Editor-in-Chief Hailie Pentleton asks if there is a proper way to grieve.
It would have been my Papa’s 80th birthday last week. I missed out on being able to go home and visit his resting place because I was waiting on another PCR test result. As much as she misses him, I don’t reckon my Granny would have been too fond of the idea of paying him an early visit. Once again, rules, restrictions, and the virus prevent me from being able to spend time with my loved ones at a difficult time.
As I write this, it has been 441 days since I last held his hand. Lockdown started in March, we lost him in June. My partner and I were shielding through that whole period of time, meaning that with the exception of shopping deliveries, our contact with the outside world was very limited. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed crying into a bowl of porridge, shaking with tears, as I processed my loss. This was in April, months before the news of his actual death would be delivered by my dad from the doorway of my tiny Cessnock apartment. Somehow, I knew it was coming. We’d nearly lost him several times over the last three years, a cocktail of conditions threatening an early departure. But this time it felt different. His care would be restricted, his company would dwindle, and I would probably never see him again.
"His care would be restricted, his company would dwindle, and I would probably never see him again."
I’ve always been terrified of loss, because I had no idea what to expect of myself. Being neurodivergent, I’ve never done things very conventionally: at the age of 21, my grasp of social cues is limited at times. For the best part of a year before I lost my Papa, I had panicked conversations with my therapist about what proper grieving should look like. Should I cry straight away? Am I supposed to, in line with the first stage of grief, act shocked, as though I can’t believe he’s gone (when logically, as much as it hurts, I can)? What if I don’t seem sad enough? What if I’m not sad enough. Patiently, he would wait until I was finished garbling on about the grief I had not yet encountered, and say “The only way to grieve is to let yourself feel things as and when they arise. You can’t script loss”.
And he was right. If the last year-and-a-half has taught me anything it’s that you can’t to-do-list your way out of grief. It isn’t a linear process; the only way to grieve properly is to let it wash over you in ugly, unpredictable ways. Those seven stages - shock and disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance - aren’t there to be checked off one by one. They’re there to confuse the absolute shit out of you as you try to make sense of your own, individual feelings.
"...you can’t to-do-list your way out of grief..."
Acceptance came first for me. Having already resigned myself to losing a year-or-so of my life to a pandemic, I had to accept very early on that I was going to lose my Papa, and there was nothing I could do to make it any easier for anyone. It hurt, I lost sleep, but I had no choice other than to accept the inevitable. Then came the anger. In his final few months, I saw him once.
I moved in with my Granny and Grandpa when I was 16, meaning that I had become a young carer. Until I moved away for university, I saw my grandparents every day. My after-school special was a hot chocolate and an episode of Death in Paradise. Often, I’d have extra visits from my papa during the night, as he tended to wander about the house in the wee hours when his brain became a bit too much to handle alone. To go from spending the best part of your teenage years with someone, to only being able to see them once before their passing is heartbreaking. But the heartbreak would come later, I was too busy trying to tame my anger.
Up until this point, I had followed lockdown rules to the letter. It took a tearful call from my Granny for me to throw caution to the wind and drive home for what I knew would be goodbye. The guilt weighed on me so heavily that I could barely drag myself up their driveway. What if I somehow gave my Gran coronavirus? How would I manage to make it through the whole visit without hugging them. I wouldn’t, and it would be ludicrous to pretend that I feel guilty for it now. In the midst of it all, I would see an Instagram story showing a group of classmates having a party, pre-pandemic style. Then I would see red. How people could act so nonchalant at such a terrifying time was beyond me? But worse, how could I have been so silly as to think that staying away from my dying grandfather would keep coronavirus at bay? Whether complying with the rules was silly is neither here nor there, but the anger toward myself was unparalleled.
"It took a tearful call from my Granny for me to throw caution to the wind and drive home for what I knew would be goodbye."
Now, over a year on, I am encountering stage one: disbelief. I feel it every time I drive up to their house and realise that his car doesn’t sit in the driveway anymore. When I’m organising things for my wedding I have to remind myself that my Papa, the great dancer that he was, won’t be on the dancefloor beside me. When Google Photos shows me videos of my Papa’s stand-up comedy, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I’ll never hear his voice again. I realise now, that there really is no other way to grieve than to just let yourself do it. To do anything else would be inauthentic, and insulting to the ones we love. Tears will come when they come, and if they don't you aren't broken. There is no guide book to follow, no checklist to work your way through, and no need to pretend you are feeling things to fulfil out-of-date expectations. What use is pretending to feel the “right” things when there is no right way to feel?
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