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Four years ago, not long after the passing away of my father, I wrote a piece called Talking to a Grieving Friend: the Dos and Don’ts. I wanted to give an insight into what it feels like to deal with the aftermath of loss, to signal to the outside world that I’m a little bit lost, and how much their support matters.
Writing about grief for the first time made me realise how many imagined barriers our society has put up around mourning, making it a taboo and an even lonelier process than it already is.
I was surprised by how grateful my friends were for the cues I had given them on navigating grief as a secondary supporter in someone else’s personal tragedy. Not only was I lost in all of this, but they were, too. Deciding to open up about my experience created an unexpected bond with people from all areas of my life, a bond I still hold onto.
More than four years have passed, and my grief hasn’t magically disappeared. It feels different, though — harder to define, less overwhelming, more abstract, yet in some respects, still the same. In an attempt to put my finger on its contradictions, I wrote down some of the inconsistencies and feelings of this new kind of grief I’m going through, with the hope that others might relate or find solace in peeking into someone else’s process.
Grief, Four Years Later
Lack. I’m finding it easier to accept that my dad will never be present at ‘big life events,’ but the fact that he doesn’t know about the little things — now that’s a harder one. The distance between the me that he knew — the barely 22-year-old Zsofi, just finishing uni — and the me today is relentlessly growing, and the gaps are harder to fill in. My teenage years – when my memories of him are most vivid – are becoming less integral to my identity. With that, I’m scared that his memory will fade, that his relevance to everything is diminishing into one phase of my life out of the many.
Intensity. But then again, his memory comes alive in the most unpredictable of times, reminding me that all of this, all of him, will never really go away. Rapid, all-encompassing, periodic, and random — these are the words that best describe the return of the intense grief I felt in the early days. Whether crying uncontrollably at a Madison Cunningham concert or at work in the toilet on an ordinary day (and never on an actual anniversary), grief now comes in waves — less frequent but no less painful. And by painful, I mean that my chest and my heart are about to explode, and there’s a fist in my throat, and all I want to do is scream.
Presence. And then, there are the happy moments when, for a microsecond, I forget that he no longer exists, typing his name in my phone for a call on the way home after a long day or thinking of what Christmas present he would like. Waking up on a summer morning in my childhood home, in the moments before full consciousness hits, thinking he is downstairs in his big old office chair, smoking a cigar, like he always did. They allow a part of me to hold onto the idea that maybe, just maybe, he hasn’t left after all.
Time. Our imagined closeness is in contrast with all the things he no longer knows about me and about the state of the World. To quote the Guardian’s Owen Jones, who wrote about losing his father five years ago: “Now, with every passing year, he becomes more of a historical persona, something belonging to the past, predating the sorts of grand upheavals that he would have yearned to discuss, like the pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine” – and the list of inexplicable events keeps growing. But for me, it’s perhaps even scarier to think that he doesn’t know my MA title or about starting Lazy Women, moving countries again, the name of my partner, or the various office jobs I gave a go in this short period of time. One of the last times we talked, he wanted me to know how proud he was of how far I’d come, but it feels like I was really nowhere at all. It breaks my heart to think he had to give me such a big advance.
Secrets. Part of losing a parent young is that there are so many things you didn’t get the chance to ask or find out about this person who had such a vast life, more than your part in it. As a teenager, I was less interested in our family history, ancestors, or my parents’ paths before I was born. Today I am bursting with questions: about my father, his childhood, his identity, his addictions, his past lives, his dreams, and his parents (my grandparents!), whom he never even showed me a picture of. I know I could get these answers in other ways, but I will never get his personal interpretation, which is what made it interesting and worthwhile in the first place.
Grief Comparison. Okay, this is a hard one. As the years pass, my experience of losing a parent is becoming more and more universal among my peers. I thought going through this ‘first’ would make me better at reacting to other people’s difficulties or losses, but I’m still totally lost for words most of the time. Because no grief or life experience is the same, it’s sometimes impossible to draw comparisons. And even if it is, I don’t want to make anyone feel as if their experience isn’t the only thing that matters right now. That’s my rational, grown-up, compassionate self. Then the other, childish, hurting self is thinking: ‘Well, at least she had 28 years with them, I only had 22’, ‘Her mum died from old age, lucky,’ before I adjust my brain to what’s acceptable to think, feel, and say out loud.
Distancing. In these sorts of grief-sharing experiences, I noticed myself sometimes shutting down and coming across as cold or distant. It’s not because I’m heartless, but because I’m not ready to let the pain in, to get a glimpse of it so soon again. I am not yet capable of unleashing my full empathy without first needing to remember what it actually feels like to see your loved one die, and that is still too much, too heavy, too real. It opens the wound I’ve only recently started to heal. In situations when people start telling detailed stories of the long illness of a loved one, I often have acute PTSD, flashing images of my own unrelated, yet still similar, memories. Recently I’ve gathered up the courage and confidence to ask friends, as respectfully as possible, to take the discussion somewhere else with someone who is more ready to take it in. I think this is crucial and part of drawing your ‘grief boundaries.’
From these distinct feelings and forms of grief I’m currently experiencing, I do think there are some universal takeaways that we can turn into practical tips for dealing with long-term grief:
- Let go of what grief ‘should’ look like, even the textbook explanation of the ‘5 stages of grief’. While it may be helpful for some to analyse it through this framework, the truth is that grief is never a linear process of progression, it’s more like a rollercoaster of emotions where the bumps get less frequent with time.
- Allow yourself some grief rituals. Make space to be alone for crying, writing, and even moments of seemingly pointless indulgence in nostalgia for the past. Don’t be afraid to express, feel, and explore the depths of your sadness.
- Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about not ‘having moved on’ fast enough or falling back. As cliché as it sounds, you can only move through this grief with the help of kindness and self-acceptance.
- Make your own ‘grief boundaries‘ and don’t be afraid to communicate them to your friends. For me, it’s detailed descriptions of someone else’s illness; for you, it might be something totally different. Think about what your triggers are, write them down, and be mindful of the fact that these can change or ease over time. But for now, these are your no-gos to get through the day, and that is totally fine.
- Find a friend who understands. You may find it helpful to connect with someone who has experienced something really similar — someone you don’t need to explain yourself to. You will feel understood by that person without even talking about the origins of your bond.
Finally, my wish for all of you out there, fellow grieving friends, is that you connect with people who make you feel loved, heard, understood, and reminded of the richness of your life in the present. Who don’t reinforce that aching black hole in your stomach where your lost loved one resides but make you feel full as you are, even when you feel like you’re flawed forever. People with whom mutual compassion and empathy don’t feel like a forceful exercise of societal norms, who will accept you and sometimes even carry you while you navigate the complexities of grief.