The Grief Collective is a unique collection of 54 real life accounts written by people who have experienced grief. It’s getting great reviews and is a wonderfully validating resource for those experiencing grief and those who want to know how best to support them.
Targeted Age Group:: 18 – 110
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
My Father died in 2017 and during this time I was very fortunate that many of my colleagues and friends knew how to talk to me about grief.
I'm a psychologist and I was aware that most people don't have this experience. Grief can feel like a great taboo. No-one wants to talk to you about your loss because they feel embarrassed or because they fear they will upset the person they are talking to.
I wanted to put the Grief Collective together so that people could be surrounded by people who 'got' grief and were happy to talk about it.
It is twenty years since I 'lost' my Mum. All these years later I find myself working as a clinical psychologist in specialist palliative care. You'd think I'd have steered clear of this area as it was all so painful and intense. But, if anything, death is our connecting, universal, human experience. It is unquestionably profound. In Buddhism there is a phrase along the lines of: 'it is only at the moment that we understand the certainty of our own death that we truly begin to live. Perhaps the ability to hold our own personal fragility close is what gives life greater meaning? I certainly see the emotional impact of the work on myself and my colleagues, but I also see the vicarious resilience. When I've asked what motivates staff to do this work, I've heard the expression 'them today, us tomorrow,' I never lose sight of that. Keeping this in mind is levelling. It keeps things real and gives perspective to the day to day. It's deeply compassionate and really very beautiful.
What's interesting though is that I'm frequently mindful of the language used in relation to grief, death and dying in my work. It's striking to me that I often avoid using the word 'lost' (after all, our loved ones aren't 'lost'; we know exactly where they are) yet it's the first word that came as I began to write this. Because really and truly; my Mum is lost to me. And I was lost without her. I didn't know my way. She was my navigational point. I am still lost at times. One of the things said frequently in palliative care is that there's 'one chance to get it right'. And whilst there were a lot of things that weren't right about my own Mum's death, the thing that stands out (the humdinger of the whole experience for me) was the nurse who sang to her as she died. That is something unforgettable.
I had taken some convincing to go home to shower after days of sitting next to my Mum's bed, helping with self-care, massaging her feet, singing to her. I didn't want to leave. But the nurse assured me that she would sing to my Mum in my absence (Mum always sang to us when we were ill, anxious, upset. I can still hear her beautiful, deep, rhythmic voice in my mind). It seemed the most natural thing in the world to sit and sing (and for the record; I am no singer.) But it brought a certain energy to the room. It was comforting. This small act of deep compassion by a nurse (who for the record also couldn't sing) is something that I will never forget and will always be grateful for. And how do I know she didn't just tell me that she sang to my Mum? Because the first thing she said when I returned was "she didn't like the Beatles did she? So I switched to Elvis and she settled again." I cannot tell you how many times the memory of this has given me comfort.
My Mum died of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. She was doing some Christmas food shopping for a friend. She hadn't felt well but the person that she was (evacuated in the war as a child and so part of that unstoppable generation of 'get on with it'), meant that she wouldn't let a grim headache, of 2 days duration, stop her from helping out a friend. I thought about that for a very, very long time. The fact that she sat in the middle of the shopping centre, clutching her friend's shopping, bleeding from the brain, totally alone. Our brains are brilliant at torturing us like this. I had intrusive images and auditory intrusions of the ambulance siren that took her to hospital for the longest time. For a good six month hearing a siren would make my stomach turn. And of course, these were completely fictitious; I had generated them to build the story and connect with what that life shattering moment had been like for her. This precious, gentle woman, who meant the world to me, was now facing the end of her life. She collapsed two days before Christmas and died on New Year's Eve. The last words she said to me as we sat listening to the chimes of Christmas day on the radio from the nurse's station, were "Is it Christmas? Oh, Merry Christmas darling". She slipped into a coma a few hours later and never regained consciousness. There was nothing remotely merry about that Christmas.
I tell myself how blessed I was to have had those last words. To have had moments when she was first in hospital when we could talk and I could tell her how much I loved her. She re-told my sister and I stories from her childhood. In the past we'd have rolled our eyes and said "yes, you've told us this story before!" But knowing those moments would never happen again made every fibre of my being come into sharp focus. I remembered her telling me that she had a horrible moment after her own Mum died when she couldn't visualise her hands. She went hunting through boxes of photographs to try to bring back the memory of them. I remembered this and spent so much time looking at my Mum and her hands, committing them to memory. I needn't have bothered. I have her hands. My sister has her hands. I look down at my hands and I see that she is part of me.
