Death is a difficult topic to talk about; because if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen, right? You can’t tempt fate and talk about the one thing you dread the most. The finality that comes with death is likely the cause of people’s desire to not speak about it. Who really wants to imagine a life without someone they love? When I imagine what my life would be like if something were to happen to my son… it just isn’t possible.
By the age of 21, I think I had dealt with more death than most people. My first experience came when I was my son’s age. I was eight. My parents had a friend that I referred to as uncle. He was always such a kind and gentle soul. I didn’t know at the time that he was sick. He’d lost both legs to gangrene and when he passed away, I didn’t really understand the gravity of what death meant. I knew it wasn’t good, but comprehending not seeing someone I saw often was foreign to me. Naturally, I cried. A lot. Then my younger sister laughed at me and I felt like grieving and being vulnerable was something that I should be ashamed of. I never cried in front of her again – if I could help it.
My next personal experience came with the death of my cousin when I was 16. I can remember exactly where I was when the call came to say he’d passed away and how it felt like the floor had given way and I’d fallen through it. He would come from Melbourne to visit for a weekend, sometimes longer and we would hang out. He introduced me to Dragon (April Sun…love it!), taught me how to play billiards properly and even killed a brown snake on our verandah with a pool cue before it was able to attack my younger brother.
I didn’t sleep well when we heard that he’d passed away. I didn’t know how to process it properly. He’d said he was coming up to visit and I’d intended to introduce him to a friend of mine I thought he’d really like. It never happened. I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral, something I think I needed. Funerals aren’t always pleasant experiences to attend, but there’s a sense of closure that comes with being able to formally say goodbye to someone. For weeks and months after his death, I expected him to walk through the door. I expected him to have a game of billiards with me and pretend to lose so he could give me the loose change in his pockets as payment.
My way of trying to deal with his death was to research epilepsy and the seizure that, ultimately, claimed his life. I think it was my way of punishing myself for not having been able to help him; though that was not something I would ever have been able to do.
Knowing how and where he passed away is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I just wish I could have been there to hold his hand.
One of the worst experiences I have had with loss is with one of my brothers. I remember everything about the day and the days following. My brother wasn’t without his issues; he’d struggled through a lot in life. My brother, like my cousin, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was young. He hated being different to the rest of his siblings. Ultimately, he turned to drugs and alcohol and he became alienated from his family; a lot of which happened before I had the awareness to know anything was wrong – I just thought he didn’t visit much because he was busy.
I remember going to my mother’s after work one day and seeing a lot of cars in her driveway which isn’t unusual. When I went to walk inside, my father told me to prepare myself. I thought I was going to find out that one of their new puppies had died. If only.
I saw everyone sitting around a table visibly upset. My mother was on the phone. She was upset. I didn’t need to hear the words to know what had happened. I had just turned 21. I had heard enough to know that my brother was mixed up in some bad stuff. When my mother uttered the words and told me what had ultimately happened, I think I went into shock. I’d just been told one of my brothers was gone. I’d never see him again. Never talk to him again. Never get a chance to help him. Ever!
It wasn’t until I had to call my boss and tell her that I wouldn’t be in and why that I broke. Having someone tell you that your sibling has died is one thing. Having to say the words… is heartbreaking.
I went with my parents the next day. My mother had to do what no mother wants to do… she had to formally identify his body. It was a two and a half hour trip. I cried silent tears the whole way there. We sat in a room as the coroner explained to my parents what had happened and what to prepare themselves for. Having not been to my cousin’s funeral and being able to have the closure, I told my mother I wanted to come with her for the identification. Why, you ask? I ask myself that now. I had a romanticised view of what he would look like; I’d watched plenty of movies. I had this.
I did not.
What I saw will stick with me for the rest of my life. It is NOT something I would ever wish on anyone. The person I saw was not the person I knew. It broke me. My heart shattered that day and I don’t think I will ever get a part of it back. I don’t remember my mother’s reaction. I just remember not being able to look away; yet tears stained my face and stung my eyes.
