What grief is

“Are you alright?”

“How are you doing?” “How are you holding up?”

I get asked this all the time. Every day. At work. Down the street, at the shops. On the phone when well-meaning friends ring to check in on me.

“I’m ok. One step after the other”. “I have my good days and my bad days.”

They are my standard responses.

I get tired of it. I never know how to answer. What answer do they expect? Most look at me with a frown, and a look of incomprehension. Their eyes are asking me not how I am, but “What is it like to lose a person you love?”

I don’t know how I’m doing, 7 months now since he died. I mean it’s not as if you can be marked on grieving. “Oh yes on sincerity and heart-felt emotion I’ll give her a 10 but she hasn’t shed that many tears so we’ll drop the overall score to an 8.” It doesn’t work like that.

The thing is, it catches you when you least expect it, this grief. Sometimes, a thought will flit across my mind and I’ll be taken back to another time. A song or a smell will do it. A positive mood will disappear like mist in the wind and then I’ll break down and suddenly cry and my kids will worryingly ask me “Mum, what is it? Are you alright?”

It happened when I caught up with an old boyfriend, a first love, who took me out to dinner and when hugging me goodbye, was surprised when I broke down and sobbed. The feeling of his arms reminded me of the safety and comfort I used to feel when Anth’s arms were around me. It happened at the dentist, when I was surrounded by white coats peering at an x-ray of my mouth. A door was opened to the past and I was back in his hospital room. It happened again, the day after I chatted on the phone to a new friend, a lovely bloke who has also lost his love recently. The next day I was shattered. He had reminded me what I had lost in Anth.

Missing Anth is with me every day, a dull ache in my heart from the moment I get up until I close my eyes at night. Sleep is usually a relief, but the pain of missing him intrudes into my dreams aswell. I dream he is still alive but has left me for another woman. I dream that he is in hospital, in the mental health ward and demented. I don’t know what is worse; the dreams or my memories of his actual suffering.

I will tell you the story of hurting my back so you will know what acute grief is like. Awful pain woke me from my sleep one night when I was home alone (my kids with their father). I had felt something go in my back when I was chopping wood a few days before and it had been growing worse. This was about 3 months after Anth died. I had had the same terrible back pain before. But last time Anth was there. He caught me when I fainted. He called the ambulance. He travelled with me to the hospital holding my hand, telling me it would all be ok. This time I was on my own.

I had never missed Anth more. Not only did I miss his help and his comfort, but I missed his spiritual presence, his calmness, his strong energy which always made me feel safe, even when he himself was weak and ill.

As I lay in bed, the pain escalating, I started thinking about the terrible times I called an ambulance for Anth, from this very room. I thought about my worry turning to despair as his cancer progressed. I thought about how brave he had been. But this only made my pain worse.

When the ambos shifted me into the ambulance, red hot lightening shot down my spine. When the pain settled enough for me to notice my surroundings a black anguish set in. For the first time, I knew I was truly on my own and Anth was gone. Great sobs wracked my body and it was all I could do to explain to the paramedics “I miss my husband.” The kind paramedic stroked my hair, her hand cool against my forehead. But each time I sobbed, my back spasmed some more until the pain was so bad I could not cry.

They gave me morphine but it didn’t touch the pain. I was screaming at the faintest movement. When they shifted me from stretcher to hospital bed the pain burned white hot. I could not bear it. “How bad is the pain?” they asked. “It’s a 10,” I cried. They gave me something stronger; Fentanyl. Even in my state I knew this was heavy duty stuff. It was what they gave Anth at the end. I started to feel very unwell. I pressed the buzzer but no-one came. “Help me,” I cried to the patient in the next bed, behind the emergency room curtain. “Please help me, there is something wrong. I think I’m going to pass out.” A nurse came and took my pulse, then disappeared quickly. Suddenly I was surrounded by people. Two doctors, a nurse taking my blood pressure, another sticking wires onto my chest. “We are giving you the antidote,” the doctor said, as he injected me with something. He waited a minute and consulted the machine I was now hooked up to. “Yes, that’s better,” he said. He looked relieved.

“I’m going to throw up,” I said. The nurse thrust a plastic bag under my chin and I vomited and vomited until it was full. “Can I call your husband dear?” she said, looking at my wedding ring. I shook my head on the pillow. “He’s dead.” I was crying again. She held my hand and I fell asleep, the drugs working at last, against the pain and the emptiness.

I spent four nights in hospital until the pain subsided and I could walk again. I’m not sure if the Fentanyl had almost killed me, but I’m certain the grief almost did. I now understand how you can die from a broken heart.

Someone told me to embrace the sadness, as it’s love, in another form. I see the truth of this. But I also know that grief is more than sadness when it’s at its most acute. Grief is pain. It is stabbing, heart wrenching pain. It wells up from your inner depths and is irreconcilable, untreatable, and basic. It is historic, prehistoric even, a thing that both reaches back into our collective human past and beyond into future generations. It is deeply personal, but at the same time shared with every person who has ever loved and ever will love. It is separation. This pain is a recognition of nothingness, of looking into the void and seeing nothing. It is the pain of being human, of glimpsing the possibility of eternal love but knowing that our mortality prevents us from ever obtaining it. That is what grief is.

Jillian Smith

2 thoughts on “What grief is

  1. I held myself together until your last paragraph when such grief welled up past my ability to contain it. For when I was confined to an orphanage at the age of four. Stacked like teetering bricks my life wounds balance badly on that initial pyre, tumbling now only when I encounter such pain as your own, describing the thing that scares me most: loss of my soulmate. He is puttering in the kitchen. He will nap in the afternoon. He is constant and present. How do you live wth that void?


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