How I coped when grief became my new reality

Each person’s encounter with grief is unique, but shared experience can help ease the load. So here’s my story

People can be awkward when we are grieving but I found their kindness shone through and provided comfort on the darkest days

People can be awkward when we are grieving but I found their kindness shone through and provided comfort on the darkest days

 

The crackling sound of BBC Radio 5 Live’s cricket coverage on the car radio, strawberry flan, the Sunday papers or a dusty box of Santa decorations – grief catches you at the strangest and most unlikely times.

Something so ordinary just stops you in your tracks and knocks the wind out of you, as memories of that person flash before your eyes.

It’s a very private moment, usually triggered in a very public setting.

Grief is a personal burden that many people bear the weight of every day, but the public conversation around the subject does not reflect its ferocity. We constantly talk about death, read about it in books, watch it in movies and on TV shows but understanding what it leaves behind in its aftermath is confusing and overwhelming.

As the last decade came to an end, social media forced me to take a step back and reflect on what I’d done. Smiling faces and lists of achievements filled my Instagram feed, but when I considered compiling my highlights – although there are many happy ones – something else came to mind. Grief.

Conversations on the topic can be awkward; there is always a fear of upsetting someone or not knowing what to say, which is understandable. I’ve spent years trying to put pen to paper to explain my journey through grief but my attempts have been futile. I now understand that I needed time and space to really know what was happening. Each person’s encounter with grief is unique, but shared experience can help ease the heavy load, so here’s my story. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, just to understand it all a bit more.

My relationship with grief began very suddenly on August 14th, 2013.

It was something I’d never thought about in great detail or wanted to encounter, but I suppose for everyone it’s inevitable at some point.

It was a beautiful summer. I was 23, living in London and working in my first real job. Life at that age is not bogged down with notions of marriage or mortgages, but music festivals, late nights and pints.

I can remember every detail of that sunny Wednesday afternoon. As I finished up my work for the day, my phone started to buzz. Calls from home during the workday always provoke suspicion and this time my anxiety was justified – my wonderful dad had died very suddenly while on holidays in Cork. It all unfolded so quickly, as I stood at my desk in my open-plan office. I could hardly process the information.

Autopilot

My body’s autopilot took over as I fled from the office and into a black cab alone. My kind and caring cousins and housemates had already gathered in my house, where they took over and did everything I couldn’t do: they fed me, made me sugared tea, booked my flight, packed my bag, dug out my passport and brought me home.

A few hours later I was sitting in the front row of an Aer Lingus flight to Cork. I remember staring out the window into the darkness and wondering if life would ever be the same again and if I would ever find happiness. At that moment, I felt like I was at the bottom of a very dark hole and I could see no way out. I’d never felt anything like this in my life before.

Moving on. My wonderful dad died suddenly and I just had to find ways to navigate my new normality.
Moving on. My wonderful dad died suddenly and I just had to find ways to navigate my new normality.

The following days were a blur of decisions I didn’t ever want to make, handshaking, lasagne, triangle sandwiches and immense kindness from so many people. I had no desire to deal with death or anything that went with it.

Then the time came for me to return to normal life, but I knew life would never return to what it had been. Just a week after the funeral, I very reluctantly returned to London. I was completely overcome with the thought of returning to normality and wondered how I could cope. I remember typing a text message to my boss to say I wouldn’t be returning to work the next day but with some much-needed encouragement I got up the next day and returned to my office. It was awful.

I had wonderful colleagues but, in my experience, the English culture has a very different way of dealing with death and personal matters. I am likely biased, but Irish people have an extraordinary capacity to show comfort and kindness in times of hardship. My experience in London was very different. Everybody was kind, but it was just back to normal again, like I had been on holiday. I was completely out of my depth. I stayed in London for another three months and then decided I needed to return home, where I could properly process what had happened, surrounded by my family.

Grief became my new reality, I carried it around with me everywhere I went, like a little goblin on my shoulder.

I didn’t want him there, or invite him into my life, but he was there to stay. Life was heavier now and I just had to find ways to navigate my new normality.

Sustained by kindness

Throughout it all, I was sustained by kindness. Words scribbled in a card, text messages, emails, hugs, the friends who were just there or kept messaging so I knew they were there. All of these small gestures made such a difference, although I may not have realised it at the time. Walking through the dark is hard enough but knowing how to assist the person doing it can be a challenge too. People can be awkward but their kindness shone through and provided comfort on the darkest days.

Looking back, the best way for me to describe the years that followed were living in haze or a fog. Everything I did, saw and felt was through a cloud, I was physically present but in a distant way. It wasn’t a conscious process, it just happened.

As that fog lifted I started to see and feel life with more clarity and fully realise what I had been going through. Grief had clouded my feelings, my sense of judgment and decision-making. I was coasting along in a numb reality.

The fog never fully lifts but most days I let the sun come in. I still smile, laugh and enjoy life

I can’t put clear timeframes or steps on the whole process – it wasn’t like what I read about online or in books – it was just my way. With some perspective and a bit more understanding, I now feel in a position to process and talk about it more freely.

The fog never fully lifts but most days I let the sun come in. I still smile, laugh and enjoy life. I even spent two months travelling through Africa in a lorry with a group of strangers.

Grief, however unwanted and horrible an experience it was and will continue to be, has taught me a lot of things, but in particular to see life’s bigger picture and to just embrace life. It is so precious.

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