The next day I sat and listened to people who spent time with him, who saw him, who knew him seemingly better than I ever had. They spoke of an amazing man. Someone who was getting his life on track (he was studying to become a social worker and he would have been amazing at it!). He got some bad news and it made him make a silly mistake which cost him the biggest price of all. His life.
His funeral was a blur. I remember going. I remember sitting. What I don’t remember… was crying. I didn’t cry at my own brother’s funeral. I didn’t cry when they buried my brother. I didn’t feel anything at his wake. I just wanted to be alone.
Retreating into myself was my way of dealing with his death. I internalised everything. I didn’t want, or need, anyone close to me. I went back to work and tried to pretend like nothing happened. I compartmentalised it. I couldn’t deal with it then, I would deal with it later. Truth be told. I didn’t.
Again, I researched the way he died. I punished myself with facts. I avoided the very thing that took him from me because I just couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for him. I would sit, in the quiet, and think of all the people I had allowed myself to care for. Coming from a large family, you have many branches of people that you have no choice but to love. Allowing myself to care for people that fell outside of those people, felt irresponsible and foolish. I was setting myself up for this feeling so many times more that I just couldn’t fathom it. I pushed a lot of people away. I stopped calling. Stopped visiting. Stopped living.
And just when I thought that I was slowly coming to terms with his death, came a day I wish never would have. I was sitting on the computer at my parent’s house when my father walked into the room and, just the way he said my mother’s name, made me turn to look at him. The phone had rung. Someone had just told him that my 3 year old nephew had passed away. And so, my view on cutting out all the non-essential people in my life was cemented.
So too was my lack of belief in the existence of any higher power. If there was someone up there looking down on me, they couldn’t possibly have wanted to do this to my family. It was too much.
I flew to Queensland to mourn my nephew. Seeing my brother and his wife for the first time broke my heart. I didn’t know what to say. I felt awkward and out of place. The funeral was awful; caskets should never, ever be that little. Watching people you care for hurting so badly is probably one of the hardest, most painful things you can see. There’s nothing you can do to help.
The next twelve months were a blur of nothingness and being someone I don’t recognise. I again compartmentalised my feelings. And myself. I retreated and withdrew from life. I didn’t want to talk about it, not to anyone.
The point of rehashing all this sadness? There isn’t any one way to grieve. There isn’t one way that is better than the other. There are, likely, those stages of anger, denial and non-acceptance that everyone goes through; at least on some level. But applying a ‘one-fits-all’ bandaid to your pain? I just don’t think it’s possible.
My only advice would be to listen to yourself. A lot of people will have a lot of advice; much like when you have a baby. You know yourself and what you need. If you need to wallow in the pain, do that. Just don’t live there for too long. I can almost guarantee that your loved one would want you to remember them, not lose yourself in their loss. The people around you don’t want to lose two people they care about.
In times of immense sadness, especially for someone they care about, people tend to want to ‘do’ for them. Let them. There is no shame in accepting a meal or two to save you from having to consider what you’re going to cook for the family or yourself when all you want to do is curl up in a ball. The less things you have to consider as you deal with what feels like irreparable pain is good for you. Accepting help is not weakness. It’s amazing strength. Acceptance of the things we cannot do is hard; it is also necessary if you are to navigate this sadness with your sanity in tact.
People are going to visit and not know what to say. They’ll take their lead from you. There is no shame in telling people you need to be by yourself or with your loved ones. Sometimes the hardest part of dealing with loss is not knowing what to say to those who want to comfort you the most.
To quote a somewhat famous children’s movie, Frozen, “conceal, don’t feel” won’t work. Trust me, I tried it. The end result for me was a world of hurt later in life.
A single mum who devotes her life to her son. Kate is an inspiration to everyone who has been through tough times. Her insightful writing explores her own deep inner struggles that many women can relate to. She is courageous and hopes that her writing can help other women break through the barriers that hold us back, through her personal life stories.