In the first few weeks after you died, my mind was constantly on overdrive, supplying a never-ending stream of memories I didn’t know I had. There were random flashbacks, endless unrelated questions, and huge, over-powering emotions. Entire conversations dredged up from the murky recesses of my memory and replayed ceaselessly in full. I experienced the five stages of grief immediately and concurrently. Continue reading
How To Cope With Grief
This post is sort of a sister post to my post last week – I promise no more morbid posts after this. I’ve mentioned numerous times that 2014 was a difficult year in which a number of people close to me died, three of whom were very young (22, 25 and 28). I’ve unwillingly learned a few things about coping with grief; I am a slow learner, but I’m getting there.
This year, two of my friends have in turn lost friends of theirs. I thought I’d write this post, not because I have the answers on how to deal with grief but just to pass on what helped. Grief is always going to be an incredibly personal and intimate experience, coloured by your relationship and contextualised by all sorts of nonspecific events. If I’m honest, my grief is something I’m still processing, and perhaps I will always be reeling from last year. But here is what I’m learning.
Allow Your Memories
All the deaths immediately sparked off a flood of memories for me – memories that had been long forgotten came zooming to the surface. I couldn’t stop my brain if I tried. I literally stared into space for a week whilst my brain regurgitated all sorts of random moments I’d thought I’d forgotten. I jotted everything down as fast I could – not because I wanted to go back and read them, but because I wasn’t sure if I’d remember them again. This also led me to..
I also wrote down how I was feeling every day. I was so aware that what was happening was bizarre and strange and uncalled for, especially with those who died young. I wanted to document that time, how I felt, what was happening to me and to us. After Pete died, some of what I wrote down made it out into the first three blog posts I wrote after his death. I’m not sure why I didn’t blog about the previous people I lost; I think I just needed a new outlet other than my diary by the time Pete died in November and I was so frustrated and exhausted from the people I’d already lost that year.
Don’t Question The Dead
Another knee-jerk, subconscious reaction was questioning the relationship I had with these people, especially the friends I was closest to. I started questioning what they thought about me, if they really cared, times we had bickered, times I had failed them. I wondered if we really were close or if I was making things bigger in my brain, and I questioned if I was entitled to my grief and deep sense of loss.
It was awful. I’m not at all anxious or neurotic normally but it was inescapable, thoughts spiralling out of control and my mind reminding me of all the bad times. After the fourth death and the fourth spiral into Paranoid Land I eventually (to my shame) approached a family member of the deceased, who I was on friendly terms with. He essentially took pity on me, told me I was being ridiculous and to not doubt my friend for a second, saying that I had been dearly loved and if my friend was still alive he would have chosen me all over again. I echoed these words in my post last week, as they have been one of the most enduring pieces of advice (if you can call it advice) that I received.
The final thought on this horrific line of self-analysis is that when you doubt somebody’s love, you undo all the things they did to SHOW their love for you whilst they were alive; you ignore all the pints they bought, lifts they gave, times they shared, hugs and kisses and compliments and all the rest of it. It’s insulting to the efforts they gave to you and a terrible way to recall them.
There were quite large parts of me that just wanted to curl up and avoid everybody after my friends died. I think that is important at times, but I also think you will have more than enough time dwelling in your own thoughts without purposely isolating yourself. It’s SO important to stay connected with your friends, even if you’re justing sending a text that says “:(” and even if it’s just to one person. Even the tiniest effort can inspire a friend to make the tiniest effort back, and eventually that turns into all of you helping each other out.
Turn It Into Something Else
For me processing these deaths has taken the form of a 12 song album and multiple blog posts. Songs and writing is what I do anyway, so it was no surprise really. Other friends talked about drawing pictures, getting tattoos, writing poems, cooking huge meals and even just pointlessly chopping logs to try and turn the grief into something else.
With each death, I found that almost everybody else immediately asked what happened. Not how I knew them, or what our relationship was, or how I felt, but straight off: how did they die? One person actually messaged me to say I’d “forgotten” to mention how Pete died in my first post. It is very rare for somebody to die in their twenties, so people are bound to be shocked and curious, and I understand that. But I can tell you now the cause of death seems very superfluous. The fact that my friends were no longer there was the real crux of the matter, and however they died does nothing to diminish the simple and overwhelming fact that they died.This sounds strange but another one of the things that most bothered me after the first friend of mine died last year (which was a suicide) was the number of people who could not relate. Whilst I’m incredibly grateful to the people who offered to talk or listen, I also felt like I had such a conflicted and nuanced set of feelings that I couldn’t possibly open up to somebody hadn’t lost someone in a similar circumstance. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to relate and you don’t have to say. A lot of people had an opinion on suicide without having experiencing it. I found it hard to articulate to people that I didn’t want to endlessly question my friend’s decision because I needed instead to just cope with the pure fact that he just was no longer there.
