I’ve learned that you can't cheat grief, it’s not a negotiation or an item on your To Do List - you are not in control of it, it is in control of you.
We're so used to putting things off and compartmelizing our emotions, pushing through to meet deadlines and convincing ourselves there’s no time to attend to this or that crisis but grief has a very small container and sooner or later it all overflows and comes apart.
It doesn't even make sense to fight it so hard, intellectually and mentally we know better but mentally and emotionally it's a weight we don’t always have the strength to carry. Vital to surviving the many bouts of Grief that come and go has been learning to find grace and self-compassion in my avoidance of grieving and in my struggle to even admit that what I am experiencing is grief. I foolishly thought I had a handle on it but I didn’t and still don’t and that's okay.
The Initial Shock
3 years ago, the month of April would be forever changed for me and up until Easter Monday of that year, I had no idea. I remember my brother calling me that evening to tell me our mother had been rushed to the hospital, he explained what happened and I acknowledged the news. I then went back to watching my shows and scrolling through my social media. The next day around lunch time at work the information registered all of a sudden and I had a panic attack because what the hell did that mean?! The last time I’d been told someone was in hospital it was my father 5 years prior and he eventually passed on while at the hospital.
All of a sudden all this buried trauma and grief that I’d shelved away came rushing out and the reality that my mother might die occured to me for the first time in my life.
Mothers don’t die. I was 26, my brother was 27 and my sister was 19. We had already lost our father and were only just then getting used to that new normal.
What do you mean my mother could die? What happens when your parents are both dead? Who do I become? Who do we become as a family? I became so hysterical I had to leave work and my poor Uber driver didn’t know what to do or say with a weepy mess of a passenger trying to explain the correct off ramp through breathlessness, snot and tears.
On the morning of her passing, Friday the 13th of April 2018, I remember waking up early and praying. I felt comforted and re-assured after, not knowing that hours later the worst would indeed happen and whatever world I had lived in before then would be gone forever. It’s honestly something you can never comprehend until it happens to you. My life is now divided in two, everything that happened before my mother passed and everything that’s happened after. It sounds silly now but I didn’t expect that - I wasn’t prepared for how my entire concept of life, the universe, purpose, family and love would change. But how could it not? This major irrevocable thing had happened, of course things would be different.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of the 5 stages of Grief, recently there’s been an update to 7 stages, namely: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/grief/the-7-stages-of-grief-and-how-they-affect-you/
1. Shock and Denial
2. Pain and Guilt
3. Anger and Bargaining
4. Depression, Reflection and Loneliness
5. The Upward Turn
6. Reconstruction and Working Through
7. Acceptance and Hope
These stages will not apply to everyone, grief is always a deeply personal experience. Mental health and spiritual advisors around the world can describe what it looks like and prescribe how to deal with it but it will always be different for every individual. I find that both reassuring and frustrating.
The part of me that finds comfort in order likes looking at this list and trusting that if I go through each phase, I can tick it off and that means I’m done, that I’ve transcended it somehow but of course it’s deeply frustrating because that’s just not how it works.
The stages of grief whether 5 or 7 don’t necessarily follow this order or any particular time frame. I know that years from now when I have children or reach other milestones I’ll be angry and hurt all over again that my parents are not here to see it. That there will always be moments of pride and empowerment because now in the absence of parental figures, I’m a ‘grown up’ and have become my own person in a way I don’t think would’ve been possible if my parents were still alive.
The most upsetting aspect for me is that the shock has ebbed and flowed over the years but it’s never really gone away. There are still random days when I catch a whiff of Clinique Aromatics on a lady in the street or hear someone with a raspy laugh that sounds like my father and my instinct is to call them because I miss them. There’s still minutes of delay between thinking I can just call them up and realising I can’t, remembering why I can’t and feeling the bitter loneliness and hopelessness of it all over again.
