When my father died I lost the ability to live normally
Six months ago, on 9 October 2018, it was a beautiful and unusually warm day in my native city of Paris. There, in the leafy surroundings of a palliative care centre, my father took his last breath.
I was there with my husband. Our three year old, playing in the room next door, was blissfully unaware of what was happening. We had been in France for five weeks and had spent a lot of time with my father. I remember thinking “this is hard, but I am strong, I’ve got this”.
I helped organise his funeral, stayed with my mum a few weeks after he passed away and then flew home to Sydney.
The first days back in Australia were painful. However, I can’t say that they were the most difficult to get through. I was functioning at a basic level, but functioning nevertheless. People offered condolences and gave me space. My work colleagues were incredibly supportive, providing back-up, patience and flexibility. It was really all I could ask for.
I knew grief was going to be painful. What I didn’t know was how lonely it would make me feel. After a couple of weeks though, life resumed. There were lunchboxes to pack, important deadlines to meet, meetings to attend and parties to go to. Everything happened as if all of a sudden, mourning time was up. Around me, everything was getting back to “normal”, except I wasn’t.
I still had uncontrollable fits of crying or sadness, only met by uncomfortable silence and awkward looks around me. I couldn’t concentrate, could not keep up with the pace of daily life. I was battling night terrors and panic attacks, yet every day I was expected to make rational decisions and plans. Many times, I felt like watching the train I was supposed to be on depart while I stayed stuck on the platform.
I did try to behave according to what I thought was expected of me, back to my “normal” self. I tried socialising but was too hurt to handle simple casual conversations. Increasingly, I started noticing people’s uneasiness if I mentioned how I felt or the memories of my father. I now know that their embarrassment came from not knowing how to react. But at the time it made me feel like I was responsible for not being able to snap back to my old self, for not being able to simply smile at the good memories.
On top of feeling heartbroken, I felt guilty and inadequate.
I became irritable – no, not irritable; I turned into a dragon. Commuting would trigger an explosion of angry tears every morning. Picking up my daughter’s clothes for the day turned into a stressful ordeal. Everything hurt. What people said, what they didn’t say. Three notes of music, a particular song, an administrative issue, practically anything would make me scared or angry or frustrated.
Sometimes even the rays of sunshine on a beautiful day would tear me apart. How could the day be so beautiful when I was in pieces inside? I had to do something, I didn’t want my daughter to come home to an angry mother every day. My father would really not have tolerated that.
After a couple of months, I started to see a grief counsellor. This decision gave me my life back. The counsellor simply provided me with the space I needed to grieve. We spoke about my dad, about his last days, I cried a lot. Simply talking about it with someone who told me all this was normal gave me immense relief. Within a few weeks, the wall I had built around my emotions collapsed, and the anger vanished. I still ache, I’m still sad, but I know I’m going to be OK. After a bad day a better one will come.
I knew grief was going to be painful. What I didn’t know was how lonely it would make me feel.
Our society does not cope with the idea of death. We fear it, and because we fear it, we ignore it. We refuse to consider death and illness as a part of life. We irrationally believe that it won’t happen to us or our loved ones. This makes us totally ill-equipped to deal with it when it does happen and to relate to people who have experienced it.
No one can entirely relate to the sadness and the ache caused by the loss of a loved one. They are lonely experiences. But the pain should not be compounded by society’s inability to deal with someone’s mourning. Most of us will acknowledge that mourning is a process which takes time. But few are actually ready to accept the responsibility that comes with it: people will not simply “get over it” with time, the experience of loss will change them deeply and forever.
As a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge the pain and help people adjust into society with their grief. We need to accept that it won’t always be that hard, yet it will never be the same.
Dark, awkward, depressing, sad, painful and uncomfortable; grief is all this. It is not something we want to think about. It is not something we wish on anyone. But it is something that will happen to all of us. We need to be here for each other when it does. And for this, we need to be prepared to deal with the bad and the ugly. We need to talk about death.