Graduation, Grief and a Black Eye

I hadn’t really thought much of graduating from uni this month, and was expecting it to be a bit of a tedious day full of formalities and queues to get robes fitted and pictures taken. However, while yes, there was lots of queuing and smiling for pictures, it was actually really nice to wear a gown and celebrate getting through the past three years. Yet one thing I hadn’t anticipated was how emotional I would be. While the actual graduation day was tear free, all of last week I was much more emotional than I have been for a while. I don’t think I had expected the feeling that fully finishing uni would have. I chose UCL with mum, went to the open day with mum and then started uni while mum was alive, but I’m now finishing without her. Mum was very much part of my uni experience…but now I’ve finished, mum won’t so much be a (physical) part of my choices that come next. Maybe it’s also that feeling of mum not knowing what I’m doing now. I liked that even a year on from mum dying, she would have known where I was in life; but now that wont be the case. Added to the mix of this is recognising that I could really do with having mum here now to help me figure out what I’m doing next.

Mum graduating from St Catherines College Cambridge

Grieving is really quite scary sometimes. To fully acknowledge the fact that one of the people you love most in the whole world has really gone is quite impossible most of the time, but when that realisation hits you, it is unbearable. Naturally, it’s easy to start trying to avoid this unbearable feeling.  I think we can get very good at avoiding things that scare us or make us feel sad. Physically we dodge pain and learn to avoid the things that hurt, so I think emotionally that’s a strategy too (but one that’s not at all good in the long term). In many ways this is a coping mechanism; it’s protective to not be able to tap into the hurt all the time. What I have noticed is that as time has gone on, I am a bit less scared of the hurt and that deep feeling of loss, but as a consequence more emotional because of it. I think this is partly because now I can afford to be more emotional because I have the space to do so (the biggest reason I think for why this year out is so important).

After posting the last blog, and receiving lots of lovely messages (which really meant a lot), I was reminded of my mum-less reality again (something which is normally well avoided!) Before mum died, if I mentioned to someone how she had stage 4 cancer, I’d (naturally) get lots of sympathetic comments and sad faces. I remember thinking; ‘why are you looking so sad and shocked, mums fine’. I felt that their reactions were unwarranted and that it was almost overly dramatic. Yes, I knew mum had advanced cancer but in my head she was going to be fine. It baffled me that others didn’t understand this (I know how I was wrong now.)

I would have imagined that after someone dies, it would be impossible to stop crying. But actually sometimes, I want to be able to start crying and let myself have an uncontrollable sob. Crying is such a release and fully connects what I’m feeling in my head to the sensations in my body. In a way I like it when I’m outwardly emotional because it’s acting like something horrible has happened. There is no physical proof of an absence… and when life goes on as normal, I sometimes feel I have to prove to myself that something has actually happened. (Alongside this though, I’m slowly learning that crying doesn’t have to translate to me actively honouring the fact that mum has died; there are other ways of doing it.) That life can go on without mum is both reassuring and heart-breaking. I almost want to see on myself this change that has happened. I’m not talking tattoos (although Ned has mentioned getting mums mobile number on his chest {!?}…) just something that can acknowledge this change for me (if that makes sense). 

About 2 months after mum died I walked into a lamppost. I woke up the next morning unable to fully open my left eye, which then progressively got more and more purple (I’ve included some flattering pictures of it below!) My black eye was funny for a day or two but then just a bit annoying. However, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was the really sympathetic looks I got as I walked around London. This was particularly the case on the tube when I was coming back to Brighton with two suitcases and an eye that looked like I’d been punched (it took some convincing for dad to believe it really was just a lamppost). While this sympathy for the eye injury was unnecessary, I quite liked that for a week or so, there was a little physical manifestation of all the hurting of the past few months. For that week I appeared to some people as fragile …and fragile was how I felt inside. While 90% of the time I don’t want to be treated like this, occasionally it would almost be a relief to have a little of what I’m feeling on the inside show on the outside. When this unbearable feeling of grief does hit, it is completely exhausting and debilitating. I almost wish I have the flu or something to physically prove to myself that I have reason for weakness (even though I know I very much do) and something that forces me to let myself feel that way.   

I think this is one of the hardest things about grief; it’s invisible and there is no timeline for it. With a lot of physical illnesses (just as an example of something that can be debilitating!) there is a predictable trajectory and you know what to expect. With grief, it is so up and down and personal that you have to find a way for it to fit into your life. Almost morphing around it… making space for it. Not at all that I’m saying grief is an illness… but it’s that feeling that something is wrong… that feeling of being ‘off’.

In the moments that I feel a bit low, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether what I’m feeling is sadness for losing mum, or sadness for something else. Everything comes back to missing mum. Everything is made worse by missing mum. One thing I’ve noticed is I can project my sadness of missing mum onto something that is more in my control to deal with. So for example, it can seem that I’m fixated on one really irrational thing (lets call it x), and then I think this is ridiculous I don’t actually care about x, and I keep thinking about how I can change or deal with x when in actual fact I’m just really missing mum but I don’t want to admit it to myself. At least with problem x I have more chance of sorting it out than finding a ‘solution’ to mum being gone (but in the process I feel a bit silly to have cared about x so much). I’m learning to see that sometimes if i’m fixated on a small, seemingly meaningless thing, it is actually an indication that I need to give myself some space to be sad…I hope this all made sense!

Anyway, I worry that this is a really sad post about grieving…(I just read that back and thought of course [try as I might] I can’t get around the fact that losing someone you love is undeniably sad). I want to highlight though that while yes I do have really sad moments, I am ok a lot more of the time than I am not (be it by coping/avoiding/actually feeling good/being busy… all of which overlap!) and I think we are all a lot stronger than we might otherwise think. When I feel strong I feel so resilient and the main thing is knowing that a down is always followed by an up.