I still have days where I wake up in tears bargaining with God and the universe to give me a glimpse of something! A message, a sign of lord knows what because it’s just too much to accept that they’re really gone and accepting it feels like somehow surrendering their meaning. That finally letting go would erase everything about them and our lives together. Of course that’s not true and on the good days I know that but on the bad days it’s infuriating that the world is just going on normally. That when I’m curled up in despair on a Tuesday afternoon, other people are in their offices and out at the beach with their friends enjoying the sunset because unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop just because your world has been destroyed.
The Role of Family and Community in Grieving
I was in a deep depression when my father passed away in 2013. Between that depression and the grief of his passing I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember much from that time but I always remind myself that his whole life and our relationship was bigger than his final days and what I do or don’t remember about them.
The one enduring memory is our house filled up with my mother’s family and friends telling stories about them, reminiscing about their childhoods and having a weird reunion amidst the grief and chaos. It’s funny how these days funerals and weddings are some of the only times a whole family is together in one space. I felt so comforted for my mother and for us having them there with their loud laughter and busyness about the house.
There’s a lot to be said about community and sometimes it can be overwhelming but in those moments, I saw so clearly why grief isn’t only about us as individuals and why it’s rarely a case of just being sad. There are many other players and emotions present and we are better off making space for everything and everyone that comes up during that time and after.
I’m eternally grateful to my extended family and our neighbourhood for the way they rallied around us, took care of us and constantly re-assured us that we weren’t alone in our grief and in our process of moving forward. I have an appreciation for them now that I didn’t have before and as I get older I try much harder to be present in those times of difficulty for the people around me because I know how important that was for me in finding my way to cope and live fully again.
My most precious takeaway from that is remembering all the people that pulled me aside to tell me the wonderful things my parents had done and meant to them - their kindness, generosity and their spirits of joy and community. I will always be proud that they were celebrated in their deaths the way that they lived, with sincerity and cheerfulness.
Back To Reality
After what felt like a never ending loop of funeral arrangements, making food, greeting people, singing hymns, policy paperwork, accepting condolences and living in this death bubble I had to return to my life and my job in Cape Town. I was relieved for the break away and also expected that the moment I arrived in Cape Town something would click, that I could leave some of the unpleasant bits of this new reality back home in Mthatha.
That first week in my familiar bed, walking the familiar streets far away from pitiful eyes and the harsh sunny days and cold nights of the Eastern Cape, I felt like I could breathe again. For a few days I even enjoyed being at work doing menial tasks, catching up on client queries and planning the following weeks.
The breakdown came days later at the UNISA Parow offices. By then I was stably numbed out, I was back in therapy feeling proactive and on top of everything. No more active stressing about following up with insurance companies and other admin, also the relief of not being in the same house without my mother there provided some respite from feeling the gaping and vacuous space her absence had left.
Being home in those weeks felt like I was constantly teetering on the edge of a black hole and at any second I would be sucked in and lost in time, but every day I managed to make it to the night and before I knew it was another day and another one after that.
So I had to apply to divert my modules and payments from 1st semester to the next one, everything had happened shortly before coursework was to begin. I was prepared with all the relevant documents in a neat red folder, freshly printed and photocopied but the man at the help desk wasn't quite hearing me on exactly why they should just move everything. I was annoyed he hadn't read the notes literally attached to my academic script and admin forms. Finally he went through them and pulled out my mother's death certificate, he looked up at me with understanding, pitiful eyes and my knees buckled.
I became overwhelmed with the fact that now every time someone said my mother's name, every time I went into an office, every time I left the house I had to have a rehearsed plea or apology for having been M.I.A for the past 3 months. I would have to pull out a piece of paper that said she was dead. I would have to continuously reduce this crazy, earth shaking thing that's just happened by showing someone a piece of paper and they would sigh and look up and I would feel like it just happened all over again. That here is hard confirmation of this thing that I’m still very much grappling with. I ran outside and sat by the parking lot and cried so openly and so loudly that I could feel the shock and discomfort of everyone around me but I didn’t care. I cried until there was no sound coming out of my mouth, no more tears and no more shaking. I had wrung out every molecule of moisture and emotion in my body and left it in the air of that parking lot.
Looking back it was so satisfying to just be an open wound, in the safety that no one there knew me or what my wailing was about. For the first time in months, I was just a grieving person who allowed themselves to completely break.
