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

From To Do to Ta-Da!

I overheard two women talking in the café yesterday. We were standing in line waiting to order our coffees. The line was long and these two work colleagues were chatting.

“You know, every day I get in to work and first thing I do is make a list of things I want to achieve in the day,” one of them said. She was tall and stylish with an accent. She was a professional of some type. “And usually there are nine or ten things on this list. Usually two or three big things, involved things I want to get done. Like finish that research funding application, write that paper, finish that report. And the rest are small things. Administrative things, or things that shouldn’t take too much brain power. Always about 10 things.”

She went on.

“And do you know how many things I get done each day? Always?”

“How many” her friend said.

“Two or three. I might get one big thing and two little things done. Max.”

“You’ve got great expectations,” her friend said.

“Yes. If I were smart, I’d only ever put three things on my list. Because that is all I can possibly do. But instead there are always 10 things. I can’t bring myself not to add things to the list. I always want to achieve more than is physically possible. “

This overheard conversation has been banging around in my head. The stylish accented woman’s observation reflected my own experience. For me I have an endless rolling to-do list in my smartphone reminders app. I’m always adding more to it than I can ever mark as completed. I even schedule reminders to pop up on my screen at particular times during the day in the vain hope that I’ll drop everything as the note appears and diligently make the phone call, write the document, pay the bill, achieve world peace and eliminate child poverty all in a day’s work. Pre-smartphone I would carry scribbled to-do lists around with unpaid bills, incomplete work documents in my backpack. Someone called it my backpack of life. More often than not I’d not even open it during the day. Instead of achieving anything, the backpack would just sit in my office making me feel guilty that I hadn’t gotten around to whatever was lurking inside. Same as the smartphone reminders – it served to make me feel constantly anxious and inadequate.

So why do we do this? This stylish accented woman and me. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why couldn’t we restrict the things on our to-do lists to just three things? Make it do-able, realistic, achievable. So that at the end of the day, three things done, tick, tick, tick, and we could say to ourselves “good girl good job”. And then spend an evening in quiet contentment. Before bed, instead of worrying about how to get everything done the next day, I would know that quietly, methodically, the next 3 things would be done. And I’d get a good night’s sleep, free from nagging thoughts of unfinished business.

Why are there so many things on the list? In an age of immediacy, we seem to be faced with ever increasing urgency of tasks and a mountain of expectation. Mobile phones demand attention, ringing insistently or sms messages punctuate even the most focused of tasks. Emails flood our inboxes, bills to be paid now, school notices to be read, notes to be acknowledged, work questions answered, clients to be responded to. Now, now, NOW. Social media opens up even more demands. Staying in contact with so many friends, liking the daily holiday snaps, responding to personal messages, expressing sympathy, amusement, anger or interest in the rolling, never-ending daily feed. Not only are we bombarded with information in our post IT revolution era, but we are bombarded with expectations to respond to this information.

And then there are the increased responsibilities of the modern materialist world. With greater prosperity and more material goods we have more stuff to look after than previous generations. Not one car to service, insure, register and clean, but two. A pool to maintain. More clothes to wash, iron and put away. Sure we have more appliances to make modern life easy and pleasant – dishwashers, washing machines, driers, vacuums, air conditioners, security systems, sound systems, computers, to make chores a breeze. But there always seems to be something to do to keep things working. I’m always getting something fixed or serviced. There’s always “Fix [whatever]” on the Smartphone reminders list.

For people like me at the sandwich stage of life – trying to get your own stuff done sandwiched between the responsibilities of teenage kids and elderly parents – the to do list can be overwhelming. My list is full of things to organize for other people. “Get Mum’s toilet fixed”, “organize Mum’s personal alarm”, “organize repair Mum’s shed roof” are currently on the list along with “book parent teacher interviews,” “take kids to dentist’, “make kids’ optometrist appointment.”

Quite frankly, I have had enough of the fucking list. Yes it deserves an expletive as it has been lurking malevolently in my backpack or on my smartphone for far too long, like some administrative magic pudding never diminishing no matter how many things I cross off it.

No more do I need to be reminded, on a daily basis, that I can never get everything done. No, I will not clear out the garage today. Or update my will. And I probably won’t get around to ringing my father-in-law, cousin and probably not even my brother. I won’t finish my WordPress site, even though I would like to, nor will I “do some painting” or sort out the bills. All the to do list does is set in stone my ridiculously high expectations. It constantly reminds me of what’s wrong, what I’ve left unfixed or unfinished, an endless cycle of anxiety and frustration. Because what the to do list is saying, powerfully and in writing, is that I’ve failed. It’s a list of things I haven’t achieved.

That’s it. No more. It’s going. It’s driving me bonkers.

So dear stylish, accented, professional person at the café the other day, if you happen to be reading this, thank you for your insight. We can only ever hope to achieve three things in a day. And you don’t need a list for that.

What I do need is an antidote to the list. After all these years of reminders of my failings, it’s time to celebrate my successes. So, here’s an idea. Instead of a to-do list, I’ll write a Ta-Da list of things I’ve achieved or moments I’ve enjoyed. Not a record of the stuff I haven’t done during the day, but three things I have. Three wins, big or small.

So here’s the first Ta-Da list of what I have achieved today:

  1. Rode my new bike. Sunny day, breeze smelled of spring, checked out the neighbour’s garden sculpture exhibition.
  2. Coffee with old friend. Lovely, good for the soul.
  3. Finished writing this. Ta-da! Happy with that. Good job.



Jillian Smith