What I Learned In Loss – & What I Wish I Knew About Grief

"To honour those gone, and to honour yourself, you have to live your life"

Photo by Angela Roma / Pexels

Megan Roantree lost both her dad and her best friend Shauna in her teens, now she reflects on the things it taught her about grief, and what she wishes she knew.

It’s a physical pain

I don’t think we talk enough about how painful grief can be in the physical sense. My dad was sick for five years before he withered away and died. It might sound cruel to use the term wither, when he was a like strong tree in my childhood, but he did. In size, in shape, in his ability to talk and to hear.

When I realised this withering was really happening, and that he was in fact going to die, I thought my chest might crack. It wasn’t like a panic attack, it was a quiet but very painful snap in my chest. I was thirteen, I was halfway up the stairs, and it just happened. A poet might say it was my heart breaking, and maybe it was.

But it didn’t feel poetic. It’s not something I ever thought of as part of the grief and I wish I knew it was normal in those early days. Everything from headaches to hair loss, blurred vision and weakness can come with grieving for someone you love.

It comes in waves, forever

‘You have ups and downs’, ‘It comes in waves’ – these are things I was told in the early days after my dad died. But I think after the first or second anniversary came, people stopped saying it. I wish they didn’t, because it doesn’t stop. It never gets to a point where you ‘get it’ and where you know your place in the sadness and loss.

Sure, it gets more manageable, and maybe there are months, as time goes on, that you don’t cry about it anymore, but some of the biggest stormiest waves, and thickest currents have come more recently, 16 years later. When I think about my dad not meeting my fiancé, or our ever-expanding amazing family. That my nephews know him only as a bedtime story, that he never knew I’d turn writing into a job.

There are days when I am crippled by it. So the waves were far more predictable in the first few years. I knew that I’d be sad, then okay, then sad, and so on. Now though, it’s as if the gaps between ‘okay’ and ‘sad’ are bigger, but when the sad comes, it’s more powerful than ever. In November, Shauna was 12 years gone. I lay down and listened to a recording of her singing Someone Like You and I thought I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed ever again.

Other years, on her anniversary, I went to work and got on with it. This year, I couldn’t even do my usual lighting of a candle in a church because I was too crippled by sadness to move. I thought if I walked into a church, which I only ever do for funerals and anniversary masses, I would want to curl up on the cold ground in there and never move. So I avoided it altogether.

Other years it would have brought me great comfort to sit in silence in the pews and think of her. I don’t know how I’ll feel next year or what I’ll do. These are the waves.

A meal can help heal

I’ll keep this one short, but food is a love language in grief. If you want to help someone, bring them soup, bring them bread and milk. Bring them food that takes no brainpower. Don’t ask for permission, just drop it to the door.

During the wake and funeral, food is a very Irish way of coping. But when those big days end and those left alone are standing in the supermarket struggling to remember which toilet paper they usually buy, a meal brought to them without choice or question can mean everything.

If it doesn’t get used or it goes in the bin, who cares? You did it, you helped them, it was there.

You live differently

It didn’t teach me to live life to the fullest – at least not in the way I thought it was meant to. They say that grief really teaches you to live every day like it’s your last, to see the world, do things that scare you, and I’m sure this is common for many people, but that’s not how it affected me.

I live a life full of gratitude, sure, even with the odd day spent complaining – but it made me yearn for the opposite of adventure, for glorious comfort and warmth, coming home to my partner, and counting my blessings for a simple little life that I’ve created for myself with the help of magic people around me.

I love to travel and have long, late nights out with my friends, but for the most part, I truly count my blessings when I’m walking past a nice tree, or holding a good cup of tea, and I know that I’m okay.

Therapy helps, but it’s trial and error

It’s not groundbreaking for me to tell you that therapy is a huge part of coping with grief for so many people, and I can easily say that it changed my life. I thought that losing my dad and Shauna was sad and scary, and it was, but it was so much more than that.

It changed my life in almost every way, it made me grieve for myself and the person I might have been if I got to grow up with an alive dad and a best friend who was part of our growing and learning. It seems obvious now, but I didn’t really realise a lot of that until I untangled it like a chain in years and years of therapy. I also just wish I knew that you have to keep trying, and it won’t be easy.

My first therapist was lovely, but I was thirteen and afraid to tell the truth. I said I was sad, but I didn’t tell her much more. My therapist in college was nice, but other than suggesting anti-depressants, I’m not sure we delved particularly deep. But then I found someone, perhaps because I was older and ready, who was the perfect match for me to face just how many ways grief messed me up.

But thankfully, it also helped me see compassion and empathy for myself and as a result, in short, just made my life nicer to live in.

You world is going to expand, let it happen

In losing my dad and Shauna in my teens, I was so glued to that world and that time in my life that I was terrified for it to grow or change. I thought that if my world expanded that they’d become a smaller part of it. Somewhere along the way (much later than I’d care to admit) I learned that your world is going to expand anyway, and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

My friendship circle and my family has grown and I’m so blessed and grateful for those things every day. If my world stayed exactly as it was when I was 16, I’d miss out on some of the greatest joys of my life.

I wish I knew this most of all – in the early grief days, you will want everything to stay the exact same, but one day you’ll realise that to honour those gone, and to honour yourself, you have to live your life and let your world expand.

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of STELLAR magazine.