When my father died after a sudden illness in June 2015 I thought, Okay, this is the worst thing that’s happened to me. And it was, right up until the moment last November when my brother called from Texas to say that doctors hadn’t been able to save our sister’s toddler son from what we thought was pneumonia but later learned was myocarditis.
Hours after that phone call, I flew home to Austin. Apart from snot-crying through the entire memorial service, I mostly set my grief aside and focused on being useful to my sister and her family. I packed lunchboxes and did the school run. I tidied up. I bought presents and patted backs and listened and tried to find words of comfort.
I returned to London about a month later. My stomach quaked with guilt — why was I leaving my family? — but also anxiety. I would have to see people. I would have to talk about everything. I would be the person who got comforted. I knew I needed the support but I felt too raw, too exposed. I was grieving, and I felt embarrassed about it.
When my father died, I put a lot of my energy into keeping things together — outwardly, at least. I would throw myself into solving other friends’ personal problems, then go home and cry in my room, hoping my flatmate wouldn’t notice. I’d brood and want to talk to someone, without actually asking anyone to talk. I’d try to be the life of the party, but be conscious that one drink too many might send me spluttering and sobbing.
I did grow closer to a few people who had also lost a parent; we swapped sad stories and joked that we’d formed some tragic sort of club. But most people have or will eventually endure the death of a parent. The death of a child, or a beloved niece or nephew, is too horrible, too unspeakable.
Sure enough, I just couldn’t get the words out the first time I met with friends after my nephew’s death. Sitting in a back booth at Albion, I wept. My tears tore holes through tissues. I apologised for crying. They offered soothing words, but I felt mortified and self-indulgent. And yet I also sensed that this emotional plaster had been ripped off. It had to get easier, yes?
And sometimes it did. Other times, I’d remember the words a good friend shared after my dad’s passing: “Grief isn’t linear.” One day it's a giant boulder; the next, a stone in my pocket. I’d congratulate myself on making it through my first catch-up without tearing up, then go to a party days later and have a little sob-fest when an acquaintance came over to express her sympathies (which, for the record, I appreciated).
The importance of self-care has been drummed into us over the past year — we should steer clear of social media, run a nice hot bath, take a long walk. As a grieving person, self-care meant avoiding overwhelming social situations that might trigger uncomfortable displays of emotion. When my long-distance besties suggested Skype calls, I declined, arguing that it would just be me sobbing in front of my laptop. Why trouble them when I could pay a professional therapist £80 to thoughtfully nod along to my wails (and tell me that I should wait at least six months before pursuing therapy)?
Looking back, that strategy seems less about self-care and more about sparing others any awkwardness. In romantic relationships I've grown used to stifling my needs and affecting an air of "cool girl" nonchalance rather than put off a boyfriend. It never worked, and yet I was taking the same misguided approach with my grief.
This became glaringly obvious when I recently encountered someone I'd once considered a close friend at a birthday party. He'd essentially slunk out of my life during my bereavement stretch, never checking in and, on occasions when we would be in the same room, ignoring me entirely. I felt isolated and cast as this tragic (read: boring) figure, which only made me try harder to present myself as a fun-loving party girl with zero issues. Now, here we were, hanging out like old times. It was nice, but I couldn’t not point out the elephant in the room.
Not surprisingly, he got defensive. He hadn’t mentioned my nephew because if something like that had happened to him, he’d never want to talk about it. I shouldn’t acknowledge it. I should be more positive. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I should really stop going on about my “dead dad".
I stormed out, sobbing as I walked home in the rain at 5 in the morning. I spent the next day in bed, feeling sad and letting his words bounce around in my head. Had I alienated my cool friends by addressing the not-so-cool aspects of my life, even though, with this guy, I hadn't really addressed it at all? Was I grieving more than was socially acceptable?
"When people have experienced a death, others they interact with who have not yet experienced such a loss can on a certain level be unwilling to deal with it," she said. "This is because death invokes a realisation of our own mortality and that inevitably we, too, must face such a loss one day. Of course this might all be unconscious, and they might simply tell themselves they are too busy to help and avoid their friend in need, not realising what they are trying to avoid is their own fear, worries, and uncertainties.
"For the person who has experienced a loss and desperately wants to feel supported and loved, this can of course feel awful. Losing a loved one can actually trigger feelings of abandonment. Friends not being fully available can then heighten such feelings, or indeed become an unconscious outlet for expressing such feelings of abandonment."
If that's the case, it's best to address the matter in a nonjudgmental tone. A professional grief counsellor or support group can also offer the solace and sympathy our friends may not be able to provide. The bottom line, Jacobson noted, is that it's important not to keep these emotions bottled up; it's just important to trust them with the right people.
At this point, I think I know who those people are. The friend in Dubai who had a pie delivered to my home when I was having a bad day. The pals who handed me tissues in that Albion, and took me to lunch on what would have been my nephew's third birthday. All the others who are quick with hugs and kind gestures. With these people, I'll never feel pressured to be the cool girl — which is something I need to remind myself when I'm trying to zip everything up.