Until you’ve joined the Bereavement Club you have no idea what it feels like. You can never change your mind, put it off for another day or revoke your membership. No words I’ve ever read come anywhere near expressing the pain and heartache that paralyses you when you lose a beloved. It’s a myth that time heals, it doesn’t, it just numbs. The all consuming, intense pain of the first few months diminishes so that you can exist on a day to day basis, but life sends reminders to catch you unawares causing that pain to spring out of its box.
With so many terrible events happening in the world, it seems our emotions are wrung out to dry on a daily basis as we are confronted with a regular dose of exposure to suffering. But like a movie rolling before our eyes it is difficult to comprehend the suffering involved with each disaster. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the seemingly regular news about attackers or accidents causing fatal injuries, each remind us that someone else is joining the club, but even then it doesn’t touch our lives unless you have a loved one caught up in these traumas.
Before we had immediate access to national and international events, there was an element of shelter from such mass trauma. Unless you were bought up in the countryside, death didn’t enter your daily life. The first person I was aware of dying was my grandfather when I was seven, but even he was hidden from me when he quietly died in hospital. My mother told me one morning whilst I was eating my Weetabix that he wouldn’t be coming out of hospital and then nothing more was said about it in my earshot. I wasn’t even present at the funeral as I was sent to play with a friend.
When my mother died in 2001 from cancer, even though her last few weeks had been nursed in a sunshine yellow room in my home, I in turn, protected my two and four-year olds from the sadness of their grandmother’s funeral by sending them to play with a friend for the day. Perhaps it was more from my own selfishness? I knew I would be inconsolable during the day and didn’t want them to see their oh-so-in-control-mother reduced to a sobbing heap. Was that the right thing to do? I still don’t know, but when my sister died after a short illness, again from cancer two years later, I decided that they couldn’t be sheltered for ever from this natural part of life and I was doing them more harm than good by pretending it wasn’t upsetting. How, when they’d been aware of my four-day vigil by her bedside whilst she struggled for life in Intensive Care, and watched as I collapsed yet again in a heap after her demise, could I pretend that this major life event was anything but devastating?
As the subsequent years pass learning to cope with your membership to the Bereavement Club is difficult. The triggers sneak up on you any time any place, like assassins ready to make you crumble. For me it’s especially times alone; driving the car or those few, quiet moments of reflection late at night before sleep takes you to its haven. But it doesn’t have to be only then; days when I feel in full control up beat and raring to go, a dagger can still pierce my heart by the sound of a few significant bars of a tune, sight of something beautiful or an associative scent. Sometimes I think I’m really brave able to mention their name and talk about them, but I have to keep my thoughts at a distance, not connecting with my heart. I know that death is part of life and makes the circle complete; it’s said that if we hadn’t loved the deceased so dearly it wouldn’t hurt so much and that we have to have one to have the other, but no matter how hard I try these words sound empty and meaningless.
When my closest friend since gymslip days was whipped so swiftly and unexpectedly off the face of this earth in the 2004 Asian Tsunami, my children cried with me, probably more from the pain of seeing my raw grief, but I was weak enough with this third death of a beloved, to have lost my mothering, protective instinct. Why shouldn’t they see me cry? I wish I could have wailed and beat my breast it hurt so much.
Getting through the first year for each of them was the worst. It was hard not to negatively think back with a ‘this time last year she was still alive’ approach which doesn’t help at all. And the looming anniversary only serves to make the whole loss seem so final again. Eventually I learnt that distraction worked for me. The first anniversary after my mother died, my sisters and I blew the little bit of money she left us and took our families off to Disneyland Paris, staying in the most expensive hotel we could afford. My mother would have loved the fact that we were all together having a fabulous time at her expense. It didn’t stop our tears, but at least we were crying together and remembering her in a positive way.
Many people can’t or don’t want to talk to you when they know you’ve been recently bereaved. Or they expect you, after what they consider to be a reasonable amount of time, to have got over it and moved on. Often kindness can be the thing that causes your fragile defenses to break down, but I began not to care whether my eyes welled up whilst talking to someone – I wasn’t ashamed of my tears, it was their problem, not mine. I’ve found those who chose the head-in–the-sand approach to be more hurtful by not mentioning it. It is really only fellow members of the Club who are likely to understand the down days and remember to treat others with empathy around anniversaries.
Given time, I’ve learnt to live with my three angels. I still laugh, cry and live my life but it’s the pain of not sharing it with them that is so hard to bear. It is inevitable that we will all join the Bereavement Club at some stage in our lives; I just hope your membership comes to you as late as possible.