It has been said that grief is the sudden breakdown of your life as you know it and then the challenge of trying to pick up the myriad of small pieces to be able to put your life back together or at least try. My grief didn’t start on the day of Helen’s death, it was already underway when I knew she was very ill with cancer. Some short-term false hope was offered by a hospital Doctor who told us it was eminently treatable by a hysterectomy, sadly not so. MRI and CT scans stated that it was so advanced it had escaped into the rest of her lymphatic system and across into her lungs. The shock of being told the final diagnosis immobilised me, yes, I was speechless, stunned, angry, who could I blame, who could be held to account. We clung to each other in a hospital corridor. Sod it, why us.
When you tell people, they say they are sorry, why? are they to blame? Reality is that we don’t know what to say to people. I didn’t even know how to tell people, let alone my children. So, the next question is, how long do we have? What treatments will make a difference? Who gets to decide?
Whilst all this is going, on you start to crumble, you cry, you struggle to exist, it’s all oncologists and discussions related to your journey into the dead. Did I handle it well? I don’t know, I made myself busy and very few people could get close, even Helen started to shut down. She cried the day she was told at the hospital and I only ever saw her cry once more. She was a woman with a very strong Christian faith, and she was fully convinced she would die, and her spirit would go to Heaven leaving the rest of us to deal with the discarded body via a ceremony and a disposal, her choice a cremation.
I was primary carer and my paramedic background gave me no preparation and, I am sad to say, I was soon so tired, I just wanted to sleep. Could I have handled it better, probably. Fortunately, the diagnosis to her actual death was 56 days, that is less than 8 weeks, the final three days were in a hospice.
It was only after she had died, did I truly let myself feel, I kept people clear as my broken mind was too intimate to share. I was still me, despite my mental health being shot to pieces, I wasn’t ashamed, I was just totally numb. I spent hours walking my dog trying to make sense of it. I wanted answers, I wanted to understand why, what had we done to deserve this. I briefly considered what it might be like to die and join her. Does that make sense, not if you consider it from the point of my children or my friends or even my dog. Death was not an escape, it was not an option, well not for me. I never took sleeping tablets or went on to antidepressants, I knew the journey ahead was very long, I needed to be fully awake. Not that I slept very well, alcohol suppressed some of the silence. I would cry at music, pictures, memories, I’d even cry at the loneliness and the emptiness of just being on your own. Deep down I was angry.
The funeral was tough, but necessary. I chose to speak, and I allowed anybody to speak who wanted to. Yes, it was in a church, yes it was very full and yes there was singing and a message of Helen’s faith. But it was a celebration of her short life (55 years) and what a joy she was to so many. Did it comfort me, no. But it wasn’t about me.
So, is my ongoing, but fading grief a temporary mental health condition, is it a form of depression. Do you know? Well I don’t care, I don’t want to know. It just crushed me for a season. How long was my season, is it over yet? Well I am scared, but no longer crushed, am I sad? Well sometimes, am I over it? I don’t know, what am I getting over? Please don’t tell me its early days, how would you know. Most of you haven’t trodden my path and even if you have experienced something similar, maybe you had it worse than me or maybe it had less impact. Don’t try to fix me, just be my friend, listen to me if I want to talk, laugh with me if I am laughing, don’t tread on egg shells near me, they are small fragments of me, its ok.
There is a sacredness in my tears, a silent language of grief and no pain is a great as the memory of joy in the present. I have three chairs in my life, I put them in a row. One represents the past, one is the present and one is the future. Did you know how uncomfortable it is to try to sit on two chairs at the same time. In the early days of grief, the present is too much so you sit in the past. Practically, you must switch to the present and then go back again for memories, tears and the experience of personal loss and pain. Funnily enough I can only measure the pain in the present. I avoided the future for a season (whatever that season is for you) and now I have spent a lot more time in the future planning a new season. I still have all three chairs, I will never get rid of them, they are part of my past, my present and a new hope in my future. My faith sustains me, it is stronger than ever.
I am not ashamed of my story, I hope it inspires you and gives you hope for your future.
Bob Fellows FCPara
Head of Education, College of Paramedics