Grief isn’t what I expected it to be. People don’t often talk about it, even though everyone will go through losing a loved one at some point in their life. I’ve never lost anybody close to me before and even if I had, I’m not sure it would have prepared me for Etta dying anyway. I think Sam would agree that losing his mum and losing his daughter felt very different. I wanted to share about my experiences of grief so far- and they are only that- my own experience but I still hope it might resonate with those who live with grief and those who don’t, especially if they are supporting somebody who has been bereaved.
Grief is different for each person.
There are as many different types of grieving as there are people in the world. How can there not be when there are so many different ways to grieve? We’ve seen it time and time again in our own family- there are so many different ways of trying to manage the grief and move through it. I know that I’ve already grieved in thousands of ways: keeping busy to distract myself and then poring over her medical records and screaming ‘How did this happen?’; listening to music and sobbing into my pillow and then sharing photographs with her big brother with a smile on my face; talking about her at every opportunity but then trying block all traumatic memories (and failing).
My grief has looked different every week and probably more likely every day or every hour. I think the real challenge is allowing other people to grieve in their own ways- Sam’s grieving looks different to my own but is still just as valid. You can’t project how you want to grieve onto others so it can feel a little solitary sometimes even when you’re sat next to someone else who is grieving. Sam and I are also learning to allow ourselves to grieve however we need to each week.
I think that can be hard to keep up with if you are trying to support somebody who is going through bereavement- but questions like “What has been helpful for you this week?” Or “What reminded you of Etta this week?” are probably easier to answer than “How are you?” or “Are you OK?” I only ever think warmly of people for asking that question because they are checking in on me and I would much rather that than radio silence!! But honestly I don’t know how to answer it and summarise briefly how I’m feeling at that time. “Last week I was very depressed and not interested in living and this week I’m more hopeful” or “I’m getting through the days but I’m devastated that she’s not with me and I don’t think I’ll ever be truly happy again”. These are pretty weighty answers for an innocently asked “Are you ok?” Or “How are you doing?” I think unless you’re asking it every hour/ day/ week, it’s impossible for a grieving person to answer and the questions might need to be a bit more specific.
Grief is not linear.
When I was holding Etta in my arms after she died, one of our intensive care consultants came into see us. He said “It will get better. It will get worse. It will get better.” I can still hear those words as clearly as if he was next to me now. And it sums it up completely- I assumed things would get easier with time but they don’t. The initial shock and rawness wears off but then the grief and the loss remains. I’ve been warned lots of times that the second year (or subsequent years) can often be harder than the first year after a loved one dying. I can imagine that grieving openly is more accepted in that first year and less so as time goes on and there is also a horrible realisation that this grief won’t ever leave.
Talking with people who are much further on in their journey of losing a child has shown me that the moments of deepest grief can happen much later than that first year and they can be more debilitating because they are almost unexpected.
Sometimes you can anticipate the grief triggers and sometimes you can’t. Yesterday I was really sad going through Ezra’s health records (red book) to fill out a form for nursery. It hit me that I would not be doing this for Etta- I expected to need that red book a lot with her complex health needs and yet instead it is in a box in the attic with her other things. Whilst there are some things I expect to hurt, like pregnancy/ baby announcements and baby showers, but sometimes there isn’t much warning before you hear the news. I just hope that I get better at recognising the triggers and protecting my heart when they do come along.
It will get better. It will get worse. It will get better… (ad infinitum)
Grief can be hidden.
I remember seeing the slogan “Be kind-everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about” and thinking it was a bit cheesy. But actually, it probably is the truth for lots of people. I know that people would often look at us as a happy family of three with not a care in the world, even on Christmas Day morning in the park just after Etta had died. I look back at photographs from around that time now and can see I’m completely broken but I don’t think strangers would and probably not even some friends.
Hiding grief is a tough one for me because I have always just got on with things and put a brave face on. I didn’t realise it, but I think a big part of my identity centres on seeming calm, capable and steadfast. For me that is a sign of strength and losing Etta has made me have to re-evaluate that part of my self. I’m now starting to see that showing you’re struggling and sharing your vulnerabilities (like in this blog) is stronger than just pretending that you’re doing ok. The ‘It’s Ok to not be Ok’ cultural shift is happening slowly but that stigma is still there. I find it hard to reconcile the Emily who has always been fine to the Emily whose daughter died and there’s no chance of just powering through it.
Apart from Sam (who is now used to it!!) I don’t feel comfortable with crying in front of others. I apologise when the tears start to fall. I realised very early on that I would be doing a disservice to myself and this grief ‘journey’ (that nobody ever wants to go on) if I carried on trying to look like I was fine. But it’s still something that I find really hard to do and it doesn’t come naturally at all.
