“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes” – from Preludes and Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman
Five years ago to the day tomorrow, 18th January, I lost my beautiful grandmother – Gangy – my Dad’s mother. We lost her suddenly, with an undiagnosed heart condition taking her away unexpectedly and cruelly for us, although without much pain and suffering for her. Just shy of 11 years beforehand I lost my Grannie, my Mum’s mother. She died of liver cancer, with which she had suffered for many months; becoming particularly unwell in her final months. As a sharp woman she was particularly distressed at the way the pain medication made her confused and helpless. In her lucid moments she knew how dependant on her carers and her family she was, and it upset her greatly. Her months of suffering gave her family a chance to prepare for her passing, so that when it came it wasn’t a shock, although still terribly sad; but they were at times such terrible months for her.
My grief at their passing was intense, deep, painful. I was much younger when Grannie died and was going through a tough time with my mental health. I look back and I know I never gave myself space to grieve properly at the time, and this had longer term impact on my depression. When Gangy died I was healthier, stronger, and better able to understand how to allow myself to grieve. I was able to cry until the tears were gone because I understood that however many tears there are, they will stop, and you have be able to let yourself cry to lean that.
These women, these two incredible women, had so much influence on my life and thoughts; two powerful and outspoken women who helped raise me and encouraged me to just be me as hard as I could. I can’t think of many things in my life I have found harder to deal with than their loss.
Grief is probably one of the most difficult and complex emotions anyone can experience. Grief goes beyond emotion. It’s a visceral process, as varied from person to person as people’s personalities are. It’s not predictable. It doesn’t have a pattern. You hear about the clichéd “five stages” but these do not – cannot – cover an individual’s grieving process. Each time you lose someone that process is different. With each different person you lose the way the grief hits you and carries you is new, and yet each new grief re-awakens the old pains of your previous losses, even those old grief scars you’ve learned to bear with bitter-sweetness.
You can’t even predict when the grief will really enfold you. With Grannie, if I am honest, it took months before I was even able to start processing it. With Gangy, it was immediate and raw. Grief for someone never truly goes away, you just eventually learn how to hold it and turn it into something you can live with and even occasionally find comfort in; but the smallest things can trigger a memory or a thought, even so many years later. A smell, a colour. A gift in a shop that for a moment you think “I should buy that for her birthday, she would love it.” A fleeting waking moment after a dream where they’re still alive. A burst of sadness, a wave of sorrow. Sometimes the old grief makes us think about our loved ones still with us leaving and we grieve for a future without them in it.
With David Bowie dying on Monday – reportedly of the same type of Cancer that took my Grannie – and Alan Rickman dying on Wednesday, I have thought a lot about how we understand grief. When younger, I had never been someone who grieved celebrities; taking the line of “I didn’t know them, it’s not my place to grieve”. When someone famous passed I felt it was sad, and I sometimes shed a tear for them and for their families and loved ones that would miss them, but it wasn’t grief. It wasn’t part of a grieving process in the way it was when I lost my grandmothers. But when Terry Pratchett passed away last year, it hit me hard, and long, and it burnt. It hurt. I had to leave work when I heard the news. I sat in a park and cried, and cried. I stopped crying, made it home, and cried some more. I rang some friends. We cried. I grieved. I still grieve, and recognise that. I haven’t read his final Discworld, “The Shepard’s Crown”, because I am not ready to. Once I read it, that’s all the Discworlds gone. Not reading it means there’ll always be another to read. I know, because I have grieved before, that this is part of the process, and at some point I will be ready to read it. I will probably cry when I do.
In this last week the passing of David Bowie – who heavily influenced my final year performance piece at university – and Alan Rickman – one of my favourite actors since I first saw Truly Madly Deeply – I again recognise what I am feeling as grief. I surround myself with their work, Bowie’s music and Rickman’s films and remember them, and cry. I think of the ways in which they’ve been a part of my life and my development, and my understanding and acceptance of who I am, and I love them, and I cry.
And so the process goes.
At the same time as I grieve, I recognise that my grief is not the grief of their loved ones, their partners or their families. It’s not the grief of losing my grandmothers who were a physical presence in my life. But it’s still grief. When I lost my grandmothers, my grief wasn’t the grief of my mother or my father, or my aunts and uncles. They were grieving for their mother. And yet my grief was still grief.
In the days after Gangy died, the cards started arriving. So many cards. And at her funeral, and later her memorial, there was standing room only. People were listening from outside the door. So many people came, because she’d touched so many people’s lives and warmed so many people’s hearts. All of those people were grieving her, even those that didn’t know her as a grandmother, or a mother or a sister. They grieved for a beautiful life, a warm heart, a creative soul – and they grieved for us who knew her. And the grief of all of these people, many of whom I didn’t know, was a comfort to me too. To know how many people cared so intensely about my grandmother to come and mark her passing, to let me know how they were hurting too because she wasn’t in the world any more felt like people reaching out to hold your hand, squeezing it, saying “our grief isn’t your grief, but we understand it, and we care too”. It didn’t soothe or calm the grief, but it made the process easier in a way. I hope that the loved ones of Bowie, Rickman, Pratchett, Lemmy and the other recently fallen heroes find a similar comfort in the grief of all of those who loved them from afar.
Grief isn’t about how well you knew someone, how long you knew them, how much time you had to prepare to lose them, how close you were to them. Grief isn’t a competition. Grief isn’t predictable. It’s not a switch that can be turned on or off. It’s not a finite resource. There isn’t a limited amount of grief in the universe that we all share and can only use in certain circumstances that meet a set of requirements. We’re not born with a fixed amount of grief to be shared out among the people close to us. We all grieve people who we loved, or who loved us, or made us love life or fall in love with someone else, or who in some way made us who we are, or who inspired us, or made us think and feel, or made us live and feel joy and helped us find ways to express that.
And, I would argue, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.