If you read our blog post earlier in June, you’ll have heard that our monthly topic of awareness is loss. It’s something which affects many of our visitors at the Hub and comes in many different forms. Today’s blog post is written by guest writer, Anna Naylor, and focuses on grief.
I was just seventeen when, after a year’s battle with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), my brother died. AML is a blood cancer that affects the production of white blood cells and this case was particularly aggressive. Its entrance into our lives was sudden and unwelcome. The year of treatment for my brother was riddled with hope when he went into remission. And then disappointment when he relapsed with a brain tumour. The AML entered his central nervous system and we lost him three days before Christmas, a year after initial diagnosis.
The grief that ensued was not a linear process but rather, a fluid experience. When you lose somebody so close to you, a lot changes. There are theories about grief that present it as a process of stages, but for me it wasn’t that straight forward or predictable.
At first, the hardest thing was coming to terms with what had happened. We live our lives watching these kinds of things happening to others and we never think it will happen to us. So when it did happen to me, it almost felt like an out of body experience as if I watching somebody else’s life and not my own. For a long time I felt relatively numb and I found it difficult to articulate and own my grief, which meant I had trouble expressing it. I also found the shift in family dynamic pretty difficult. Becoming an only child overnight was a big adjustment and impacted my relationship with my family.
My difficulty in processing the grief contributed to a general anxiety, which overwhelmed me immediately after my brother’s death. Thankfully, over time, I found the support and courage to explore the painful areas so that I could better understand what was going on for me. Consequently, I was able get help with those things and develop the tools I needed to build resilience to move forward.
Grief changes with time and different things are harder now.
The hardest thing today is not being able to ring my brother up and share life events with him. My husband never knew my brother and when we have children, they’ll be missing an uncle. It seems so cruel that he should be excluded from this chapter of my life and that nobody got a choice. I also sometimes feel afraid of reliving this grief and the thought of anybody else I love getting cancer.
Unfortunately, our western society isn’t well-versed in its understanding and handling of grief. Our ‘hold your cards close’ culture makes it a difficult and awkward topic for some.
However, grief happens to everybody at some point. Although we can’t stop that from happening we can support each other through it. I would start by suggesting that we change the phrase “Let me know if I can help” to “What can I do to help?”. We British folk are often too polite to directly ask for help. This phrasing makes it easier to give specific actions to those asking. It also helps those asking to sound sincere in their offer.
Things people did to support us included a meal rota where friends brought us dinner each night for a while. Practical, everyday things can take a backseat after loss and this is a simple gesture that makes a huge difference. Our community also helped us fundraise for Bloodwise to help others in my brother’s situation, which helped us to feel seen and thought of.
When it comes to supporting a friend/colleague, listening is powerful.
Grief can be a very lonely experience so just having someone to talk to can be cathartic. You don’t need to fix anything- just offering an ear and supportive words, free from judgement, is a huge help. Try not to let the fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing hold you back from talking about it with your friend or colleague. Remember, there’s very little you can do to make things worse. They’ll be glad you cared enough to approach it.
Even though it’s been a long time, I’m still learning how to support my family. Something that I’m learning is that grief looks different for everybody even if you’re in the same family, and that can be quite hard. Taking a step back and asking that question again, ‘what can I do to help?’ seems to be a good direction to go in.
If you’re going through grief, I would say that whilst the grief never goes away, you can get better at living with it. I’ve found that giving myself grace on tough days has been really helpful.
Self-care has been hugely important.
Sometimes that looks like a duvet day and ice cream. But more and more, I’m finding that self-care looks like reading a book, or cooking my favourite meal, and ultimately, equipping myself with the tools I need to handle things. Immediately after my loss, I benefited from a Macmillan counsellor who helped me learn how to label my emotions and explore them in a constructive way. I’ve since found that investing in integrative therapy was really helpful for me on my grief journey. After reflecting and pinpointing specific areas, I was able to work alongside some amazing women who have helped me learn to develop my resilience and EQ in response to the trauma and other unpredicted adversities that may occur. It’s an ongoing process and learning curve.
I have also found my faith to be a key part in finding comfort and strength when things were especially hard. It’s also helped me to see grief and loss in a new way – as an ongoing process – and that alleviates some of my fear and anxiety. There’s nothing quite like close community to encourage you and offer a listening ear.
C. S. Lewis said ‘no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear’.
He is spot on. But life and loss are a little less scary when you have compassionate and supportive people beside you. Whether that comes in the form of family, friends, counsellors, church, or the Hub, keep investing in your relationships. Although isolation sometimes feels easier, vulnerable and real relationships are an invaluable help in times of loss. You’re not alone and things will be alright again.
Written by Anna Naylor
Edited by Ella Green