Losing a loved one is never easy, but Grace McGettigan says grieving in a way that doesn’t make your life implode can be done – with the right help.
If you’ve ever lost somebody, you know how difficult it is. Sometimes death blindsides us, other times it’s a slow creep towards the finish line, and often, our reactions surprise us. But grief is something that we’ll all go through at some point in our lives, and it’s especially difficult to deal with because nobody seems to understand exactly what you’re going through. Alice Kelly, Psychotherapist and Clinical Manager at the Clanwilliam Institute, says, “One of the hardest things when someone we love passes away is that ‘normal’ life goes on.”
Everyone else moves forward, enjoying themselves or giving out about trivial things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t seem to matter. It can seem impossible to picture yourself ever joining that world again. But it is. The secret lies in the grieving process, and while there are no rules for how a person should grieve and there is no ‘right’ way to behave, Alice says, “We have to learn to adapt to our new existence – a new way of living without that person we loved.”
For Gail, it took time and creativity. Her niece, Molly, was a loving, loyal, funny, and feisty little girl. “She loved Mickey Mouse and Doc McStuffins, and was a bit of a techie – always investigating things like magnifying glasses and computers with wide-eyed wonder,” Gail remembers. “She was my little buddy, I called her ‘Moll Doll’. She was very protective over me and insisted that I paint her nails whenever we were together. She would choose her nail polish colours with ferocious intensity and thought – only to decide on purple and pink, her favourite colours each and every time!” However, Molly was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer known as DIPG, and although the family was told they’d have two more years with her, the little girl passed away just six months later, aged four.
Gail had just gone back to education, having started a new college course, when she got the devastating news. “Attending college was difficult but I strived to achieve as much as I could. I managed to stay in college throughout and graduate with distinctions. The grief came in waves, and this past Christmas, two years after her passing, it finally hit me full on.”
By indulging herself in her writing, Gail found her own way to grieve. She wrote a poem to convey her feeling of loss, as well as to keep Molly’s memory alive. “Sparkling red hair, peaches and cream complexion; A tiny doll, so full of affection. A mighty stance, even at four, a personality so fierce and hard to ignore. A beacon of joy, the possibilities were endless, when the news broke we were left breathless. My living doll now relieved of the pain; Our loss, heaven’s gain.”
Alice notes that, “Sometimes people find that writing a letter to their loved one can help to channel thoughts and emotions that may otherwise have gone unexpressed. This letter writing can often help to forge a sense of connectedness with the deceased which enables them to bear the pain of the loss much better.” For Gail, writing was a form of self-care and self-compassion, which Alice says is so important. “If you feel upset, let yourself cry. If you feel angry, let yourself vent. Be kind to yourself, be a bit selfish”. Gail agrees, and advises anyone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one to, “Give yourself time-outs from the world and your responsibilities – no excuses. Learn to reconnect with yourself again. Do something you enjoy, book an escape, make time for walks, give yourself permission for some ‘me’ time.”
For others, dealing with grief involves more family time. When Ali lost her mum on St. Patrick’s Day 2011, she found comfort in bonding with her dad. Their family had always been very close, and Ali says she was at her happiest when watching TV with her parents and husband, Scott. “Mummy was the type of woman who was everyone’s friend; she’d give you her last pound and if you rang her at 3am she’d be there in a heartbeat. She was a working class woman who worked hard to give me the life I have,” Ali adds, “but she unfortunately took ill in her forties with a heart attack, and from that, her body just deteriorated. She had nine heart attacks, multiple strokes, kidney disease and a really rare brain illness – yet she smiled through everything. She was truly inspiring.”
Her mum’s death made Ali become very protective of her dad. “I nearly go overboard at times with him,” she says. “When mummy was in the chapel of rest, daddy touched her forehead and turned away, and the look in his eyes was just fragility and brokenness. I’ll never forget that. He lost his soulmate of nearly 40 years – it’s hard to think of. Even now, six years on, I walk out of his house and I get choked some nights. I have Scott to come home to, whereas he has an empty house.”
Alice notes that, “When a family member dies, the impact on the functioning of the family as a whole can be huge. As a family is faced with a death they must adjust to not only the loss of a loved one but also the fundamental reorganisation of the family. The fewer relationships a family has to help to carry their loss, the greater the load of distress and tension they end up carrying.”
Grief tends to change over time. For some, the feelings of sadness may lessen and become less intrusive than they were at the start. For others, it’s only when some time has passed that the enormity of what has happened hits them. But whether or not your grief has peaked, Gail and Ali agree that acceptance helps you to carry on. Ali says, “My grief has now reached a point of acceptance. I get days where I’m upset… I graduated from uni last year and I really do wish she would’ve seen that. But I looked up and caught dad’s and Scott’s eyes, and that helped. You’ll never forget that person, but learning to live your life again will help you heal.”
Gail adds, “Mourn, and learn to adapt to and accept your new reality. Partake in life and eventually realise that it’s okay to laugh. Those who have passed would want you to be happy and lead a fulfilling life, taking every opportunity that comes your way, taking life by the balls and living it to the fullest. And, in the words of Matthew McConaughey, we need to learn to ‘just keep livin’”.
This article first appeared in the August issue of STELLAR Magazine. Our September issue is out now.
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