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Surviving cumulative grief

People won’t always understand how complex cumulative grief is, and that’s ok. Be around your friends anyway, even if you’re feeling disconnected. My friends and a few close family members have been a lifeline to me.

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With the benefit of a being a few years (and a fair amount of therapy and bourbon-soaked tears) down the line, I’m thankful to be able to preface this story with the takeaway that there can be positive outcomes of sorts to all types of grief, even cumulative.

The feeling left behind isn’t loss but gratitude and love for who and what I had. Bittersweet gratitude, perhaps? Definitely smiles.

It feels far more positive than those early days when life circumstances felt so tragically absurd that I look back and wonder how my little family are still standing now. Albeit a little more splintered than we were before.

If anyone is reading this is in the darkest days of carrying more loss than they think is bearable, I hope that you can take away that you won’t always feel so raw, angry, confused and exposed. And that one day in the near future, whilst your life may be different than you imagined, you will definitely be ok.

What is cumulative grief?

In 2017, the term ‘cumulative grief’ – the experience of multiple bereavements before you’ve had a chance to recover from the original loss – wasn’t on my radar. My beloved granda lived – and lived well – until I was 29, my grandmother and best friend, ‘til I was 38.

Whilst my life was by no means silver spoon in my mouth, growing up in the East end of Glasgow, it was an easy life with very little in the way of trauma or drama. My mum and her sister were both working single parents and my core family unit was mum, gran, granda, aunt Ellie and her two daughters who were my ‘sisters.’ We were a small family but a tight little unit. We lived in each other’s pockets – quite literally – in the same street, holidayed together, shopped together, were usually to be found in my grandparent’s house on any given day.

Then, as an adult with a family of my own, my weekends were spent at my gran’s house along with my mum and Aunt Ellie, and my sisters, our kids (all seven of them!) and our partners. My gran had moved to one-bedroom flat just before my granda died. It was bedlam, but the best sort of bedlam. Christmas Days there were loud, noisy and truly unforgettable.

A wave of loss

In the summer of 2017, in the space of four months, I lost four of my closest female relations. That included three generations from my tight little unit, gone in the blink of an eye. My gran, two aunts and godmother, my little ‘blister’ Kirsty. The loved ones who sat at the top tables at my wedding and walked with me down the aisle. I quite literally got a phone call that omy aunt was dead whilst I was standing by my gran’s bedside talking to her consultant about her long term prognosis (not good).

Just days later it became clear that my Aunt Ellie was very poorly too and she was hospitalised days after. Those weeks were a hot mess of trying to hold it together at work, daily visits to various wards and different hospitals in the evening and ultimately hoping for the best whilst waiting for the inevitable to happen to both of them. We lived like that – hope, hanging on by a thread for 3-4 months.

Treading water

I can’t remember much about that time, except just trying to tread water and not letting the overwhelm take over. Nervous smiles whenever people spoke to me, not really being able to let my guard down anywhere. Juggling a stressful job, daily hospital visits, home to my family exhausted at 9.30pm, surgeon and consultant meetings making decisions we didn’t feel equipped to make. A general feeling of being unsafe and waiting for the worst to happen. As a family we were stressed out, grieving multiple losses, before they happened.

I recall feeling that my work – a relatively new job – must think I was slightly unhinged or over-exaggerating what we were going through. That people…work colleagues, friends, just didn’t understand. I felt separate from them all.

Both my gran and her daughter died within weeks of each other that summer. I’ve been preparing to lose my grandmother from the moment I was old enough to realise how precious grandmas were (surely they have a little bit of magic in them?) I know I was lucky to have had her for so long. I always knew it would break my heart to lose her. But I didn’t for a minute think we’d lose my favourite aunt at the exact same time.

Death wasn’t quite done with us yet though.

In October 2017, I was taking baby steps towards healing. I hosted a work event on a Friday night in Edinburgh. I remember walking through my favourite street in Edinburgh alone afterwards, feeling free from negative thoughts and stomach knots. It was the first time I remember feeling like myself for a long time.

The next night, I had a hen night with my mum, one of her first forays out with a smile on her face since losing her mum and sister. On Sunday I then had a rare Sunday fun day, lunch and drinks with my best friend. I felt lighter. Hopeful. Exhausted when I came home from work Monday evening, I crashed out around 9 pm. That’s a busy weekend for me, even at the best of times.

The worst loss

2 am phone calls are never good. I felt sick before I even saw the number.

“Kirsty’s dead.”

Everyone has moments in their lives that change them forever. That was mine. Kirsty was my Auntie Ellie’s daughter and my little ‘blister.’