Death has always been a part of life and therefore people have always had to deal with grief and bereavement. This means there are millions of thoughts about death, about grief, about coping and about loss out there. There are films and books and documentaries and symphonies and songs and you can study them all and see how other people coped and I promise it helps.I’ve made a list of some of the films, books, music and TV that helped me begin to process my grief, and I will post about it separately at some point. By all means please add your own coping mechanisms below. I very much hope none of you have cause to read through this, but if you, then I send you all my love and I hope there may be something in this post for you.
The First Year Without You
You died a year ago today. I could feel my life splitting into two parts. Before and After. I hoped I might get back some of the things I left in Before, but I am not sure how it works. I saw your Dad this morning. He said, this last year has been a bit of a blur, mostly focused on surviving. He’s right. It has.
People say you know you’re getting old when your friends start dying. That means I got old last year. It was the year of death; I lost childhood friends, family friends, treasured mentors and worst of all, you. I’d been having a whale of a time being young, being happy, inching towards success when suddenly cancer, suicide, accidents, funerals, eulogies, graves and cremation threw themselves into my path unexpectedly. I think a lot of me is still mourning. My dreams are filled with all the people I’ve lost, even the ones still alive, the ones that got away. Sam told me, Will told me, my Dad told me: you need to get over this and move on.
But I can’t get past it. I don’t have the right coping mechanisms and I’m scared of going forward without you jumping through the same hoops with me, as you always have done. And besides, you’re everywhere; you’re in my lyrics, in my playlists, in my wardrobe, in my Favourite Contacts, in my stories and anecdotes, in my inbox, in my cat ears, in the colours of the leaves, in pumpkins, in the names of all our unborn children, in Will’s stupid jokes, in my harddrive, in unedited photos and hours of rehearsal footage I cannot watch.
People say that when somebody dies young it can remind you how precious life is, and how important it is to live every day to the fullest. This is a nice sentiment, except that is how I lived my life anyway. It turns out that there is a limit to carpe diem; if you push it too far it’s dangerous. It’s reckless, it’s breaking into where you shouldn’t be, it’s fooling around, losing things, insulting friends, drinking too much, staying out too late, worrying strangers, horrible, messy, not giving a shit about waking up tomorrow. It’s just easier.
You would hate this, you would hate me worrying about it, throwing so much away and taking the time to write this. What confuses me most is this: how far away are we going to get? You were 25, and I’ve caught up, as I normally do. Except next year I’ll be 26 and you’ll still be 25. That’s all wrong. What about when I’m 30? It’s so much time to miss you. What if I get all the way to 40?! What then?! We were all so young. What happens when we grow again? Will we think, oh, we were so young when we were 25..? What does that mean for you?
You would not be at all happy with me this year. I’ve done all the things you told me not to, and I’m far quicker to get angry about things: boys, money, not being white. I’m either tired and lethargic, or restless and wild. I’m evasive and avoiding us. I mention you a lot – subconsciously, I catch myself after and feel stupid. I’m scared of our stories continuing without you. My Dad’s brother died when he was 27. I didn’t even know my Dad had a brother until I was about 12. I asked my Dad, why don’t you talk about your brother more? He looked at me kind of blankly and said, well, it was a very long time ago.
You and me won’t be like that. I’m so grateful, I’m so happy you were here – and you were here, you were here, YOU WERE HERE. You were here with me, you chose to spend your time with me, you chose to support me, you chose my projects, my gig, my shout, my birthday, this, us. I am so lucky I got that. If you were here you would probably choose all those things again. I have to think that. And sometimes, for a moment, the sun shines and makes everything golden, and the leaves are orange, orange everywhere, and I turn the volume up, and I remember that YOU WERE HERE and you chose this, and it makes me so so happy. And it is just for a moment, but it is a moment more than I had a year ago.
I don’t know very much about funerals. I don’t know very much because I am young, and I shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing, and I shouldn’t have to be going, and I shouldn’t have to be writing about it, and you shouldn’t be dead. I imagine funerals for the people you love always seem to hurtle out of nowhere, greeted by the living in a manic, tear-soaked blur. I imagine everybody staggers through them in a mixture of shellshock, grief, disbelief and autopilot. I imagine there are never right words to say and right ways to behave, because they are always inherently wrong. But I do not know for certain.
