Grief: An Insider’s Guide to Sadness, Humour and Love
Posted on September 26, 2013
A few days ago I made a tongue in cheek tweet about my grief that received a mixed reaction.
Social media analytics lets you see which ‘friends’ know your news & then choose to ignore it. It’s enlightening & strangely cathartic 😉
It was a cheeky response (hence the winking face at the end) to the realisation that I could use my online analytics, if I wanted, to identify which of my friends knew about my son’s death and chosen not to acknowledge it. I knew it was a bit cheeky, but was still surprised by the response I got. I received a lot of emails and in retrospect can now see that it was naive of me not to expect people to take offence. What happened is difficult for others too. I meant to draw attention to the genuine dilemma presented by having this kind of information but used completely inappropriate language. Could I, should I, use it to make judgements about others? In the end, I have chosen not to but it was still stupid of me to tweet about it.
I know how hard it is to deal with somebody else’s grief. Like everyone, I have friends who have lost loved ones, mostly parents but also some children and, knowing what I do now in the aftermath of my own son’s death, my response to their tragedies was probably underwhelming, perhaps inappropriate and at worst, ignorant. I therefore have no right to criticise others for now being the same with me. Nobody is at fault and they are certainly not trying to offend me. Many people just don’t know what to say or do because it’s a subject that nobody addresses until it happens. Neither school or university offers classes on the etiquette of death, and that’s a shame.
I have found observing the behaviour of others around me fascinating, and sometimes, I admit, even funny. I have lost a child but not my sense of humour. In fact, it is probably even worse now, which is something that may trouble those who know me well. There are some people whose empathy is just a natural gift. There’s just a look in their eyes and accompanying body language that oozes compassion. I remember on one of our first days back in Cirencester before the funeral when we were still in a state of shock, a friend of my wife cycled past me as I was walking down our road. I looked up, we both smiled but, not really knowing her very well, I looked back down and carried on walking. The next thing I knew, she had turned around, got off her bike and was standing in front of me. She gave me a big hug and just said, softly, “I’m so sorry.” She got back on her bike and disappeared. It was lovely and I will always remember it.
By contrast, on other occasions I have seen friends at a distance in front of me walking down the street. Unfortunately for them I often wear my sunglasses to hide my tears, so they can’t see that I have spotted them. Sometimes, I will see that they have noticed me and have either turned around or gone into the nearest shop. I shake my head and laugh to myself but I can’t criticise them, because I know I have done it too.
My personal favourite are those who I have met for the first time since Edward’s death who are fully aware of the situation and able to have a perfectly normal conversation without mentioning it at all. Without meaning to insult them in any way, I find this absolutely hilarious. They’ll be making small talk about the weather whilst I’m making bets on whether they will notice the huge elephant in a fluorescent pink tutu balancing one legged on my head holding a neon sign that says ‘This man’s son just died, dude”. Again, I can’t admonish them because I know how hard it is. I’ve been there too and struggled to say the right thing.
The great irony is that now that I am a bereaved parent I have learned that there is nothing for others to be scared of. Yes, losing a child is horrific. Yes, the pain is unimaginable. Yes, I cry an awful lot. But, unless you have the manners of Vlad the Impaler, you really can’t make it any worse if you talk to me. Just by acknowledging what has happened, even if it’s simply saying “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say”, you have helped. Friends often ask “How are you doing?” and then follow it up with “I’m sorry, that’s such a stupid question.” Actually, it’s not stupid at all. It’s nice to be asked and in fact, the stupid bit is usually my response – “I’m fine thanks” – that insane British stiff upper lip. Of course I’m not alright – my son’s dead for heaven’s sake – so why do I say it? What a muppet. I remember responding to one kind soul who had expressed their sympathy with the thoroughly inappropriate “Yeah, thanks. Shit happens.” The poor man was speechless. You see, even a bereaved parent can say something stupid.
One of the most challenging aspects for everyone is humour. There is nothing funny about what has happened, but humour has always been a part of my personality. I have traded off it for years. I am a self-confessed smart arse who can rarely resist a wise crack. Give me an opening and I will take it. I have lost count of the times in the past when I have said something thoroughly inappropriate to the absolute horror of my wife whilst I do my utmost to stop laughing. I have been amazed to find that my often dark sense of humour is still intact, but the fact is that my son is simply off limits to everyone except others who have lost children. I was out to dinner with one of my oldest friends a few days ago who is also a bereaved parent. We cracked a few jokes, some at our own expense, that made us both laugh and cry. Some were very close to the bone. We belong to a club that, believe me, you never want to join and only we can make jokes. It helps us to survive. Even if you feel tempted, don’t even think of joining in. Only the pain we have experienced can give you membership, and we don’t want you to ever feel this immense anguish.
The grief of family members is very tough. It may actually be harder for them on some levels. For my wife and I, our grief is focused on our loss and looking after each other and our children, but for our parents and siblings, there is the double edged sword of losing a beloved grandson or nephew and worrying about us. They grieve with us and for us. They face the challenge of dealing with their own loss whilst knowing that ours is even worse and wanting to comfort us, when all the while they themselves need comforting. This must be so difficult and I am full of admiration for how they have coped.
Colleagues and work contacts are also tricky because of the pseudo-social dynamics of office environments. I returned to work last week for the first time and was dreading it. I was scared that I would just dissolve into tears. My client has an office with around 50 staff who are close knit, many of whom have been reading the blog and know how awful our experience has been. Knowing that it would be hard for both me and many of them, I decided to email a few of them the day before I came in, just to let them know I would be there the following day and say that I might get upset but please don’t be afraid to talk to me. I said the same to others face to face, to make sure they felt as comfortable as possible. I may be different. I may be upset. But I am still me.
The funny thing is that the old me would not have done this. I would have wallowed in self-pity, shut people out and probably been a very awkward person to be with. Somehow, losing my son has changed this completely and I am beginning to understand why. In the days leading up to Edward’s death and ever since, the friend I mentioned earlier who also lost his child, has been a rock. I don’t think he can see it, but that doesn’t matter. When we were told Edward was going to die he listened to me on the phone as I cried inconsolably at all hours of the day. I could feel his empathy, even when he was just listening. I could tell that he just wanted to be there for me and now I know why. For some people (probably mostly ex-public school emotional delinquents like me), the death of a child opens up a completely new level of emotional intelligence. Where you once shied away from emotional exposure to the pain of others, you embrace it, wanting to provide comfort. It is something that I hope remains with me forever as part of my son’s legacy of love. If ever one of my friends suffers like we have, I will do my best to be there for them.
And this brings me back to the point I spectacularly failed to make with that ill advised tweet. Death is guaranteed to come to every single one of us but is still a taboo subject. It’s not discussed until it happens making it difficult to know how to handle both your own grief and that of others. I can’t change this for everyone, but will do my best to show my small circle of friends that it’s ok to talk about it, challenge it, laugh at it and shout at it even when it’s nowhere in sight because we know only too well that it is hiding in the corner, waiting to come out. And it doesn’t have to be awkward or frightening, far from it. My wife and I held our boy in our arms as he died. It was the saddest, most awful moment of our lives but it was also beautiful and the greatest of human privileges I will ever experience. What I saw and experienced in those last few precious hours has changed my perspective on life and love profoundly. I will address this properly in my final post on Edward’s blog shortly but I can tell you with my hand on my heart that death is not the monster I have feared most of my life.
To those who responded to my tweet, please accept my apologies. I never meant to offend anyone, but I hope that this goes some way to explaining myself.