I had never spoken to anyone about grief and what it might be like if mum died, mostly because I would never acknowledge this possibility enough for a conversation. It was a word I knew was related to death, but I thought that it just equated to missing someone, and crying that they have died.
What I certainly didn’t expect to feel when mum died, was relief. That was one of the few emotions I could accurately label. This pressure that had built and built and built was finally relieved. The worst had happened. I didn’t have to worry about anyone immediately, and after two years of worrying about mum, it was a foreign, but welcome feeling. Alongside relief, I suddenly felt this pressure to grieve. I also felt a pressure to be ‘good’ at grieving. I managed to do well in exams and lots of other things in life, so surely the same should apply to this. I definitely wasn’t reacting as you might expect you would after your mum had died. A lot of family and friends that visited looked visibly a lot more upset than me. Where was my uncontrollable wailing that you saw in films? I was even tempted to google ‘how to grieve properly’ as if, like a lot of things in life, I could prepare for it and know what to do.
For a while after mum died, I carried this fear that I was maybe coping too well and in years to come I’d break down with the weight of everything I had repressed. I felt a bit stuck because I didn’t know how to get the grieving process going properly… shouldn’t I be crying or missing mum already? I now recognise that I was in a state of shock (but I’d never have accepted it was that at the time). I couldn’t have begun to start processing everything straight away because it would have been too much to handle. In order to confront the constant stream of family and friends and condolences, I needed to be able to shut off the depth of emotion that bubbled beneath the surface. The shock helped maintain a sense of normality for a little while after and in many ways it was protective.
When mum first died, I’d have a sad moment, but could quickly pull myself together and power on. My emotion was more intense and immediate. It translated to having a huge, gut-wrenching cry. It would be crippling and leave me on the floor, clutching at the sheets of my bed or the cushions of the sofa. I would be so choked that no sound would escape…like my cry was going inward. It was such an all consuming feeling, but almost gratifying… a physical manifestation of the horrible sadness I felt in that moment and an alignment of both body and mind. These cries were one of the few times I could actually feel the reality of what had happened. Afterwards, I’d be exhausted. If I caught myself in the mirror, I’d stare at my puffy, red eyes and try to relate this image with the one of me an hour ago, buying some eggs from Co-op or smiling at the ticket man on the train. I’d marvel at how I was able to be so normal yet feel this intensity of emotion I’d never known before. But it felt good. It felt like I was grieving properly.
I’m noticing now that rather than translating to a massive sob, missing mum can give me a sad week or two. The emotion isn’t as immediate and all-consuming. It trickles in and just sits there until I decide to notice it. In these moments I feel low and disheartened and unmotivated. I think irrational thoughts and make up ridiculous stories. I mull over whether I’m making excuses for things because mum died, and whether or not I’m where I’m meant to be at 22. I can’t decide if some of the feelings I’m having are normal for someone in their early twenties or whether they are all because mum died. In all honesty, I feel a bit crazy.
Perhaps my capacity to sit with the sad feeling is greater than it was at the start, when it would have been completely overwhelming. I can carry it and mull it over, while at the same time functioning as ‘normal’. Although, in these moments, I feel a bit of a fraud when I smile and laugh, but feel so low underneath. I lose my sense of self a little. This just complicates things further as I overthink what I’m feeling; becoming sadder because I’m sad (and this is something I want to work on).
I notice that if I have had a string of emotional days, I’m more reluctant to feel sad once I feel better. Almost like I’ve ‘done’ my grieving recently, and I refuse to get to that place again. I can feel myself actively pushing away anything that might make me cry. It’s probably not good to see a cry, or low week, as ‘currency’ for some good days, but maybe it’s protective so I don’t wallow for too long. I also think I get tired of being sad. It’s quite exhausting sometimes and the worst thing is that I know it’s something I’ll have to be sad about for the rest of my life. I can’t ever make it not sad, so either I stay that way or try and pull myself together and give myself permission to enjoy the day (easier said than done).
I do occasionally miss the powerful cries I used to have. There’s a nice sense of contentedness after a good cry and it feels like a more obvious expression of grief. When I had these intense cries, I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing after mum died. I’m having to accept that having low moments and a low week or two is just another expression of grief and that’s ok. While I feel a bit ridiculous for the irrational thoughts I think in these moments (and once it passes, I can’t quite understand how I managed to feel so low), I’m grateful for feeling better afterwards. I have to remind myself that of course if my mum has died, I’m going to feel sad. While sometimes, the reason for being low isn’t as obviously attributed to mum dying, without mum they’re harder. All my emotions get in a tangle and it makes it less clear what is what. They’re not like a refreshing huge cry which is so uncomplicatedly for mum; they’re duller and sometimes it is not as easy to see where mum fits in. However, it all comes back to her not being here. It can be such a sorry cycle sometimes of being sad because mum isn’t here and then needing mum because I feel sad.
I’m learning that there is no good or bad way to grieve, and what might be considered not doing well (for example, having a low day, and feeling like you want to just lie in bed and watch something) can be really needed. I can’t accurately judge whether I’m ‘grieving well’ (if that is even a thing?), although one thing I have noticed is that I’m more open to crying (in a less intense and all-consuming way). I can tap into the sadness more readily now and I sometimes just burst into tears (which is a new thing for me). After mum died, I read a few things about how grief ‘comes in waves’ and can hit you without you even realising. I almost scorned at that lack of control. I thought it was so clichéd to just cry uncontrollably at inopportune times; it was the thing of films. While I did have uncontrollable cries, they were very much a bedroom affair. Only now do I realise how wrong I was, and I understand more and more what a wave of grief feels like.
While these sudden cries have left me crying at work, sobbing at the doctors (I just went in to ask about feeling a bit dizzy) and very tearful mid-filling (not because of the horribly huge injection, but because the dentist kept calling me sweetheart which really reminded me of mum), it feels quite good to not be holding it in all the time. It feels good to be vulnerable (although not always!).