We are young. We should not be making speeches and preparing to say goodbye to our friends. That’s the kind of thing parents and grandparents and old people do. Not us. Not now. We’re adults now, but I’ve not felt so much like a child in a long time. I felt helpless the entire day, unable to understand and comprehend what was going on, no idea what was happening, constantly turning to other people for help. A childish voice in my head shouting “Stop! Stop!”. It was overwhelming, unfamiliar, confusing. I felt like a child, and the adults felt less like equals and more like the all-knowing, all-seeing guardians that adults seem to be when you are very young.
You could tell the “adults” because they understand the gestures of the day a bit more. Possibly they have navigated such wearying, bewildering terrain before. Maybe death becomes a little more inevitable, rather than a hideous yet entirely mythical drama (as death is for me). I assume that for adults death is more of an emerging part of the landscape, an unwanted but inescapable horizon. I do not know, because I am young.
The start of the funeral was too soon. We slept late in the morning and there were a few surreal hours; gathered at your parents, food and flowers everywhere. We were all dressed smartly: Will and Dan in matching white shirts and orange ties, me in that mental orange ballgown you loved (I’d forgotten it was so low-cut), Rick walking around handing out orange silk bow-ties. We’d all slept over the night before. It felt a bit like a wedding; people arriving, tasks to do, everybody looking dapper. It was a bit unfamiliar, but in an almost exciting way, mostly because it felt like you just hadn’t arrived yet and you were on your way. It didn’t feel sad. My brain wouldn’t compute that I should feel sad. I spoke to Charlotte and she also felt like this; like it can’t be happening, because it’s not something that should be happening, so it must be that we’re doing something else. Even my rational, educated, thoughtful brain was dumbfounded into shock and despair, preferring to supply illusions rather than accept. I was making endless teas and coffees. One or two people arrived, than a few more, and then suddenly: everyone. Too soon I looked out the window at the driveway. Flashes of orange everywhere; ribbons, hair, shirts, shoes, flowers. And then I remembered we weren’t at a wedding and you were gone and everything went blurry and I started weeping into the sink, Dan next to me, still washing up the empty cups.
Too soon we had to leave the house. I wanted to stop everything and scream, “BUT I’M NOT READY, I HAVEN’T FINISHED MAKING THE TEA”. Grief makes you crazy. You would have loved the procession. You would have been so proud of Sam and Box9. They played incredibly. I’m so glad they were in your life and they could help make your dreams come true. I was just thinking all of this and then we’d reached the end of the procession; it was over too soon, and we stood by the road, and you arrived, and it was the most fucking awful arrival ever and just too bloody soon. It was awful, because it wasn’t you really, but what we still had of you, and even though deep down I knew it wasn’t you, my crazy brain wanted to go over and hug the car, climb onto the back, be with you anyway, in any way I could, no matter.
Too soon we were getting into cars and driving to the service. We sat, us 6, us lot, all together, except not, except missing one, and we held each other and we cried. I had my arms round Blake, my hand on Dan, Will’s hand on my shoulder, Steph passing tissue after tissue, my tears on Dan’s trousers and Blake’s shirt, Blake’s tears on my dress, all of messed up together. Your mum said later we were the noisiest row. We sat in the row reserved for family, right behind your parents and Tim. Like Charlotte said last week, we are each other’s family. We don’t have children and partners and families of our own yet, but we’ve stopped depending on our parents and living with our siblings. We’re between families; we have each other.
I wrote down the barest minimum of my feelings and read them out. Like you so famously said, I’m the “reading and writing one”, so it made sense that it was me (although you probably would have told me to shut up). I didn’t want to talk about these horrible awful last few weeks; who wants to hear more about how shit everything is? I tried to sum us up instead. I don’t have any other friendships as long-lasting and confusing and complex and wonderful, and now I don’t have ours, so I don’t have any. I couldn’t get it down in words, so I just read whatever I had written. I stumbled over the tense, as I have been doing for the last month. Who could have imagined the pain of the past tense, the torture of “was”? I managed not to cry. I got to the end and looked up and everybody else was crying for me. I’ve never felt more grateful for a round of applause. And that is how it was. We stood up and spoke for you and we sat down and cried for you.
And then we had to leave the crematorium and it was too soon and it was awful. My mind was going “this is the last time we’ll all be together, the last room we’ll all be together, us 5” and I just couldn’t walk out of there, away from that huge part of my life where we existed together in many, many rooms and into the next part of my life where we would never exist like that again. We were the last to leave; we stood there and hugged and then left as one, Blake and I looking back for a final glance at your be-ribboned nest, Dans shaking arms round my shoulders. We stood outside, everyone in coats and little groups. The sun had set.
It was exhausting. We drove back from you at about 5pm and even then it felt like it was 1am. The next 7 hours felt like 1am, actually. Why was it so tiring?
