On Friday morning last week, my cherished godmother died of pneumonia in hospital.
On Sunday afternoon, my father-in-law passed away suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack.
There are days, thankfully usually few and far between, where your entire world is shaken. You stare out the window blankly and cannot quite believe that the world is still going about its usual day.
Several years ago, I found myself in the bizarre and distressing position of grieving my own life. It’s not somewhere you ever expect to find yourself, but I never realized how similar the process was until now.
When I was told I was in advanced stages of cancer, my initial response was one of disbelief, of denial, of the refusal to believe that this could be happening to me. I saw the same look reflected in the faces of my family and friends – the same look of shock that this could happen to someone so young and healthy.
It took a while for the reality to sink in, but after treatment began, in the quiet moments of solitude, the anger started to leak out. I would cry out to God to ask “why me?” and was angered for the other people, especially those younger than me, who I met who were going through the same thing.
Bargaining came first in the form of “what if”s: what if I had been healthier, if I had had more exercise, if I had taken more time looking after myself, if the doctors had recognized it earlier, if I had led my life a little differently? This looking back led me also to look forward, praying and praying that God would get me through it, that I would be healed and restored, that I would be given a chance to live my life differently.
The depression was not as all-encompassing as it had been before the treatments began, but the tiredness I felt, an exhaustion like nothing I had ever experienced, reminded me constantly of the situation I was in. The hair that fell out in clumps, the PICC line that remained permanently in my arm, the reflection in the mirror of someone who didn’t look like the me I knew, but some pale, skinny, sick girl who looked a little like me, but wasted away. All of these things were constant reminders, and I hated them for it.
I can remember the exact moment when I reached acceptance. About a month after being given the all-clear, I was overwhelmed by a mingled sense of loss and hope. I have never cried so many tears in one go as I did in that moment, but the sense of peace was like nothing I had ever known.
And yet… there are simply no words to tell someone who is grieving this. Platitudes, religious promises, hopeful messages, laughter… all of these things are useful and necessary, but the truth is, when you are drowning in the middle of a lake of grief, it is very hard to recognize a rope being offered to you.
For now, we talk about the good times, we laugh and cry together, we love each other through it, we appreciate those who are still with us a little more. It will get better. Everything will be ok. But for now, we move one step at a time, and we offer and gladly receive empathy, especially from those who have been there before.
On Monday morning, my husband and I went to mass, as it was being offered for my father-in-law. At the end of mass, something beautiful happened. Nobody asked us the million questions we were fearing. Nobody tried to find out how they could help when we had no idea. Nobody pressured us into saying what we weren’t ready to say. The people there were mostly our grandparents’ age. But they knew. They had buried parents, siblings, children, spouses. So they did the most beautiful and wonderful thing they could have done. They clasped our hands in theirs, and looked into our eyes with a look of complete and utter understanding.
That look and that touch said a thousand things. It told us that they knew how it felt, that there was nothing they could say, that there is hope, that it gets better.
If there is one thing I have realized in the last few days, it is that when you are faced with someone else’s grief, and you realize that you feel utterly useless against it, offers of help and hope are good, but empathy and comfort are infinitely better.