When Grief Becomes Too Great, I Switch On The Light
Grief’s a funny thing. I know it’s not something normally associated with comedy, although I do remember once bursting out laughing when I was told that one of my schoolfriends had died. Now, death isn’t very funny, particularly if you’re the one that’s died. I know that now as an adult, but when you’re eight and you’re faced with the prospect that Claudia isn’t coming into school again because she’s gone and done something called dying and she’s gone forever; and you don’t understand that forever means, well, forever, you laugh to hide your ignorance.
Looking back, as that term progressed at my rather expensive prep school that hadn’t actually prepared any of us in Form 1 Alpha for the death of a classmate, we were all slightly suspicious that Claudia wasn’t coming back when she missed the end of term disco, an event that allowed all the posh girls (us) to run amok with all the posh boys at the boy’s prep school at the other end of the field. I remember Poppy was actually quite pleased because it meant that she could get off with Piers (who was ten and quite advanced for his age) without competition from Claudia, who had been a child model before her untimely disappearance.
So, yes, grief is a funny thing, a natural reaction to loss that manifests itself in a variety of ways whch most of us recognise at some point in our lives because we all experience it – loss – whether it is loss due to bereavement, or loss of a job, a loved one through a break up. We all go through it and we sometimes laugh to create a defence to our deeper, innermost feelings – those ‘classic’ stages of grief which we are supposed to experience and which are considered acceptable reactions to something that we once had, but have no longer.
There are five stages of grief, apparently. It begins with denial, working up to anger, then moves into bargaining, which gives way to depression which finally dulls into acceptance. It’s this acceptance thing that worries me, because I don’t think I’ve ever accepted the fact that my daughter died when she was six months old. I can remember the denial bit. I kept it up for years, buying birthday presents, wrapping paper, cards which will remain unopened for eternity. I can trace my dead daughters’ progress through school by the unworn school uniforms purchased each year and which I found in the loft recently; a sad timeline of a mothers’ grief. I finally stopped shopping in Tammy Girl and Top Shop when my youngest son moved into sixth form, because I didn’t need to buy uniforms any longer.
I donated all ‘her’ clothes to charity shops after discovering them in the loft, and it made me wonder had I finally reached the end of my grieving process? I’ve accepted that she is dead; I’ve bargained with a God whom I no longer believe in; I’ve been depressed – who wouldn’t be after walking into a dark, semi lit nursery on a cold winter morning to hear not the snuffling, impatient sounds of a hungry baby waking up, but the still silence of death. I’m supposed to be okay now. I’m a fully functioning, rational adult who just happens to have found her six month old daughter dead in her cot. No problem! Only it is.
Who writes this stuff about ACCEPTING? You accept a compliment. You accept a pay rise. You do not accept the death of a loved one. You do not accept that one day they were alive and the next they were not. Let me tell everyone right now – acceptance does not come with the death of a child, so the grieving process lasts the lifetime they never had. There is no resolution, and that’s why I am afraid of the dark, and sleep with the light on.
I’ve been an insomniac ever since Lucy died. Because she died in her sleep, I had no control over her death – there were no medications to administer that may have prevented her quiet departure from the short life she was allocated; I could not tap her tiny chest and deliver CPR to a baby heart that simply stopped beating, tired already of living. She simply went to sleep and never woke up. So, apart from the dreadful recurring nightmare I suffer from when the burden of being awake does overwhelm me, when in sleep I recall that indescribable moment of leaning into her cot and seeing not a pink, wriggling baby but a tiny pale form, lips and fingers tinged with a blue unearthly pallor, stilled by death – apart from that nightmare, I fear sleeping because I fear more loss. Every night before that moment which is supposed to liberate me from conscience into sleepy oblivion, to drift peacefully into pleasant dreams, my symptoms resemble anxiety. I sit in bed with sweating palms, with a heart which jumps around my chest as if it is going to burst through my rib cage. I can’t breathe, I can’t see. I feel faint. Acceptance? No. Unaddressed anxiety? Yes, maybe.
It’s hard being bereaved. Not only have you lost a loved one, but you are supposed to be categorised, pigeon holed into certain behavioural patterns which let everyone know you’re ‘better’. Baby just died? Oh, you’ll be angry. Six months on and still not over it? Oh, you’re in denial. You need to move onto acceptance. No, I do not. I will never accept losing my child, but I would like my anxiety to be addressed. Perhaps if this stage of my grief had been spotted and acknowledged all those years ago, I might be able to sleep soundly, with the lights off.
Claire Bidwell – Smith wrote an excellent article about changing the five stages of grief (see slate.com – it’s worth a read). She makes the excellent point of if you’ve already lost a loved one, what is there to bargain for? I spent years in denial; years bargaining with God? With myself? Years paying the electricity company over the odds for all the nights I’ve spent with my bedside light on, with the door open and a chink of light from the landing burning its wattage; and when I still lived on the island of Anglesey, where my daughter died, I kept her nursery light blazing brightly for years after her death. I look back now and see that in doing that I was denying that dreadful early morning discovery when the dark had taken my daughters’ life, and it’s only now that I realise it was anxiety, not grief that made me switch on the light that I still haven’t found the courage, or the peace of mind to switch off.
© Amy J Steinberg 2018