything in recent months, apart from my Mom being magicked back to life obviously, was for someone who’d lost a parent to call me up and say, ‘Mark, I know exactly what this is and when you want to I’d love to meet with you and talk about it.’ I’ve craved empathy way more than I’ve craved sympathy, but apart from a couple of brief conversations I’m still waiting for someone to suggest it. Cos I passionately believe that as people who’ve experienced a close loss first hand we’re in an absolutely unique position to get in there, get right to the heart of the hit and try to help people out of it. Not by offering wisdom or answers or hacks (although if there are any, fire them over by all means comrade!) but just by virtue of still being here. We got through and even though the world will never be the same again, we’re still standing. That’s what people want to hear the most, I think, that somehow, eventually, you navigate a route through and the breaks between the waves get longer, and nobody can demonstrate this more than we can. It may not be easy or comfortable and may dredge up some difficult feelings of our own, but it’s literally an opportunity to turn shit into gold, using our own experience of loss to try and help other people process theirs. (In fact this is exactly what Hannah and everybody who volunteers at the bereavement group are doing on a weekly basis.) So if you feel you can manage it, strap those big boots on and join the Grief Marines! I’ve signed up myself and I’ll be that blubbering wreck at the back of the boat crying for his Momma, but Goddamn it I’m fucking on board people! Yes Sir! Present Sir! Gonna do my best SIR!
Right I’m off to try and find Gordon and go canoeing. (They’re separate things obviously, cos if I do find Gordon I can’t imagine he’ll be wanting to jump straight in a canoe.)
Orphan Boy signing off with ‘if in doubt, do something’.
Even if it’s the wrong thing, it has to be better than nothing.
When hearts have been ripped out and stomped on, it might just mean the world to someone.