On grief — a layperson’s notes
2020, it was a bit of a year, hey?
I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you’re experiencing grief, or you think you might be about to experience grief, and you’re wondering how to ‘get over it all as soon as possible’.
I suspect the actual truth is, we’re all experiencing grief of some sort in this moment of 2020, so the first thing I’ll say, is, if you are feeling grief, but you don’t know why, well, I see you.
- Please note, just in case it isn’t obvious, there’s a gazillion trigger warnings to this post. I’m not a medical expert. I’m no one in fact, as ordinary as the day is long. So, I encourage you to pause, notice your body. Notice your brain, notice your feelings, your surroundings. If you want to read but can’t, notice that too. Medium does an awesome bookmark thingy, you can just use that to come back later, when you’re ready.
- If you don’t even read this, but perhaps get this far only — please just know one thing: grief counselling is a thing, and it saved my life. If you have resources or your country provides it as mine did for me, use it. Use a counsellor before you think you need to (many thanks to my wonderful boss who released me from the shame of asking for help by insisting it was the right thing to do). In Australia, the Australian Institute of Family Studies maintains a wonderful list of resources. Hopefully you have something where you are from too.
- Obviously, I’m not a doctor. This is just me sharing resources I found, and thoughts, in case it helps just one person.
We all experience loss throughout the course of our lives. Of people, of jobs, of love, of hopes and dreams. Working through all of that loss is the stuff that hurts like nothing else on earth, but also awakens us to the preciousness of what’s left behind. In the past year, like a lot of people, I experienced quite a bit of loss. So much of it, the last couple of losses knocked me flat on the ground. Rendered me utterly speechless, and in many ways, in actual physical pain. I’m a researcher, and a bit of a ‘type A’ person, so my first instinct was to try to research my way out of all the pain. That’s why I’m here now, writing it all down, just in case it helps someone, somewhere.
My laundry list:
I don’t think you need to know this bit really, but it might help, I guess, to know how I came to be trying like a hamster on a wheel to solve this thing and ‘deal with my grief’, much as you know, dear reader, that it can’t be solved, that this story is going to end badly, in that sense, anyway.
What am I grieving, exactly? Mainly, three of the most important people in my life passed away in 18 months. First my dad after a long illness. We were peas in a pod. He got me without me ever having to say a word. I’m so grateful for his complexity, his vision, his grace. Then my sister passed, just as we were ordered into lockdown. My sister raised me, taught me my times tables, took me to school on my first day. She had a life of tremendous difficulty. She told me from an early age that all the hopes and dreams of my sisters had been poured into me, I’d better go and change the world, or else. She was tough. She believed I could change the world. Then her daughter got sick too... I lost my dream job. I discovered I had ADHD. My mum, who I loved without condition or limit as she loved me, had a fatal car accident. I started admitting to myself that all was not well with my PhD. I even got a callback to check for breast cancer (huzzah, all clear!). Most of this happened in a two week period. It felt like walking naked through an apocalypse.
The thing is, I wasn’t walking through an apocalypse, not really. There were no grief zombies coming to get me. There are always blessings, scattered like daisies through the field. I had and have, a wonderful husband. My children are divinely, perfectly imperfect and loving. I still have a job. An easier job. I have a house and a roof over my head (how much privilege is sitting right there?). I have workmates and friends who love me, who messaged me every day just to say they were thinking of me. I have a community of people in my industry who did the same. Many people messaged me night and day to send their love like adding bricks to the wall against the tide of my grief. In truth, they saved me too.
This is the bit you want to know, if you came here for resources. I reflect that these resources are shaped around me, a white, middle aged, middle class, cishet woman living in a place with a reasonable health care system. Indeed, I shared my grief around the time of my mother’s passing with a friend who had also lost a parent but in the US, and the differences are stark. Again, take what you will. (I’ll also note, a bunch of what is linked here is aural. I could not read or watch anything. Podcasts and audio books were my friend!)
Back in 2019, when dad died, I learned that grief is like an ocean swell and we are all surfers. I learned that a new swell has waves that are messy and come relentlessly. I learned that the swell first of all kind of cleans up like swells do (can you tell I live on an island and have a surf mad husband?), and you get these huge waves but you also get distance between the waves. Over time, the waves seem to get smaller. You start to be able to see them coming, to ride them when they do. You think, ‘I can do this!’.
Shame and Forgiveness
In March 2020, I learned that there can be shame associated with death. My sister died, and I feel like I failed her and her daughter. There in the hospital room, I couldn’t say goodbye. I never did. I guess I learned there that the most powerful thing you can do is learn to forgive yourself. There’s no one who can do that for you.
