Last night I had a dream, or maybe a nightmare. I was in a ballet class in a church hall, learning all kinds of complicated and not-really-ballet dance sequences. The class was busy, we were all in clumsy rows. We were a diverse group of dancers in our everyday clothes. It was the same church hall I did most of my ballet classes in when I was younger, with lots of wood panelling, and stacked plastic chairs in place of a barre. The left side of the hall was a folding wall painted pale green. One of the folds was open into the side room, to allow latecomers and visitors in and out of the room. Lots of people were coming and going through the door.
During a particularly tricky piece of choreography, I absent-mindedly looked over to the side door and saw my mum standing in the doorway, watching and smiling. I hurried through the pack of dancers to get to her, but she turned and walked away, exiting the side room door into the carpark. I chased her, and called out to her, “Mummy!” She turned around smiling at me, standing there in the car park. I went to give her a hug, there was nothing more that I wanted in the world than to just give her a hug. But before I could get to her, she put her hands up and gestured for me to stay away. “You’re all sweaty. It’s not good for me. Not right now.”
I woke up shocked with a lump in my throat. It’s been fourteen months since my mum died. Eighteen months since my grandmother, my mother’s mother, died. I’d never lost anyone so close to me before, let alone our family’s two local matriarchs in the space of four months. Two women who loved, supported, and encouraged us, non-stop from our births to their deaths. Sometimes in their own peculiar ways, but always fiercely.
The grief of bereavement surprised me. It wasn’t like it was in books or on TV. I’m a tearful kind of person, but I didn’t cry all the time, or even very often. I mostly felt strange and a bit empty. Sometimes the painfulness hits me in a sudden wave, the overwhelming feeling of how much I miss them, and I sob until my pillow is wet. I bawled in a café on my birthday because what was the point of a birthday when I couldn’t share it with the person who gave birth to me?
Still, distraction is the strongest effect grief has had on me. It has gotten better over time, but I had long periods of struggling to focus on anything at all. Firstly months, then the odd week, now the odd day. Previous traumatic events have seen me plow everything into my work, but now I just couldn’t. My mind wouldn’t settle, it felt soft and cloudy. My short-term memory stopped functioning so well. My mind wasn’t always hurting, but it wasn’t doing much else either. But I was fidgety. I didn’t want to sit around feeling weird so I started knitting a lot. My mum taught me how to knit a few months earlier, and we’d bought a bear pattern together. In just over a week, Stanley was created.
As time goes by, the tearful moments have become less, but I’m often shaken. Throughout 2015 and 2016, I’ve had days of sudden drops in mood, going back to feeling distracted and odd. I didn’t realise until fairly recently that those drops weren’t always random turns. Sadly, 2016 has been noticeably full of high-profile deaths. Somebody I can’t remember wrote a kind tweet advising all to take care of their friends during those times; the massive coverage and shared emotional distress can affect those who have experienced loss themselves. I’ve always tried to be empathetic to triggering, but I’d never experienced anything like it myself. I was being triggered by the news; other people’s sad experiences were making me feel those feelings all over again. It can seem a bit selfish to have to take care of myself when others are suffering more recent pain, but it’s hard to tell my biology to behave selflessly.
As the weepy incidents lessen, remembering my mum and granny becomes less about suddenly remembering they’re not there, and more remembering the fun and silly stuff. With two strong personalities like them, the missing holes are very big, but the memories are all the more enjoyable. The family knows exactly what both of them would say about any given situation and can parrot it to each other convincingly. We’ll always miss them, just hopefully less painfully.
I’m never really sure what to say when people ask about my bereavements, how I’m feeling, or even how I’ve been recently. Knowing is hard and dwelling on the matter isn’t much fun either. Everybody will inevitably experience the loss of someone very close to them in the course of their lifetime. It’s probably a more horrible realisation than realising we ourselves are going to die. But like many other mental health-related issues, it’s normal. Because of that I’m sorry I don’t have any useful advice or uplifting wisdom as part of #geekmentalhelp week. I’m not a professional. And sometimes all the rest of us can do is share what hurts.