We went back to the village hall and it felt a bit like something else; like a party, like a gathering, like a celebration. There were contributions from every aspect of your life and it was incredible. Performances from your friends, your family friends, your pupils, your colleagues, your teachers, your peers, people who’d known you a short time and people who’d known you a very long time indeed. Everybody became friends. Every single performance was brilliant, everybody poured their hearts out, everybody nailed it. We were the most scruffy, but then I guess that’s WOLF PACK and God knows I tried, tried to get that lump out of my throat and just sing the songs. James and I did that Beyonce song, Love On Top; you and me used to argue about the production on the song but were both in agreement that 5 key changes was a bit of a cop-out. James and I did 17 key changes for you. There was so much happiness and joy everywhere and it was a bit like a wedding again; a celebration of pure love. I kept thinking how happy you would have been. It was warm, and friendly, and heartfelt; the sort of thing that could have felt cheesy or clichey but really, really didn’t. It felt unique. And it was wonderful. I didn’t think anything so awful could possibly be wonderful, but it was, and you would have loved it, and if that can be wonderful maybe other things can to.
The weird thing with funerals is seeing so many people you haven’t seen for a long time. How cruel to mastermind all these little reunions and catch-ups for such a horrific day. There were many familiar face amongst the adults. I wanted to speak coherently, but everybody just reminded me of you, and I couldn’t. Thank God for the boys, for the wolves, for the rallying, for the hugs, for the understanding. Even that made me think of you; you lot always worried about me and looked after me. You were there in their mixed hugs and whispered assurances, the shoulder pats, the hand squeezes.
Afterwards almost everybody had gone. I was drifting off, taking in only about 30% of the words directed at me and talking to Sam about how hard it was to stay awake, Dan was doing endless runs to the pub over the road and bringing back all their pint glasses. Weirdly I kept imagining he should have a cape, so heroic was his pint-bearing pilgrimage. We went into the pub, Will got a round in and as I sat between Dan and James waiting for the pint I realised it was the first time in that whole day that felt normal. Here we were, in a little country pub, just us lot, having a pint, no agenda and it was so completely and utterly pedestrian, so run-of-the-mill, so ordinary and us. It could almost have been any one of a million identical nights that came before it. You may as well have been there. Actually, in amongst the jokes, the laughing, the teasing, the bickering over music choices and the downing of 57% rum shots, you were. I’m not religious, or a believer in the afterlife, or anything like that, but I did briefly think; if he’s anywhere, it’s here. Here in the familiar chit-chat, the ethnic jokes, the ginger jokes, the Jesus jokes, the clink of pints, the laughter. And maybe that’s just what we all have to do next; find the places where you still are and go to them.
Maybe that’s what funerals are for. They’re not for the dead; how can they be? What do the dead know? They’re for those of us left behind; they’re a way to show us what happens next, how things can be, how we can be. They’re a reminder of those we hold closest, because we hold them close on the day. We showed our respects; not to you, but to each other. I think this is what funerals are supposed to be for. A declaration of love; for you, for us, for each other. A huge communal hug.
But what do I know? I do not know much, because I am young, and really, so are you. And it is still just all too soon. And I guess in a way, it will always be. ?
It has been 2 days now. Why is time doing this? Why are the days furiously marching on? You were here on Saturday, and then Sunday cruelly arrived and left you behind, left you on Saturday. Why did you do that, Sunday? Why couldn’t we have stayed on Friday a bit longer? I finally fell to sleep yesterday, but when I woke up I found Monday was here. Fucking Monday. Monday belligerently shoved itself in my face, taking me even further away from Saturday, and Friday, and Thursday, and all the days before that which had you in them. Monday is a stubborn, uninvited guest, sitting squarely in front of me and demanding my attention. Fuck off Monday! I don’t want you and I don’t want any other days to come. I want the days I had. You were 25, you deserve the rest of your days. Why can’t time just pause for a minute and let me make some sense of this?
Grief is a jester, pranking me, tricking me. The last time Grief visited like this was 4 years ago, My Dad comforted me by telling me the sun would rise again tomorrow. Grief came to him early too, and he confronted you, and he learned to address you. The sun will rise again tomorrow. Life would go on, a new day would dawn, all things must pass. And so my father taught me how to deal with you. Except Grief pranked us, that’s not how it works at all. Grief laughs in our face, fools us twice. Those thoughts are not comforting now. The sun will rise again tomorrow. It’s terrifying. It’s like a curse. Why? Why does the sun have to rise? Why can’t it go back? And if we can’t go back, can we just stay here for a bit? How can this pass? How can I live the rest of my life without you?
