On Grief

Today we farewelled an extraordinary woman, Cher, the mother of one of Emily’s closest friends. She, like many women, battled with the breast cancer scourge, and gave it her best shot. Her life’s celebration was in a light filled room down in St Kilda, by the beach, a place that was so much part of her life.

I’ve written about death previously, it has been something that, professionally, has not been too far away from me. But personally, it has been very close to me, and many friends, family, colleagues. Unfortunately, this is the fourth such celebration of life that we have been to in the last 12 months. Its been a tough time

Hanna and I were talking at the dinner table about how people find it hard to talk about death, feel uncomfortable in their reactions, often not sure what to say or how to react. Sometimes, we shy away from the conversations, just because we don’t know how to start them, or end them. Its an uncomfortable void. Our natural inclination is to solve problems, but this is a problem we can’t solve, because we can’t bring them back. And in the early days, those bereaved have no idea what this means for them. They have not made sense of it. My first experience of being pushed into a room where someone had recently passed from this world to the next was terrifying. I was more scared of this than working in Accident and Emergency. My charge nurse, in response to my fumbling question of “What do I do” said, “Do nothing, just be. Take your cues from the family”

Grief is a normal reaction to losing something that is important to us. We can feel like something is ripped from us, because, in a way it is. People often say, a big part of me is gone, and they feel sadness, disbelief, pain, crankiness, numbness or anger. Sometimes all at once. These are all usual reactions to an abnormal situation. It can affect our sleep, and our moods, and our relationships with people. Sometimes we gravitate towards people who have had the same experience, or who are open to being around us. Sometimes we are disappointed by people with think are good friends/family, who are unable to connect. Some people will draw from their spirituality, others will question it.

Everyone has a different grief experience. In the same way that everyone experiences Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon differently, or rates either Citizen Kane or Porky’s as the greatest movie ever. Some people are open, others are private. Those that are private are grieving no less than those that are open. Grief cannot be forced. There is no agenda or timeline. It’s as John Coltrane said, when Miles Davis asked him why his solos were all so long “Miles, it takes me that long to fit it all in” . It’s a natural reaction

There are many things that we can do to help smooth the rough edges of grief. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement has some good tips. Avoid chucking things out. Create a ritual. DO things you like. Be around people who understand and can reduce the isolation. Be physically active, do stuff that gets a sweat up, its good for the body, and the soul.

What  do i do? Be, as my charge said. Yes, but what does that mean. Connection is the key, this forms the bond between two humans that says you are important to me, and how you are feeling is important, and real, and what you are experiencing is valid. Connection on the physical level, the practical level, the emotional level, the spiritual level.

IT can be really simple. Acknowledging the loss, is a good start. Anything from “ I am sorry for  your loss, or I’m sorry to hear about it, I’m so sad to hear about, or It’s shit innit (which is the one I use a lot, as it’s pretty disarming, and cuts through). I don’t really know what to say to you , but I am here for you” Is there anything I can do for you. “ DO you need some help with something?” “Call me, anytime” If you don’t feel like you can listen, you can always say “Hey, I don’t think I’m going to much help, as I’ve got two left feet when it comes to listening, but is there anything I can do, or get you? Can i pick the kids up, or take them to netball?

Patience is the key. Grief is like Route 31, the Hume Highway  to Sydney, a long haul route. Be around to listen today, tomorrow, in a month, and especially in six months, or when something special like a birthday comes up.

Be like Harry Potter and not afraid to speak the name of they who must not be named for fear of hurting the other. Cher’s brother Greg had a simple message today. “Don’t forget her, don’t stop talking about her, honour her”

And for teenagers, who are going through a whole lot of shit in their lives anyway, what is going to be good for them? There might be a lot of push back, not going to school, fighting, being disruptive, saying no or get fucked. Again, this is pretty normal. Being around their peers is important. They draw a lot of support from them already, as part of growing up. Help them to be safe in that space. Be open and honest, and be available to listen (no that call is not important, or that email). Their conception of the world has changed, and they need reassurance that they can trust someone, and someone is there for them. There are a bunch of risk taking behaviours you need to be aware of, alcohol and drugs, inappropriate sexual activity, law breaking, amongst others. The boundaries for them have changed, and they are butting up against new ones in order to disguise the pain that they are feeling.

Most people do well with the help of family and friends. If someone is struggling, like really struggling to get out of bed, or function at work, gently suggest they might need some extra help. It’s worth then talking to a good GP, one skilled in mental health issues, to help work out next steps.

It’s important to look after yourself, do the things that give you pleasure; kick a footy, walk along a beach, play a guitar, go for coffee, run/swim/ride, as this is the stuff that restocks the tank. And not to feel guilty about it. You can only recover, or help, if you find equilibrium.

For me, tonight, accompanied by Mazzy Star on the stereo, I raise a glass of single malt from the Isle of Skye, the place of my forebears, to Cher, to Dawn, to Heidi, to Kathy. You won’t be forgotten.

4 thoughts on “On Grief

    1. THanks Susan. Yes,its the everyday stuff that happens, that then we can build on for “when the big one comes”


  1. An insightful piece as usual. I have tears. Yep, you’re right John, losing someone is shit. And the ‘new normal’ can take a hell of a lot of getting used to. You also reevaluate a lot of things about your life. So lovely of you to acknowledge those beautiful women who have sadly left the physical world. Their memories and legacies live on.


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