By Mollie Campbell
This article is an account of some of my experiences with grief, the way in which the world navigates through the waters surrounding grief and how it impacts us.
In the 21st century, from a young age, children are told that they can be whoever they want to be. We encourage individuality, freedom, uniqueness, a world without stereotyping, yet the second the conversation grazes over the topic of grief it is like everybody who hasn’t been through it instantly goes into a conditioned, deprecating, rehearsed spiel on how there are ‘5 stages of grief’ and ‘do this to move on’, ‘move forward’, ‘heal’…as if we are supposed to all react in the exact same, structured way, stomping all over that garbage they said before about being individualistic.
People tell you it will hit in stages, that is technically true, but ‘experts’ lead people to believe that it always works that way. Grief isn’t as structured as that, in fact grief isn’t structured at all, it is a mess. A great big sloppy mess, it’s like walking on a tightrope. You try and try with all of your might to stay on that rope, curling and tensing your toes to keep yourself from falling. Others may make it to the other side, but they still feel the soreness on their feet, they cannot escape this. Others may fall, one tiny wrong move and the balance is gone. This is the only way I can think to describe grief; it attacks you out of nowhere. You might be doing ‘ok’ and then one day, a word someone says, a song you hear, a memory that gives you goose bumps has the power to bring this immense pain back so harshly and abruptly, it feels like your body is tearing in two.
But this also just shows us that there isn’t one set way to grieve, everybody is different, there isn’t a textbook telling us exactly how to feel and what to do. So why should we all be expected to react in the same way? Another big factor is the way other people react to it, they don’t know what to say which is fair enough but sometimes it is better to be there silently than to give advice on something they don’t have experience with. When I was 7, I lost my father to Cancer. And the things people said to me over the years were just absurd, I mean, you wouldn’t even think to say this stuff to an adult, let alone a child.
‘At least you were a child’ they would say.
‘Oh but at least you don’t remember anything that traumatic, you were only 7 right?’.
And my personal favourite, a teacher who said: ‘It has been five years now Mollie, it’s time to get over it a bit’. I was 12, 12….! I often wondered if these people heard those words escaping their lips with ease, void of any sincere compassion or emotion. Preaching something they had zero knowledge on, thinking it is better to spurt out information than to accept the simple fact that I was in pain, what they didn’t realise is that it was ok to be in pain. I just felt like screaming at them that I remembered it all, all of the hospital appointments, I watched him have chemotherapy, watched his hair fall from his head, watched his eyes roll back as he was having a fit, saw him in intensive care, and I stood there and watched as he took his final breath. I was 7, but I was there for it all, and I remember every single second, in fact, I will never be able to escape those moments in my head, even if I tried.
Some people compared my father dying to their parents splitting up, I felt true empathy and understood it would be a heart-breaking thing to see your family split in two, but they could never quite grasp that I meant death. At least they would see both of their parents again; I would never see my father again. Die, that word. So short, the time it takes you to say it is the time it could possibly take for someone to die, how ridiculously fleeting is that. You’d expect it to be some sort of long intricate word at least then that would be an attempt at matching the feelings we feel when somebody dies. How can somebody that means so much to you be gone in a matter of moments?
The biggest impact of stereotyping grief and the way in which we do it, is people thinking that they are ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’ for not reacting in the same way as other people. If we think we have to adhere to some unwritten rule about how to grieve, subconsciously we will think that we are somehow doing it wrong, but how could you possibly grieve incorrectly? I think because death is one of the most certain and inevitable things in life, it makes people uncomfortable knowing that they can’t avoid it, and nobody really understands what happens when we die, it is a segment of the unknown. Humanity doesn’t deal with the unknown very well, we have to see things laid out clearly in front of us, if we have a lack of understanding on the subject, we try mercilessly to come up with some systematic method of labelling it, in order to fear it less. So the stages of grief thing is a natural reaction to not understanding grief, I get it, but we shouldn’t be preaching it to people who are grieving, because it is a system created by one brain, and all of our brains are so different.
It also really prompts people to completely underestimate the sheer extent of grief…the pain doesn’t magically disappear after those 5 stages. The stages are just the beginning, grief essentially stays with us forever…I can’t speak for everyone because as I keep reiterating, everybody is different. But in my case, grief has been a part of my life since I was seven years old, and I know it will always be a part of me. And the hardest part is accepting the fact that it will never truly be gone, that is what happens when a piece of you dies with your loved one. You can stitch your heart back up again, but it will never truly fit together in the same way it did before. Learning to live and feel in a new way, one where the love we feel isn’t being absorbed by the one we have lost, is the most difficult part of it all.
Everybody uses their own coping strategies, and everybody’s journey is different. For anybody out there who is suffering a recent loss, as cliché as it sounds, it truly does get better. It never goes away, but you will learn to live with it, things will never be the same as they were before but that initial rawness and pain will start to feel less intense, and in time you will be able to have a memory of your loved one without the beauty of it being tarnished by pain.