Grief isn’t just about death
In early October 2020, when all the other, non-dying stuff happened, I learned that grief doesn’t have to include someone dying. Life is actually full of little griefs. Friendships, love, health, work, even home and school…there are endings all the time, and it is super helpful to understand the grief cycle to know what to expect. It isn’t shameful to grieve for the things we’ve lost. We’ve all lost something in the year that was 2020, even if no one we know died.
Sudden death hits hard
In late October, I was lucky enough to take some time off work to drive my mum to the hospital to see my niece who’d had some devastating news of her own. That afternoon with mum, we talked about death and dying, and dad, and her dogs she’d loved in her life (I think she loved our dogs more than her children sometimes. She admitted to mixed and defiant feelings about whether dogs were admitted into heaven). I told her about stuff in my life. I missed telling her some things and gaining her insights — not doing that cost me later, lesson learned — talk to your mum! I dropped her home in the evening. She drove to have dinner with friends. On the way home, she died in a head on collision, as yet, no definitive way of knowing what happened. It wasn’t obviously her, that much we know. Just as when dad died, I noticed the system kick in — I feel so grateful for the professionals who have to do this every day. It was written into their faces, they knew the steps we were taking. The police were kind. The coroner actually provides a ‘sudden death’ grief counsellor. No particular strings, no time limits. She saved my life. Some of what she taught me is reflected below. I will always be grateful for the gift of her. She met us at the hospital and described everything that would happen, told us there was no right way, said she was here for however our grief emerged.
The cycles of grief
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying. In it, she described the 5 cycles of grief (note, these are not linear! You can even go through them all in one day):
- denial (numbness, pretending all is well, ‘this can’t be happening’)
- anger (at anything — the death, the person, the thing that ended, any person or object around it — in short, this feeling is so big, executive function is hard)
- bargaining (if only, maybe if we?)
- depression (“Sadness and regret” and “quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell”) and
- acceptance (making peace).
(here is a brief outline of those cycles)
At some point, I listened to this podcast, an interview with David Kessler, the co-author in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ later years. In it, he talked about finding the 6th cycle of grief, ‘meaning’, and writing his book about it, Finding Meaning. I was walking as I listened, and found myself having to sit on the footpath and sob. It was at that stage, I was finding the sense underneath the grief that all this loss was a kind of a gift. I recognised my own feelings and hope in the idea that some people find meaning through their grief. There was hope that something beautiful might be gifted to me that never would have if none of it had happened.
Grief doesn’t get smaller, you get bigger
At about that time, my grief counsellor introduced me to the fact that I couldn’t do anything, research enough, rest enough, cry enough to make the grief go away. “The grief doesn’t get smaller”, she said, “you get bigger.”
She told me about Dr Lois Tonkin’s model of grief that says that your life grows around your grief. I realised that grief is just a space my love once occupied. I would never expect my love to diminish, it was silly to think that the grief would diminish. I realised that when someone or something is lost to me, that you are forced to create a whole new version of yourself. Like becoming a mother or father in a single moment when a baby is born, you are suddenly rendered anew.
A few days after mum died, my friend’s child exclaimed, “Oh Brigette, you’re an orphan!”. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but it definitely made sense to me that it was a sudden, (unlike motherhood) unwanted transition to a new version of me, and that’s where the growing comes from.
Trauma and the stages of emotion
Another day, another podcast (good grief, thank you Brenè Brown!). This one a revelation from Drs Emily and Amelia Nagoski that just removing the stress doesn’t get rid of the emotion. That it resides in your body unless you do something with it. Do something with that stress. Move your emotions through the tunnel. For me, that has meant walking. Lots and lots of walking. It can also mean dancing with utter abandon to the shock and horror of children, neighbours and pets. It can mean driving a long way with music blaring. It can mean asking a trusted friend to just hold you through the night. Early on it also meant letting myself just cry, while reassuring my kids that it was the very best thing for my body to be doing right now, and that everything was exactly as it should be. The important part is to know that trauma and stress reside in your body, unless you do the work to release them. They affect you, your long term health, and the health of those who come after. No pressure or anything. This also led me to Sonya Renee Taylor (podcast), The Body is not an Apology, and finally to Resmaa Menakem (On Being podcast), My Grandmother’s Hands. no, these are not specific to my grief or trauma, but to all of ours. I highly recommend both.
Using language to shape grief
Early, early on in November, I turned to an old friend. Poems were a huge part of my life as a child. I wanted to be an author. Listening to , and writing, poetry was a balm I could not get enough of, then and now. Again, these are podcasts, all from On Being. I have listened to these over and over, abandoning myself to the lyricism, to the way they made space for my grief, and somewhere for me to rest.