I think the ‘you’re so strong’ narrative perpetuates this. A lot of people say this as a positive thing to say following a loss and I’m sure some people find it empowering. I’ve been told it lots of times but I disagree with it- I’m not any stronger than I was before Etta died. I didn’t choose this and I’m just grieving the only way I know how to. I feel lucky that I had a very stable mental health before this happened but that isn’t strength. Of course there is a sense of “if I can overcome this, then I can overcome anything’ but really I’m probably weaker now because it wouldn’t take much anymore to tip me over the edge! Everyone is ‘strong’ because when tragedy strikes, you either dig deep or you give up. Hopefully, most people won’t have chance to demonstrate their strength and resilience but I think we’ve all got it within us. Unfortunately, telling someone they are strong/brave all the time may stop them from admitting when they’re feeling weak and reaching out for help.
Another problem with grief being hidden is that it’s easy to forget that grief is still there, even if they can’t see it etched across your face. Somebody recently told me they were worried about sharing when they were missing or thinking of Etta in case it came at a time when I was happy out and about with Ezzie and it made us sad. But let me reassure you that people always love hearing about their dead loved ones. We are always thinking about them so you’ll never ‘remind’ us. I think the greatest fear, (especially when it’s a baby who has died so there are very few memories of that person) is that they will be forgotten. I’m always touched to hear Etta’s name because I don’t get to hear it very often anymore.
You need to give yourself time to grieve.
I felt like this was handed around a lot when people were giving advice in the early days. And it always seemed a bit pointless to me. Obviously I was going to give myself time to grieve- I missed Etta all the time and I’ve got the rest of my life to grieve her death. But actually I think I understand it a bit more now. I think it means allowing yourself to feel what you want to feel, when you want to feel it and for me it also means carving out time to reflect on all that has happened.
Some people don’t feel ready to reflect straight away after a death or traumatic event. Some people need to defer those raw feelings and distract themselves for years before they really face that grief head on and I think that’s OK- you just have to do what you need to do in order to survive. But one way or another- it’s going to rear its ugly head one day so I’m trying as best as I can to face the memories and emotions as they arise.
Back in January, Ezzie started going back to nursery while Sam and I were still on parental leave. Of course, there is immense sadness in being on parental leave with no baby to parent. For me, I took great comfort in taking an Etta day and started writing a scrapbook of her life. I really needed that time to set aside to her and when lockdown started, I really struggled without that day- that one day a week to just have with Etta and grieve. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take a bit more time to do that now September is here.
A friend shared with me her view that on days when the grief feels overwhelming and like you can’t cope- then those are the days where your child who died is in front of you demanding your attention. Because just like a living child who will continue to shout at you persistently until you give them the attention, the child you lost will do that too until you give into the grief. And the times you physically ache from crying and missing them is the times you have stopped to show your dead child love and affection, as you would a living child. I think it’s a good way of reframing grieving as something that is necessary for our mental health. It’s not ‘dwelling on the past’ and ‘stopping yourself from moving on’. It’s an important part of life after a loss.
So yes, you need to give yourself time to grieve- for the rest of your life as it turns out.
You can’t complete grief.
Sam and I spoke soon after Etta died about ‘completing grief’ or rather that you couldn’t. But in those first few weeks that was all I wanted to do- I just wanted to get through the grief as quickly as I could and feel back to normal again. I wanted to get an A* in grieving and jump through all the hoops so I wouldn’t feel like a huge part of me was missing. I see time and time again now bereaved mothers in their first few weeks of grief saying they just want to fast forward to a time when it doesn’t hurt anymore. As if that was a possibility…
Sometimes, I feel strong enough to reframe the grief positively- ‘Grief is just love with nowhere to go’ or ‘I will grieve forever because I’ll love Etta forever’. Sometimes, I can focus on what her death has blessed me with: a greater sense of empathy and purpose in this life and an appreciation for the important things because it could all end tomorrow. But a lot of the time I just mourn both Etta and the person I was before this happened.
Right now, I feel heartbroken seeing photos of me with my Etta bump- a happy family of 4- Would I go back and warn them what was in store if I could? I don’t think so. I think I’d let them have that hope and easy joy for as long as possible. I certainly miss it.
At the moment, I’m trying to fill my heart with gratitude- my promise to Etta when she died was firstly that we would love her forever and secondly that life would always be better because she was in it, if only too briefly. I plan on those promises being at the heart of my life for as long as I live. Sometimes I just need to look at pictures of Etta to remember that my life is a good one and I’m blessed in so many ways.
I’ll finish with the best summary of grief that I’ve seen. My cousin shared it with me in the early days and I still return to it now.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” Anne Lamott
I’m still limping. I’m still broken. But I’m still dancing for you Etta 💖