It feels really difficult to know what to write or how to start this blog post. A part of me wants to shut my laptop and not deal, leaving me thinking that perhaps I am not ready. Yet, another part of me wants to reach out in the hope that I can connect with others who are facing loss during this difficult time.
My mother sadly passed away on Tuesday 24th March, after a tough year battling Chronic Kidney Disease and Dementia. I realise now that no matter how much you think you are prepared for the passing of a loved one suffering from a terminal illness, you can never be prepared when the time comes. I am grateful for the time I had with her during her last days, especially at the start of the lockdown where families were not allowed to visit loved ones in care homes, to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Whilst I fully appreciate that there is no standard template for dealing with grief, I am acutely aware of how the current lockdown situation has tampered with the usual protocols of bereavement. My siblings and I mourned separately in our individual homes. There were no relatives or friends visiting to offer their condolences and pay their respects. Three weeks after my mum’s passing, funeral plans remain on hold until the end of the lockdown. Sadly, it feels like my mum’s passing has been greatly overshadowed by Coronavirus, like we have had to park our loss for now and face the crisis happening. So I have carried on with life, with doing and staying safe. Every day I catch myself staring at her picture, perhaps to remind myself of the painful albeit unreal truth that she really is gone.
I actually thought I was doing okay, under the circumstances. After a short bereavement leave, I went back to work, grateful for a huge workload and deadlines to keep me distracted and feeling useful, in addition to the new challenges of homeschooling and free time for family recreation. I thought I was coping rather well with my grief. Until my experience last week Thursday at 2 am. I was jolted out of my sleep by my heart racing at 150 bpm whilst I struggled to breathe. After paramedics turned up at my home and checked my vitals, ECG, blood pressure, temperature, signs of stroke, I was asked if I had experienced any unusual or recent events which may have triggered my heart rate – aside from the pandemic which of course could well be a contributing factor. The conclusion was a likely anxiety attack brought on by the loss of my mum. Whilst a full medical checkup is pending post lockdown, it makes sense that what I experienced was grief induced. Since then my resting heart rate is back to normal but an underlying feeling of anxiety and foreboding comes now and again especially when I am idle, quiet or resting.
So, hello grief. Welcome… And thank you for making your presence known…
It’s not like I have consciously erected an internal emotional dam to restrict tears flooding. I have cried and shed many tears, but I am not inconsolable. I am deeply saddened by the realisation that I will never see my mum again on this side of life. I will never see her face light up when she sees me, followed by her signature “Hello, how are you”. I will never hear her pay one of her usual compliments, or hear her ask the question “have you eaten?”. Realisations like these leave me sad, even anxious but there is no dam threatening to break forth and engulf me. Then the guilt comes. Why am I not more heartbroken? Unable to function. Am I blocking or avoiding? Or do I not care enough?
Grief is such a complex emotion. It differs for everyone and in every loss experience. And although I know this, there is a part of me that wants to oblige and conform to what should be the “normal” response to losing a loved one.
People often talk about the Stages of Grief like it is a must feel, must experience response:
Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
It would be nice to navigate grief in a tidy, sequential order, but the reality is that it will look and feel different for everyone and may not resemble any of the above. I am most grateful for the opportunity to have been by mum’s side when she passed on. When it dawned on me that she had taken her last breath, I did experience moments of denial, not wanting to believe or accept that she was gone, crying and screaming for my mum to come back. I certainly do not recall feeling the other three stages, I knew why it had happened and I wasn’t angry. Perhaps I bypassed those stages and accelerated to Acceptance. I recall finally pulling myself together and feeling at peace as I held her. She was finally at peace and no longer in pain. She was now on the other side of eternity and with her maker.
So it’s rather interesting that three weeks after, I am experiencing anxiety attacks at what looks like the end stages of grief. Was it real acceptance then? Who knows.. That’s the thing about grief, it is highly unpredictable, we shouldn’t control it or try to fit it into a neat box. In fact, the more I want to control it, the more likely it is that healing is prevented or deferred. At this stage, all I can do is ride the waves of emotions as they come. Maybe my grief is actually on pause, until reality hits when I am faced with funeral plans and burial arrangements. Maybe or maybe not..
Until then, it seems all I can do is acknowledge my pain when it shows up, or acknowledge the lack of it. My anxiety attack experience has certainly taught me that grief can trigger different emotions and reactions. I can’t pick and choose, but I can try and explore what each response could possibly mean. In my early forties, I am navigating life without parents, as we lost my dad in 2016. I am suddenly more aware of my own mortality, heightened by present day pandemic of course. Is my house in order? Is my will in place? Am I living my life in accordance with my faith, my beliefs and my values? Am I chasing after the right things? Am I prioritising my loved ones and my relationships?
Writing this blog post has actually been very cathartic, as it allowed me to process my feelings in a focused and unhindered way, without disruption to my thoughts. At other times, it has been helpful to talk to loved ones who have been supportive and attentive. It’s helped to be especially open with those I trust to allow me the space to be myself and not have to pretend, mask or amplify my feelings. Sounds weird to say, but after tonnes of phone calls and questions about “how am I coping” I found myself repeating words that felt incongruent and rehearsed. If someone asks me how I am, is it right to say “I am okay” or “I am fine”? Should I be okay? Am I really okay though? And is it okay to not want to answer more phone calls? Maybe I would just like to watch a comedy and laugh so hard until my stomach ached. Or lie in bed until 2 pm, emerging only for a quick snack and straight back under my duvet. After all, isn’t self-care to be cognizant of my emotional needs by taking care of myself physically. Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself saying these words, “I am deeply sad, but I am not crushed”. I sense this is my emotional thermometer helping me distinguish between grief induced sadness and depression. I am able to function, to find joy and laughter in the midst of pain and sorrow. However, I am mindful that it is far worse for many during this pandemic, in the face of sudden and unexpected deaths of loved ones. That is pain far beyond my own experience or what I could even begin to imagine. My thoughts are with those experiencing such devastating loss. I hope and pray they find solace, strength and support to navigate their grief and find healing in due course.