It’s been over 3 years since my last post about grief, which I suspect is a good thing. In that time, I’ve learnt a huge amount, been to hospital for two grief-related incidents and finally accepted that I needed some help. It’s been a bit of a ride.
There is a lot of irony here. Those of you who read my old posts know how much I talked about anger and how I was dealing with it fine on my own, thank you very much. Well, it turns out I wasn’t. Yes, I know, you told me so. Even worse, I only wrote this post because I stupidly lost my rag with somebody on Twitter. It made me look silly and reminded me how fragile my hard earned peace can be and of my own responsibility to manage it.
This update starts over 3 years ago on the evening of Valentine’s Day 2017. I was in the kitchen washing up when I started feeling unwell. I remember leaning against the kitchen sink and thinking I should lie down. The next thing I knew I was picking myself up from the floor, the sink was overflowing and several chairs had been knocked over. I had passed out.
My wife came in just as I got to my feet. I told her I was fine and must have tripped over.
Well, at least that’s what I thought I said. Although it was crystal clear to me, she couldn’t understand a word of it. Just gobbledegook. She was obviously concerned, but I soon recovered my speech, said I was off to bed and would see how I felt in the morning. The next day, she was taking the kids to see her parents in Yorkshire for half term but before she left made me promise to go to the doctor just to make sure.
So of course I just went to work. At lunch time I laughed as I told one of my colleagues about my funny turn but, to my surprise, he didn’t see the funny side of it. He too told me to go to the doctor. Then my wife called and asked why I hadn’t been yet. She wasn’t amused either. The last straw was a message from my equally unimpressed mother-in-law. Reluctantly, I booked myself in for the last appointment of the day.
I told the doctor what had happened. By this stage I wasn’t expecting her to find it funny. And she didn’t. Two hours later I was in a bed at Cheltenham General Hospital plugged in to numerous monitors where I stayed for the next 3 days. Nobody really explained for the first few hours what was going on but I did notice how calmly they were speaking, almost as if not to scare me.
Eventually, in came the consultant.
I don’t remember everything he said, but this bit is etched in my memory: “We think you may have had a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a mini-stroke and may be in danger of having a serious stroke any moment now.”
I nearly had a fucking heart attack there and then. No wonder they had been treating me so gently.
Over the next three days I had a barrage of cardiac and blood tests. One by one they revealed, thankfully, that I hadn’t had either a TIA or a stroke and that my heart was OK. Phew.
A few months earlier I’d been at the same hospital for an endoscopy. I’d been passing blood for a few weeks and experiencing pain in my stomach but hoping it would go away. Yes, I know. Before I go on, a quick word of advice. If you ever have an endoscopy, have the anaesthetic when they offer it. I decided it wasn’t necessary and had to have two porters hold me down during the procedure. Take the drugs. Seriously.
Anyway, the endoscopy revealed nothing more than a stomach ulcer, which was a relief considering what Google had suggested. (Another word of advice, don’t search your symptoms on Google. They all end in death.) As I was waiting to be discharged, the doctor came over to me and surprised me by put an arm around my shoulder like a concerned parent to a child. She told me that she’d read my notes, knew that we’d lost our son, that I wasn’t ill but grief-stricken and needed help before I really did harm myself. She left me with a gentle, but stern suggestion that I get grief counselling as soon as possible. As lovely as she was, of course I ignored her.
So there I was, a few months later, talking to a cardiologist about exactly the same thing. This time though, it felt very different. There’s something very sobering about a heart scare for a middle aged man. I thought about my wife and kids and the impact my death would have on them. After five years pretending to be ok it was time to get some help.
I’m not going to go into the detail of my counselling in this post but I can’t recommend it highly enough. The first session was pretty uneventful but during the second, despite my best efforts to keep it together, I completely broke down. Proper, hard core sobbing.
But it was a huge release. I was able, for the first time, to tell somebody else what was really going on in my head and to talk about the guilt that had been haunting me for the last five years. The guilt of being unable to protect my son and of letting him, my wife and my family down. I was able to say things I would never say to somebody who knew me, to cry without feeling like a failure and to admit my most difficult and darkest thoughts without feeling ashamed. Some of what I have written here I have not discussed with my wife but that’s one of the advantages of the confidentiality of therapy. It allows you to admit to some things precisely because you know that it won’t be shared anywhere else. Besides, she’s a brilliant mother who also lost a child and doesn’t need the additional burden of an emotionally dysfunctional husband to deal with!
In all, I did around 8 sessions and even began to look forward to them. I will never be cured of grief but I now understand it and have techniques to manage it when it comes. I’ve also learnt a lot about myself, how inappropriate my self-taught coping strategy was and how I’d made the mistake of thinking my dark sense of humour was a good defence mechanism. But it really wasn’t. I was the stereotypical stubborn man, brought up on the myth of being ‘strong’ and determined to deal with things on my own terms. Sometimes those terms involved self-imposed levels of danger and behaviour that I now look back at in horror and which, still, only I know about. I was never suicidal, but I wasn’t too bothered about living either. The repercussions for my wife and children could’ve been awful.
The pain of child loss never goes away. Even now, almost 7 years on the pain remains raw. But, I’m ok. I’m working, living and have lots to be grateful for. I still have very low moments and anger remains the most challenging aspect of it. I am much better at handling it but it requires constant management. It’s a destructive emotion which still sometimes gets the better of me but I am far more aware of it. Admitting it is a problem is, I think, part of dealing with it otherwise it’s a form of denial. Thankfully it usually now only shows itself in a stupid or petulant remark but given that it used to involve secretly punching walls and other self-destructive antics, I’ll take that. Hopefully it will continue to mellow over time. I’d also like to clarify that I am not a seething ball of anger, just waiting to rage when provoked. It’s all relative – I just happen to know that I have an issue that needs to be acknowledged so that it can be managed when it does rear its head.
After my therapy finished I did think about deleting all my earlier posts as they now feel a little foolish. However, I’d rather people saw the journey and know how I got here, warts and all. If it helps anybody else, especially another bereaved father, then it’s worth it. (Please see the posts tagged with Grief if you’re interested)
So, the point of this post is simple. Whether you are grief stricken or suffering any other kind of mental health challenge – and even more so if you are a typical bloke – please don’t be too proud for therapy. It’s all confidential and there’s no shame attached to admitting that you can’t cope on your own and it really could make a difference to you and your loved ones.
If I can do it, so can you.
(For those who are interested, I wrote a blog throughout my son’s stay in hospital through to his death and the immediate aftermath. It’s not an easy read and is a bit raw, especially towards the end but it might help put this post in context. The link is here: http://hlhsdiary.com/wp/)