Gregory Orr — a poet whose life was irreparably changed when he accidentally shot and killed his brother on a hunting trip when he was 12. Krista Tippett, the wonderful host of the podcast says: “Gregory Orr is a poet and a teacher on how language can become a tool for carrying what feels unbearable”. He spoke of how language gives shape to grief:
“We ordinary people, in our daily lives, we experience enormous amounts of disorder and confusion. It’s inside us. It’s in our past. It’s in the unknowable future. And we just navigate our lives with this kind of interplay of disorder and order. And what poetry says to us is, Turn your confusion, turn your world into words. Take it outside yourself into language. Poetry says, I’m going to meet you halfway. You just bring me your chaos. I’ll bring you all sorts of ordering principles.”
He was a life raft, showing me a single beam of light I could follow and maybe, maybe, find my way back to myself.
Pádraig Ó Tuama in the podcast: ‘Poetry Unbound’ Returns, With Wisdom For Living Now. I have lost count of how many times I have listened to this music shaped into words. Like piano notes that tinkle and fall from the sky, Pádraig’s voice made space for love and hope. I also learned that the Irish language doesn’t have a verb for love, that you say instead, ‘you are my music’. And somehow, that makes more sense to me than anything else.
Mary Oliver — what can I say about her? I now own more than one of her books. She had a hard life. To get through, she retreated to the forest, and her work is decidedly in celebration of all that surrounded her. One of my favourite lines from her is: “Joy is not made to be a crumb”.
Jericho Brown: what an incredible writer, poet, human. I don’t know that he really talks about grief in this podcast, but he does talk about being human, and all the work he has done to feel more comfortable being his authentic self, being brave, and bringing his whole self to his poetry. He makes you want to be a better person, and I like that. This quote is just perfect:
“Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”
The power of autoethnography to recover
I guess all that poetry, and that promise that it could take my grief and help me make sense of it inevitably led me to writing again. But not just writing. I noticed, very quickly after mum, that my face was visibly changing. The grief was being etched across it. Many, many moons ago, I was a photographer. I went to Art School, studied photography and art history, did ok at videography and sculpture, was humiliated by myself at painting. I wanted to document myself internally and externally. I decided, in true researcher style, to attempt an autoethnography. I decided in the manner of Mary Oliver and Jericho Brown both insisting that poetry requires all of you, and it must be shared, that I would be brave and share it. Because I’d been waiting my whole life to be good enough to share it. And who knows how long I have left? It was time to take a plunge, while my body was stripped bare and my open wound of a heart was there for all to see.
I started an instagram page telling myself I could just not tell anybody. But I knew in my heart of hearts, that not telling anybody was a cop out, that the purpose was to take that step. So I told a few people. Now I am again :)
There’s no real purpose for the autoethnography. Let’s call it a researcher’s curiousity. And another example of the power of optimism, that the ‘end result’ will be better, that tracking it will teach me new things.
So far, I’ve learned I cannot photograph myself. I quickly found it impossible to photograph any part of myself that wasn’t my hands or face that wouldn’t come across as sexualised. As a researcher in gender equality, the turning of the gaze apon myself is deeply uncomfortable. I don’t want to turn myself into the object. For me, this project is more about my internal journey. The external is about how it comes to be written there. I’ve not resolved this conundrum, and so you find photos of the landscape again (landscape and bodies have been the subjects of my photography my whole life).
The art of wintering
Finally, I listened to this podcast only the other day with Katherine May. It left me with so much hope. Grief, loss and the other traverses of the interior can be framed as a part of the seasons. We all know and respect that lands must lie fallow in order to be able to produce in the spring and summer. Yet we do not allow ourselves such luxuries. I reflect how incredibly lucky I’ve been — I’ve worked long enough at the one place that I was able to take nearly a month of leave in 2019 and again in 2020. I live on an island where lockdown and COVID have been handled incredibly well. That meant my children could attend school for a lot of 2020, giving me space to recover. I live on an island where I could roam and walk out my grief. I had access to a grief counsellor. I even had access to a psychologist. These are incredible gifts. In short, it gave me the ability to winter. To lie fallow. To recover. I’m so grateful for that, and to my many friends who rode with me through the long night, riding wave after wave of emotion, forgiving me. Thank you.
If you’re still here with me, reading this, I hope the gifts in the form of podcasts, books, poems and articles might help in some way, when the winter comes to you too. I leave you with a small part of a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver, The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac (poems 2 and 3):
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river —
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.