I spend a lot of time in my job talking about death and dying and am often struck by how many families just don't talk about it. It's taboo. It's 'dark.'. It's 'depressing'. But that wasn't the way things were in our family. My Dad died when I was two-years-old. My Mum talked of him often and in doing so kept him 'alive' for me; I had a Dad, he loved me dearly, but he wasn't able to be there. This is 'continuing bonds' in action. So, we spoke about his death, my grandparent's death and at times about the future and my Mum's death. She was a very spiritual person and when her brother died (at 33 years old; the same age as my Dad and Grandad strangely) she told us that she "felt him there, giving me comfort". So the joke would start about "well don't think about coming back and giving me comfort!" We would laugh and I remember saying "you can come and give me comfort in a dream. But not in real life." That was our deal. And for about 6 months after my Mum died, I had the same dream over and over and over. It was me sitting with my head on her knee, sobbing, telling her I couldn't cope without her, telling her I missed her. She would stroke my hair, tell me it would be OK and I would wake up (usually in tears) but feeling close to her. The dream was in some ways such a perfectly ordinary interaction. But the ordinariness of it made it all the more real. Then one night I had the dream, but the conversation was different. She said to me "I can't keep coming to you like this anymore. I have to go away now. But you don't need me. You can do this on your own." I protested, but she assured me it would be OK. I have never dreamt that dream again since. I find it quite mind-blowing to think either we have an absolute innate ability to access that bond and receive comfort when we need it; or, there is an alternate dimension out there that we know nothing about that perhaps I need to keep an open mind to! Either way, my mind (or my Mum) called it right. It was at that time that things began to feel more bearable. And in some ways there was a changing from the pain and distress to a desire for things to be more meaningful and different in some way.
I tormented myself about the fact that I turned down an invitation to see my Mum just a few days before she collapsed because I had a pile of Christmas presents to wrap and no other time to do it. How pathetic does that sound now? I say to people that I work with all the time; we make so many decisions every day with the information we have to hand. I didn't know my Mum was about to die. I didn't know she was unwell. So in my head I can tell myself I made a choice with the frivolity of assuming I would see her over Christmas and we would be spending time together then. But that thought process doesn't cut it when it comes to the knot in the pit of your stomach and the self-loathing that you picked a pile of rubbish presents over precious time. Again, our brains are masters at making us feel bad. I was working full time, studying a few evenings a week, scuba diving twice a week, trying to get to the gym; I had friends and a fiancé that I also wanted to spend time with. I felt I had no time (or I thought at the time that I had no time. Truth is we can always make time). Of course, hindsight is a beautiful science. Had I known, I would have spent every moment with her. But I didn't know. We never know. That is something that I absolutely take away and remind myself of regularly. I have never since cancelled a person over a task. It's a simple life rule and it helps me. This is the best advice I can offer to people in this situation; we can't undo things, we don't have a time machine. All we can do is to choose to view things differently and choose to commit to a different path in the future. If not, those layers of guilt can be corrosive.
The first Christmas after Mum died, I found the thought of presents so distasteful that they sickened me. I talked about it with my sister who, luckily, was on the same page. We agreed on a book with meaning (a 'chicken soup for the soul' kind of book; or for me, the veggie version.) Instead of gifts, we would ask what people wanted in the way of a 'doing' task or activity (this was my sister's idea). So I could offer to wash her windows or help out with some decorating (or go with her to 'Go Ape' which was what she actually requested). As the years have gone on, the joy of Christmas has returned. I've since had a child of my own (which incidentally, no one tells you how painful that experience is without your Mum). It brings back all those loss feelings quite acutely for a time. Who is there to remind you how heavy you were when you were born? The story of your weaning? Crawling? Sleeping? These are all aspects of your life story that have new meaning as you face those things with your own child. I felt simultaneously closer to her and yet further away than ever. Becoming a parent gave me more understanding of her. It was painful.
I think if I had a pound for the times people say that being around children really helps, I'd be a very wealthy person. It's probably why our caveman ancestors lived in kin groups with the whole generation. Being around young people and their joy and enthusiasm is very healing. So despite the newfound pain of missed connections with my Mum, I had the joy of new life and seeing the world through the eyes of this new little person.
Another important part of keeping the bond alive, for me anyway, is the whole 'what would Mum say?' thing. It's the metaphorical t-shirt that we wear and this is powerful for me. I know Mum loved Christmas and got so excited about it. So the traditions that were meaningful to her (drinking a sherry whilst making the family Christmas cake) become the traditions I carry forward; along with the story. So every year as I do this I talk about 'Nanny Fox' and we get out the sherry glass and have a toast. We smile, we laugh, we remember.
Loss is brutal. It's a sucker punch to the gut. It gets easier, but it doesn't go away. And sometimes new life experiences make the loss reappear in full glory (the night before my wedding was another corker; a deep wave of sadness hit and I lay crying cuddled up to my wonderful bridesmaid.) But, what does change is the fact that we can carry it much more lightly when we remember, when we smile, when we take parts of that special person forward. I'd like to send a huge, huge hug (from the written word if that's even such a thing) for all of you going through this experience right now. It will get a lighter load to carry. I can promise you that. But whilst it's heavy; share it. Because we in the club understand.
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