I’ve been thinking about grief a lot recently. When I begin to type ‘Marija Smits’ into my Google search bar one of the suggestions Google comes up with is ‘Marija Smits grief’. Strange. Only it isn’t, I guess, because I’ve written about grief in the past and sometimes I try to search online for my poem on grief, ‘To Death, May He Be Pleased With His Handiwork’ (because Google is faster than me trawling through my folders of poems).
During Baby Loss Awareness Week here in the UK I read some of the moving posts on poet Wendy Pratt’s blog. What really struck me was the way that some of Wendy’s work colleagues simply couldn’t handle speaking to her after she’d lost her baby, and it made me think about how not only is this a communication issue (you could argue too that it’s an issue of empathy) but also an issue of how our society deals with death. Because, basically, it doesn’t.
Nobody wants to have to consider their own mortality, or their parents’ mortality, or – worst of all – their children’s mortality, but it’s something that we all have to do at some point in our lives. What we need are the words to express our fears and our sadness that death happens. We need words to express that we care about someone’s loss. We need to know that it’s okay to grieve.
I remember when I lost my dad at the age of fifteen; sometimes I hated it when people told me they were sorry for my loss. I hated it because it was another concrete reminder that he really was gone and this (although well-meant) phrase had the power to overwhelm me with a grief that threatened to eat me up from the inside out. I also couldn’t cope with the idea of being seen with tears streaming down my face, because crying in public was just one of those things that one DID NOT DO. I had already subconsciously taken on board society’s discomfort with grief. But now, in retrospect, I was glad that people had wanted to reach out and show that they cared.
I didn’t really get a chance to grieve properly because I had to be strong for my mum. I had to keep things together. And so I bundled away my grief and put a brave face on things and simply carried on. But when a person hasn’t had a chance to grieve properly, the grief has a way of manifesting itself in all manner of unhelpful behaviours and, depending on the individual, may lead to all sorts of problems which have to be dealt with in later life: low self-esteem, heavy drinking, drug taking, gambling, depression, OCD, anorexia, physical self-harm, anxiety, fear… in so many ways these things are all, in effect, self-harming and yet, of course, they can cause harm or hurt to others too.
And yet how many of those dealing with loss get a chance to grieve properly? Very few, I should think, because our society simply can’t handle it.
And I’m not talking only about death. How many of us are dealing with other kinds of grief? Grief for a childhood snatched away from us too early; grief for a parent or loved one who absented themselves, or hurt us, for whatever reason, knowingly or unknowingly. Grief for the loss of function in our bodies, be it infertility, the loss of a limb or damage or disability as a result of illness, accident or genetics. Grief for a birth that didn’t go to plan. Grief for the end of a breastfeeding relationship, perhaps curtailed too soon. Grief for the end of child-bearing years. Grief for romantic relationships which became distant or sour or ugly.
And then there is the grief for another kind of loss, a bittersweet kind of loss: loss of our youthful selves, loss of our children’s baby days, toddler years and even school years, loss of friends who have passed out of our lives, loss of the past phases of a current romantic relationship… I could go on.
The key thing is to acknowledge the loss. To grieve. To share your story and feelings about your story with someone absolutely trustworthy. To cry. And it is then that the path to now, and to the future, becomes a real option. It is then that the future holds possibilities – and joy – that can be seized wholeheartedly.
And as an aside, I did want to add that in my own personal experience of grief, loss and how to better communicate my feelings with loved ones I have found the following books useful:
Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief, and Change by Barbara Coloroso
People Skills by Robert Bolton
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron