I’m on Grafton St, standing outside of Marks and Spencer’s on a library break. I find myself staring confusedly at my friend who, for her part, looks suitably uncomfortable and panicked – something has just dawned on her. Her eyes dart from the bunch of flowers she had asked me to hold, to the mother’s day card we’d just spent 20 minutes picking out. “I’m so sorry”, she splutters. “Oh my god! I didn’t even … I’m only just thinking …” I have no idea what she’s talking about, but whatever it is, it must be a pretty big deal.
Briskly grabbing the bunch of flowers out of my hands and shoving the sentimental card into her bag, she struggles to make eye contact as she pats me on the back. I cop what’s going on. Ah yes, she’s just remembered that I am mother-less on Mother’s Day (my mum passed away when I was 13). I’m used to this scene – one of frenzied discomfort for one party, and nonchalant bemusement for the other. I let her move the awkward moment along (“So…any plans for this weekend?… No… I mean next weekend! Sorry, sorry again!’’), and have to stifle the chuckle threatening its way out of my system.
Everyone has experienced grief to some extent, be it through heartbreak or leaving a childhood home. The all-consuming sensation of disbelief, frustration, and hopelessness is a universal feeling that all of us will come up against in life. However, the expectation is that grief grief – the hard-core, life-altering, human-loss type grief – is reserved for adults only. Immune to the possibility, let alone the actuality, of loss, young people’s ability to react to bereavement, be it to mourn or to console, is stunted.
How are young people then, without the necessary emotional vocabulary, supposed to react to a friend’s mother being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or a classmate’s brother committing suicide, or someone’s cousin getting killed in a car accident? Or what if they are that friend, that classmate, or that someone, facing a seemingly inconsolable loss? Certainly, we shouldn’t have to deal with grief at our age – but we do.
I’m sure my post-college identity crisis will bring another wave of grief, as will the heartbreaks to come and the losses to be had. I know now that it will colour just about everything I do
According to research carried out by Child Bereavement UK in 2017, every 22 minutes, the parent of a child under 18 dies. Moreover, one in every 29 youths between 5 and 16 has been bereaved of a parent or sibling. In the US, an estimated 1.5 million children lose one or both parents by the age of 15. In Ireland, there are no exact figures as to how many children have been bereaved of a parent, but the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network published a report in 2016 estimating that around 20,889 Irish children under the age of 19 were “currently bereaved of a mother or father”.
There’s a “this too shall pass” mentality when it comes to grief. Admittedly, it is a source of great comfort in the beginning: initial pangs of loss and loneliness, I was assured, would only be temporary. The idea that “this too shall pass” became a beacon of hope in the otherwise dismal, dreary surroundings of grief.
In retrospect, I can see how misguided this advice is. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card to confronting your emotions. Grief is not something that “will pass”, nor is it something that will “hit you” and then go away. Rather it is an ever-evolving set of emotions that stays with you throughout your life – it follows you everywhere you go and it will mean something different at each new phase.
Indeed, each new stage of my life brings with it an entirely new iteration of grief. At 13, losing a mother meant losing what had been the touchstone of my identity – it was disorienting. At 17, losing a mother meant yearning for that instinctive maternal readiness to comfort you during the stress of mock exams or to understand that you weren’t actually angry, it was just premenstrual syndrome. By 18, losing a mother meant not getting to share the excitement and nerves of your first week at college with her – it was disappointing. And now at 20, moving country to go on Erasmus signals just another major life event that I don’t have her here for – it’s just life. Each stage has brought a different challenge and a different confrontation with grief. I’m sure my post-college identity crisis will bring another wave of it, as will the heartbreaks to come and the losses to be had. I know now that it will colour just about everything I do.
This realisation – that there is no expiry date on grief, no finish line – is a daunting one
The popularised version of grief, however, portrays a linear rather than cyclical narrative. It goes something like this: Act 1 – grapple with the immediate effects of loss (the shock of the absence of the deceased). Act 2 – truck through the next three stages of grief in the space of a week. Act 3 – reach a point of acceptance and forge a life built upon this skin-hardening, inspiring, character-building life experience. The end. (For reference: watch every Disney cartoon ever. It’s a prerequisite to being a princess that you’ve either lost a mother or both parents.)
What the movies fail to show is that arbitrary moment six years later when someone walks by wearing the perfume that that person always wore. Or another four years later, walking up a mountain and being struck by how much that person would have loved the view. Or when you notice yourself laughing at a joke at which you know they would have cracked up. These moments, the ones that catch you by surprise, can be the most jarring.
Anniversaries, birthdays, mother’s day, whatever big day: these are always emotional, and the sense of loss is acute, but they are anticipated. You’re somewhat prepared for them – I reference here my schedule for Christmas which invariably includes “quick five-minute breakdown in the bathroom”, somewhere between mass and some dinner-related disaster. But the big days get more manageable as the years go on (that breakdown has gone from 20 minutes to a personal best of 5, so here’s hoping for 4 this year!).
But the “unexpected moment” is as harsh and as jolting as it was in the first month. What I’ve come to learn, and to surrender myself to, is the fact that each day holds the potential for one of those moments. This realisation – that there is no expiry date on grief, no finish line – is a daunting one. Grief was something that I had to learn to live with, another layer of skin if you will. There is no avoiding it and, no matter how much I’ve tried to resist it, it has completely defined who I am and the course my life has taken.
You don’t release all of your emotions at the funeral, or on the anniversary or on their birthday, and then turn them off like a tap
I feel the eyes rolling and I can understand why – the number of times a “sure you’re grand now” comment has been thrown my way is countless. It seems ridiculous that grief might actually be part of someone’s identity (notions, absolute notions).
To explain: I am, in fact, “grand” right now – at this very moment, that is. But I can’t guarantee that I will be grand in five minutes time, or some random day next year or in another in 27 years (no more than someone who is heartbroken could, or someone on their period could, or someone who is homesick could). You don’t release all of your emotions at the funeral, or on the anniversary or on their birthday, and then turn them off like a tap. The emotions rule, and you’re obliged to acquiesce.
I must add that it has taken me nearly seven years to put all of these thoughts and ponderings into a cohesive whole (I use the word “cohesive” quite generously here). At 13, would I have been willing to say so much? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t feel like I could or should, so I didn’t. Perhaps, had the space been cleared for me to do so, had my feelings been validated, then maybe I would have. Who knows?
I’m not encouraging you to hold your bereaved friend at gunpoint until they tell you how they feel – they might not be in the mood that day (especially if there’s a gun involved). But I urge you to open up a channel for dialogue. Be curious. Let them know you’ll listen. One day they might just want to ramble and rant, and they’ll come running to you, feelings afflux and emotions akimbo.
And to the grievers: I urge you to run and to share. Grief can be an alienating experience. Every person is different and thus, the loss of one, and the processing of this loss by another is an entirely unique and incomparable combination. No one is meant to know exactly how you feel, and you shouldn’t expect them to. But be willing to share. Grief is an inevitable fact of life – it’s time we learned how to talk about it.