of course, i knew that grief would find me. i just didn’t realise the impact it would have on my life. neither could i fully understand the scope of it, its sheer size and its many poisonous tentacles. i wish i could give it a name, it would make it easier to address. it’s worth more than an ‘it’. but alas, ‘it’ it shall be.
i will write more about the specifics of grief that i have experienced in separate posts but i wanted to write a kind of summary and then get into specifics of which there are far too many to count.
grief had not been a stranger to me. grieving death, i mean. i felt it when all of my grandparents died, when a girl from my middle school committed suicide, when teachers died. i was saddest, of course, with my grandparents’ death yet somehow that grief never really stuck around for too long. i would cry and i would move on with my life. i still think about all four of them, maybe not every day, but at least once a week. i have fond memories of them and i am glad to have known all of them.
with my sister, grief had become an entirely new dimension and it had taken a completely different role. i divide it now into two main parts, two volumes if you will: grief 1 and grief 2. grief 1 crept up on me when Barbara was diagnosed even though i dismissed it. or never even noticed it. but it had already sunk its ugly teeth into my soul and it wouldn’t let go.
that was the part that i had the most trouble dealing with. that it would just linger. it had absolutely no intention of going away. it was much later that i realised that grief in its entirety was here to stay, that it would never leave. that it would simply be the new companion that i never asked for.
to what degree though and at what price? i couldn’t tell in the first few months after Barbara’s death. that’s when grief 2 kicked in full force.
yes, there are stages of grief that exist and that i had heard about. i probably even studied them in school. denial, anger, depression etc. all those. yup. they all happen. the thing that nobody told me was that they don’t happen in a certain order and they don’t happen just for one period of time. they’re also interchangeable. anger can be followed by denial then anger again. and so forth. sometimes they all happen at once which is like a party that people just show up to, then they smash everything in your house, throw up all over your furniture, spill food and drink on the floor then vanish, leaving you with a hangover, even though you didn’t partake in the drinking of alcohol. it was confusing, sad, painful, and it made me angry as hell all the fucking time. this led to anxiety, frequent panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, withdrawal from society. the usual as far as grief goes.
these ‘stages’ all started happening with Barbara’s diagnosis, as i have said. they occurred in increments, growing with time, in pieces, a little one here, a small one there. i didn’t know it was grief. i didn’t know that it was a dress rehearsal of what was to come. and of all the shows on television that managed to help me with this was ‘Mom’. yes. the sitcom created by the same people as ‘Two and a half men’ among others. but yeah. in one episode wendy, the least vocal character of the main group of friends, says that some people start grieving their terminally ill loved one long before they die. it seemed only appropriate that this episode aired a few months after Barbara died. it was such an incredible revelation, i had to laugh, because it came from a 20 minute sitcom. and the message was delivered right on time and on point. a eureka moment thanks to television. what a time to be alive.
but wendy was right. i hadn’t realised how much of myself i had given up when Barbara got sick. i can see it now in photos from back then. my smile is awkward, kind of ‘pageant-y’. fake even. just not sincere in its happiness. i was changing. grief 1 was silently chipping away pieces of me, slowly but surely, until they all broke off in one big chunk and crashed. i never got it back, that chunk.
the most painful thing about all this grief of mine, particularly grief 1, was that it didn’t have a place, either because i willed it so or because it just happened to be that way. i couldn’t talk about it with my best friend, who was Barbara. i couldn’t even talk about it with other close family members because they were caught up in their own grief. it’s nothing bad. it’s just the way it was. outside of the family, a sister’s grief is mostly misunderstood or not even thought of at all. or just not very interesting. i mean, who wants to talk about cancer? also, my sister and I lived on separate continents so a lot of people who knew me had never met her. it’s hard to demonstrate empathy for a faceless person, i get it. but i can count on one hand how many people asked me how Barbara was doing after her diagnosis. in turn they never asked me how i felt so i just started to disappear and stopped talking about the situation altogether. especially when Barbara was in remission with no symptoms, i figured, that’s it, she beat it. there is no situation and we can move on.
though i must say that when my brother started a campaign for an experimental treatment when the cancer came back, people really came through. this was the first time that Barbara’s disease was made public. people, literally, from all over the globe supported us, donated and gave Barbara another chance. even though the treatments only worked for a couple of months, all those people managed to fill us with hope, give us the energy to keep going and most importantly, give Barbara a dignified last few months. in that sense i kind of regret not talking about her cancer sooner but i didn’t want the attention either. i was conflicted on many levels so, naturally, ignoring it was the way to go. sigh.
i sought help in all the wrong places. i went to meditation groups. i chanted words that i didn’t understand. i went to group chanting sessions. i went to alternative healing lectures and they all reminded me of the bullshit i used to have to listen to in church. i searched online for ways to heal a mind that was slowly slipping away from me. i had reiki sessions, reflexology massages, took natural supplements, put up fucking crystals in my room and what have you. stupid, i know. none of that helped. those things were all distractions and didn’t treat the root of the problem. but hey, at least I tried something.
funny how i never tackled the one thing that would have helped: talking to someone. silly me.
months after Barbara died, when grief 2 had entrenched itself into the carcass that was my soul i came to understand that it was here to stay. that it would leave its mark on me for the rest of my days. i would never be the person i was before all of this. in a way, i was also grieving the death of the old me. the big sister that i no longer was. the middle child that i no longer was. the person who couldn’t fathom such a loss even in her worst nightmares.
grief became like a blanket. it made me feel secure. to some degree it was a false sense of security. i didn’t want people to feel sorry for me but i wanted them to understand that it affected me to such a degree that i barely recognised myself. i wanted compassion but didn’t know how to ask for it. i still feel like this sometimes. grief was like a drug that comforted at first, made me care less about my surroundings. on the other hand, and like a drug, grief became dangerous because i delved into it with all my might and let it send me down an uncontrollable spiral of darkness and i didn’t want to get out of it. mostly because i simply couldn’t. at least not on my own. but also because i equated painfully grieving Barbara with loving her and if i no longer grieved her, i didn’t love her anymore, right?
of course not. but that was my logic. my emotional logic. my brain was too muddled to function. if i let go of my grief, i would be letting her go too and then she would be gone for good. it still makes a little sense, especially on the really difficult days.
but, eventually, grief also taught me that i needed to put myself first. something I don’t think i had ever done. because if i didn’t, i would wither away, disappear, and live a shadow of a life. i would have simply gone with the flow, disappeared into the crowd, possibly gone down a rabbit hole where i would have remained forever. that or i would have packed up my things, quit my job and left everyone i loved behind and moved to a remote village on greenland. or somewhere where nobody knew me. grief made me blind and deaf and numb.
i didn’t want to die but i didn’t know how to live.
grief nearly won since it had the upper hand for such a long time. ultimately s. said, you need to do something about this. you can’t live like this. he was right. i was headed towards the endless void. i was letting grief’s tentacles drag me down, suck the life out of me. so, with a great deal of effort and help, i picked myself up and got myself to a certified psychotherapist and eventually also to a psychiatrist. you know, medical professionals. i have been learning to live with this unwanted houseguest ever since.
it’s not all bad, grief. i mean it’s not great but it’s here to stay so i might as well get comfortable with its company. i just wish it had never shown up in the first place.