Grief is a director, and we are it’s unwilling ensemble cast. Grief forces us to re-run our lines, find a new way of spreading the news, rehash the same scene over and over. Grief forces us into weird role-playing exercises where we constantly change character. Steph told me on the phone, and I gaped and swore back at her, disbelieving. A few hours later I told Danilo, Emily, Ariane, all the wolves. It was my turn to be stoic and matter of fact whilst they swore back at me. I called Will and cried at him, he offered some comforting words. Earlier he had been the one crying down the phone at Dan. Yesterday I saw Tim, I became hysterical and he hugged me. 45 minutes later and the roles were reversed. Grief is a hall of mirrors. I tried to keep it together and talk about you, and celebrate you, and tell all those poor people who didn’t know you why you were so incredible. My heart goes out to them; they will never know you. They have no memories to cherish. That seems worse. At the end of the night we locked up the building and then all of us wolves stood in a circle, me weeping in the middle. We stayed like that for a long time.
I’ve been trying to distract myself. Yesterday I cooked your favourite curry; that was a solid two hours because cooking curry is like breathing to me and I could just cook without thinking or speaking or saying or remembering. I made a list of everyone I needed to call, and then I had the task of calling them all, and I like lists and I like having tasks to complete. But then it was done and I had nothing to distract me anymore.
Grief goes straight for the jugular. On Saturday I felt like my heart was wilting, like my heart was being drained of all life and slowly fading into nothingness. I thought, well, my heart is giving up, at least I won’t have to feel like this much longer. But no. My stupid heart has kept me here without you. All of us are orbiting different spaces, except they are also the same. Grief is like a slow toxic poison, it does not strike us together, it seeps between us. We display different symptoms at different times and we’re aware of the sensation without any cure to offer each other. I feel like I want to reach out to everybody else in our gang and just talk constantly and be near them. Some people feel like being alone and hiding away and I feel like I can’t be alone, I have to be together. I have to be constantly in contact to be sure everybody else is still here and feeling like this. So. Where does that leave us? Grief wrenches us apart and then tries to throw us together haphazardly. Grief is manipulative, a cold-hearted bitch, delighting in our awkwardness. Why so much vengeance, Grief?
Grief attacks physically. It is a skilled hunter, sparing no part of me. My brain feels slow and dulled, my limbs seem heavy, my body is cumbersome. A burden. How am I meant to lift my head and walk around and be active? My stupid voice. I sang and talked and even laughed yesterday when we were remembering you, and now it feels cold and shrivelled, a rotting animal in my stomach. I may never sing again. My eyes see less, they just blur and prickle and cry all the time. They play tricks on me; I saw you walking into the percussion room or received a text from you, except it was somebody else and I misread the name. Stupid eyes. What use are they? I am so short-sighted anyway.
Grief has stalled me. My mind is broken, memories are just flashing up randomly, rudely, disrupting me when I am trying to text and call and cancel lessons and tell people where I live and ask for help and I just sit there wondering what I was doing. Two days feels like a desert where I lost myself. Stalling, suffocating. Seeking a mirage, except that is the worst kind of hope and actually not hope at all but a fucking ordeal. Fuck it.
The Wasp Factory
(Picture c/o Royal Opera House website)
This week I was back at home in London following a week off to recover from illness. I tried very hard to schedule in a minimum of work but still seem to be out of the house most days! By far the best thing I have done this week was see the recent production of ‘The Wasp Factory’ at the Royal Opera House and is an adaptation of the book of the same name by the late, wonderful Iain Banks. I’m normally very critical and am rarely “blown away” by anything, whether it’s art, music, theatre, games, books etc. ‘The Wasp Factory’ is one of my favourite books and of the few books that has “blown me away” but given that large amounts of the book are long anecdotes retold by Frank, the unreliable first person narrator, I was skeptical as to how well the book could be adapted for the stage.
However, I thought ‘The Wasp Factory’ was astoundingly good and I can’t remember the last time I felt such an impact from a show. Bold, striking, brave, innovative and extremely powerful, I spent the entire performance entranced and barely able to process what I was seeing. After the show had finished I just felt an overwhelming ache and numb shock; how can I make performances like that? How can I be in that show? Where can I learn to do that? I should have liked to have seen it on an even bigger stage with the orchestra hidden, projected backgrounds and a longer, more violent ending – but it was still completely magical.
It’s very rare for me to feel that kind of kinship with a work. I often think that’s why I create songs and music and concerts; because the ideas I have in my head so rarely exist in the physical world. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot I enjoy, but it’s so rare for me to find something that just chimes with my own ideas and feelings.