Depersonalisation and Derealisation
What followed that day and the months after was an experience I really had to live through to believe is even a thing that can happen to someone. Little talked about side effects that can occur as a result of grief for me was depersonalization and derealisation.
1. Depersonalisation can consist of a detachment within the self, regarding one's mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself. Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance or being outside reality while looking in.
2. Derealisation is defined as a feeling that one's surroundings are not real, especially as a symptom of mental disturbance.
I started having auditory hallucinations. I would hear conversations with myself outside of myself with my mother, with people I had met during the day and every time I dozed off to sleep there was this weird feeling of dying, like I was falling asleep for the last time. Some mornings I would wake up having forgotten that and just being glad the sun was out which meant the world was still real and other days there was disappointment because how could I feel something so acutely only to wake up like it never happened.
The days before my mother’s funeral I booked myself into a hotel, with a house full of family praying and grieving, I had to get away. Never mind the sensory overload of all those people in my space, talking and constantly moving about.
When I got to the hotel room I realised I had needed to be in a place she had never been in before, a place she wasn't missing from. A place where I could breathe and take a break from the reality of her death and the unavoidable admin it entailed. There was a manageable dissonance during the day, I could laugh and be distracted by things and feel normal but something would happen at sunset, a switch would go off and everything would become real and raw again.
I had strange vivid dreams in my waking and sleeping moments, dominated by this sense of being on candid camera or something. I was fully aware of my mother’s death and completely in denial of it at the same time. I was genuinely terrified I was losing my mind. I was losing hours and whole days staring at the ceiling or making a meal or realising I hadn’t eaten or fully slept in days.
My body and my face that looked so much like my mother stopped feeling like mine, it was this strange suspension of reality where I was moving through the world as a character in some book or Truman Show movie. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I wasn’t real and that other people thought I was but they too would eventually realise I wasn’t so eventually they would stop talking to me or checking in and everything would fall away. In this fantasy space, when that happened some universal reboot would then happen, like the blip from Avengers End Game. So if I just persevered and stayed balanced enough, I would make it to that promised reset and everything would go back to normal and everything that had happened would be some bizarre story I would tell people one day.
Thank God I was already in therapy months before for Generalized Anxiety because without the guidance and support of my therapist and friends I genuinely don’t think I would’ve made it back mentally. Spaces where we can share these troubling thoughts and emotions are vital because often when you’re grieving, your mind is in this flexible state where any and everything can take hold for the better or worse. I urge everyone to find a support group, a therapist or a trusted someone to share your fear and confusion about whatever you’re going through and be reminded that even though it feels like it, you’re not alone.
Grieving In Our Society
It’s strange how almost clandestine we treat grief rituals and the grieving process in general when it’s one of those inevitable facts of life. We will all die, we will all deal with grief in its various forms throughout our lives but there’s still an odd feeling of guilt, shame and embarrassment about it. Struggling alone in my room, hiding from my friends ‘How are Things’ texts and family check-ins. It felt like there was something over indulgent or improper about saying I don’t want to say or do anything right now. That I can’t get up for work and I don’t have the capacity to check in on my siblings and I genuinely don’t care about you or anything in the world right now. My mother is dead and I demand the Earth to stop spinning and give me a f*cking chance to collect my thoughts!
It’s so easy to dismiss our own feelings, even the most painful ones because we’re not the first people to lose someone and we still have responsibilities, we have to be strong for this person or for this reason. These are the things we tell ourselves because I think more than anything we’re scared to admit and really live in our limited mortality and accept what that means for our lives and the lives of the people we care about.
It’s functional to keep death and grief at arm’s length, it can be a crushing weight and even with the best support in the world, you’re the only one who really lives in the fullness of it. We all have different ways of coping, some more beneficial than others but the objective is always making it to the other side. There are no answers, no justifications and no tangible reasons when it comes to death - only that it has happened and nothing can be done about it. I think there’s also the opportunity to just be human by allowing ourselves to feel the weight of having loved so deeply and at the end of it all, to be grateful for that.