It’s been a while since I have written about grief here on the blog, but recently it has been playing on my mind. It has become easier with time and the sharp edges of my loss have become blunted, like a piece of glass smoothed by the sea. Grief ebbs and flows and I’ve often heard it compared to the tide. The tide is at least predictable while grief can be triggered by the most innocuous incident. When intense grief does pay a visit, I’m amazed by how much it still hurts – even after five-and-a-half years. It occurred to me that there might be something pathological going on, perhaps the intensity of this pain is something to do with my bipolar disorder? I have a propensity to over-analyse things and fret about about where my bipolar ends and I begin. Having a mental illness can compromise my sense of self because I don’t always know if my thoughts and feelings are symptoms of an illness or normal responses to life’s inevitable ups and downs. However, in my more lucid, rational moments, I know that grief will manifest differently in everyone and there is no normal way to grieve.
Anyone who is recently bereaved might not want to know about the enduring pain of loss and I’m sorry if this does not provide much in the way of comfort. However, what I have realised is that the grief I feel is a reminder of what I had with my dad. Although we were very close, our ability to communicate was sometimes difficult. When I was a child he travelled with his work and would be away for weeks, if not months at a time. When he came home he would dive into his man cave and absorb himself in some esoteric interest. He loved photography and books on philosophy and ancient civilisations. It was not always easy for him to be present; I know that he wanted to be emotionally available to me, but he didn’t know how. I desperately needed him, like all kids need their parents and there is a small part of me that is still waiting for him to come home.
As the years went on, we worked on our relationship and even went to therapy together. By the time of his diagnosis, we were in a good place. We both felt more able to talk honestly and could sit in companionable silence. We were always similar, when I was born I looked like someone had carved a little Bob Hoskins doll out of ham. I was a curious child and grew into a rather offbeat adult. Dad was quite the eccentric himself and spending time with him made me feel that I was not alone, that there was someone who understood without the need for explanation. We were two sides of the same coin and when he died I didn’t just lose a parent, but an essential part of myself.
I have to carry on with an irreparable hole in my heart. The lacerating wounds from the early days of grief have healed to form gnarly scar tissue, but the void is ever present. Sometimes it feels like an icy wind blows through it; a savage reminder of who should be there and how much I lost when I watched him take his last breath. And yet, no matter how painful it is to remember him, his memory spurs me on. I think of what he would want for me and how he lived with joi de virve and twinkly, mischievous humour. People often define themselves by what they don’t like; dad was characterised by his enthusiasm for life, by the things and people he liked and loved.
His love was like being held by a friendly bear. I still feel it. Love doesn’t wither and die with the fragile human body, it pulls up an easy chair and makes itself good and comfortable in the heart. Even now, I can almost feel the weight of his big hand on my shoulder and hear his low, gravelly voice:
‘Keep on punchin’ love, you’ll get there. Don’t give up now.’
I know that some of this sadness will soon wane and I’ll be in a place where I can think of him with a smile. Dad would want me to live a happy, adventurous, creative and enthusiastic life. If I can get the most out of every day, even if I do have to do it with a hole in my heart, I know he’d smile and I’d make him proud.
I’ve noticed the societal pressure to move on and I’ve experienced sympathy fatigue from people whom I thought would always find it in their heart to be understanding. If you’ve lost someone and your grief seems to be lingering, that is ok. The process will take its own course and you don’t owe anyone your recovery. Let the tide come, don’t fight it. But rest assured it will get easier and you’ll find a way to carry on, holding their love close and taking comfort in the certainty that you are not alone.