Losing someone is hard, by Clare Shaw

I feel I have lived with grief for most of my life. My brother died when I was eleven, a year and a day later my grandfather died and so it went on. With the loss of extended family, friends and family friends, I went to countless funerals by the time I was in my early twenties. At the same point in his life, my husband was experiencing his first close bereavement...

During my thirties I lost two uncles to suicide, friends to cancer, parents of close friends, my husband’s wonderful nan and more extended family.

Despite living with so much grief, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve dealt with it well. Grief can affect people so differently; physically and emotionally. It can differ from person to person – both those who have died and those that mourn their loss.

It has only been in recent years that I have realised how grief can affect you physically. Looking back, it was fairly obvious but maybe I was too young to realise. When my brother died, my sister started suffering with IBS – almost immediately! Thirty years on, she still has trouble. I’ve been reading books about gut health recently and it is common for gut problems to have arisen from a trauma.

The brain and gut are closely related. Which would explain why I eat more when I’m feeling down; almost like I’m ‘comfort eating’. It is suggested that this happens as a subconscious way of pushing our feelings down. I have seen this so strongly in myself over the past few years. Just recently, I found out someone close had died and the first thing I did was reach for something to eat. I was supposedly on a diet but I tucked into poppadoms, chocolate and nearly a whole bag of popcorn that night.

The emotional impact is far more obvious. When my brother died I was so young and still influenced so deeply by those around me. I’d just started secondary school (his funeral was on Christmas Eve) and was going through so many social, hormonal and emotional changes already, the death of my brother was huge. Yet I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t want it to define me. Yet, somehow, at the same time I knew I was different and wanted to be recognised as being so. It is a very strange state of mind to be in for someone so young.

My dad went back to work, my sister (six years my senior) went back to college and within six weeks of my brother dying, my mother was busy looking after my poorly grandfather. I just had to get on with it.

Soon after my brother died, I cried in front of mum. Naturally, mum shed a tear with me. At the time I thought it was my fault; that I’d made her cry. From that day on I didn’t cry in front of her because I was desperate not to upset her. I would even hold in tears when watching a sad film. Although my husband and kids would consider me a “crier”, there are times I recognise that I still hold back. Almost as if I know that I’ll open the flood gates if I start. That I’d be sobbing in minutes at the end of a film that to them wasn’t that emotional.

Through my teens and early twenties I drank too much! I’d often find an excuse for a drunken cry. I had difficulty knowing when enough was enough.

In the past decade or so, I’ve had a few emotional breakdowns and was recommended a therapist to help me through. During the last spell of meetings we worked backwards to my brother dying and discussed my grief and how I’d dealt with it. Over the years I’ve cried a lot! However, what I never allowed myself to do was label it as being about him. I always made another excuse as to what was upsetting me. As soon as I allowed myself to acknowledge my loss, acknowledge my grief (some twenty plus years on!), my mental health started to improve. This is now a few years ago and I am yet to feel a need to go back to visit my therapist.

The memories we hold interest me. My brother had a short spell in intensive care and I hadn’t wanted to see him in there in case it was my lasting memory. Something made me change my mind; I went in and said my goodbyes and can’t now picture him there at all.

My grandfather died at home, in the middle of the night. I made tea for everyone and my mum came to take it from me thinking I wouldn’t want to go in the room after how I’d been over my brother. I insisted I was fine. My lasting memory of my grandfather – him lying in his bed – dead.

I remember so vividly the night my grandmother died. My parents had flown to Australia for New Year. Grandma went into hospital and I was looking after my young niece, who was only toddling at the time. The phone kept ringing and each time I crossed the room to answer, she followed. Until the time I received the call to say that grandma had gone. She just stayed where she was.

I had to compose myself and call my parents on the other side of the world. About to wake for a day at the Blue Mountains and New Year celebrations. My dad answered and I’ll never forget the noise that came from my mum when she realised what the phone call was for. My niece was still sat quietly on the other side of the room.

My parents didn’t get to see the New Year in as planned. However, I imagine they flew over many New Year celebrations that night as I picked them up very early on New Year’s morning.

Today, (at time of writing) I virtually attended the funeral of a friend’s daughter. She was just eighteen. My eldest son has known and been friends with her younger brother for around twelve years now and we watched the funeral together. As his friend stood to speak about his beautiful sister, my son turned to me and said “it’s weird, I just don’t ever seem to cry”. I told him it wasn’t a weakness and that he could at any time he needed to. He did; we both sat and cried listening to his brave and amazing friend talking at his sister’s funeral. I felt a sense of relief that he’d allowed himself that moment. A valuable lesson.

Everybody’s views on death are different. Even between my husband and I, purely down to our individual experiences and at what point in life we experienced it. How families collectively cope and how open they are to talking about it has a big impact. Although life moved on for my family after my brother died, the death of my grandfather a year later compounded the grief we felt. It was a tough few years.

My parents have always been open in talking about those that have left us. I think it’s healthy. There isn’t a family gathering that goes by without the mention of my brother. Usually a funny story told by one of my parents, or my sister and I jokingly insisting he was their favourite. Always in good humour and always with happiness.

Losing someone is hard. You never get over it, you just learn to live with it.

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