Until that night, I always thought films and books overdramatised those moments. No. With hindsight, they really don’t even scratch the surface of the pain I felt. It was physical, deep and guttural.

I could hear an animalistic wailing noise and it took my teenage children running into the room, woken from their sleep, to realise that it was me who was making it.

I wish I could tell you that the days after that were manageable, but they weren’t. I hope I never need experience days like that again. Deep, raw pain, panic attacks on the way to Kirsty’s funeral. I’ve attended lots of funerals, giving eulogies at my grandparents…I was always ready to leave when the service wrapped up. Dignified in grief. I wasn’t ready to leave Kirsty’s funeral, not in any way dignified. It felt wrong to leave her. She was 35, she was the family baby. She had a thirteen-year-old daughter. It didn’t feel real.

Survivor’s guilt

After Kirsty died, that little family unit of mine that remained were all diagnosed separately with PTSD. The cumulative trauma of such loss swallowed each and every one of us whole and we were splintered in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. Having had no time to grieve one loss before the next happened, the complex emotions were unmanageable for us in so many different ways. I felt everything from guilt to anger to wishing it was me who’d died. There are things I wish I could do differently, that I did wrong and had to apologise for. There are other people’s behaviours that I don’t understand and don’t think I ever will. Every feeling I had felt very acute and for at least a year I survived by treading water.

I didn’t realise at the time but I threw myself deep into work, doing twelve-hour, fourteen-hour, eighteen-hour days. Forgetting that I had teenagers at home also grieving their relatives and life as they knew it. Who needed me. Their dad who was holding things together for both of us. Grief can make you selfish. You don’t realise you’re in survival mode.

Bereavement overload

Bereavement overload meant I was only allowing myself to ‘feel’ on my terms. A lot of the time I didn’t know whom I was grieving, who I was crying for. Often it was life as I knew it – life at grans house – with my noisy family, that I missed. I had a panic attack at a friend’s baby’s Christening and peeling back the reasons later with a counsellor, that was at the root of it. I thought that part of my life – family, love – was over. I found a video that had all three of them in it recently, singing and joking around and I can’t describe how painful it was to be confronted unexpectedly with that memory, even though it was a happy one. I treasure it now but at first, it felt intrusive, not a life that used to be mine.

Unfortunately, since then, my family has been touched by death another six times. Ten deaths in three years is a lot, I think. My mother-in-law, who I adored, my step mum who was the loveliest person you’ll ever meet and a very good friend in her early forties are all no longer with us. The loss of each of these women touched me in a very personal way and each of their passing is significant and individually heart-breaking.

I also grieve for the people left behind. Kirsty’s amazing daughter, who’s stepping into the big bad world, without her mum being there to beam with pride at how well she’s doing. My dad and father-in-law, navigating the world as widowers, missing their wives, who they’ve shared decades with. My friend Donna’s pre-school son and her partner, now a family of two rather than a family of three. I grieve for the lives that should have been with these amazing women in them.

Handbook for the recently bereaved

I could write for days on grief, which is helpful to no-one but me. So, in summary, here are my key takeaways on cumulative grief.

  1. People won’t always understand how complex your grief is, and that’s ok.
  2. Be around your friends anyway, even if you’re feeling disconnected. My friends and a few close family members have been a lifeline to me.
  3. You will have a ‘unit’ again, even if your core family circle has been decimated. The life I’ve rebuilt looks just as lovely as the one I had before with people in it that I’d trust with my life.
  4. Professional help is a must for overcoming cumulative grief. I’d argue almost impossible without it.
  5. If your doctor offers you the pills, take the pills.
  6. You’ll learn to spot someone who doesn’t value your worth whether that’s an employer or loved one or a friend. Having experienced big loss, I’m careful where I channel my energy now. I have no f*cks to give for timewasters, drama and toxicity or energy vampires.
  7. When the pain feels unbearable, your body will protect you. There’s no way you could feel that acutely 24/7, you’d go mad. If you feel like you’re going mad, I refer you back to number 4 and 5.
  8. Be careful of unhealthy habits. Overwork, drinking too much, inappropriate sexual behaviour. These won’t help you heal, but they will delay the grieving process.
  9. Grief is as unique as the people we lose, so there’s no straight line to healing. Ride the waves until they’re not as painful. Each wave should make the next wave a little easier.
  10. Music is and will always be your friend. I can’t hear Pasty Cline, which was bizarrely Kirsty’s favourite karaoke choice, without smiling. My crazy gal, who took no shit from anyone and loved gangsta rap, would never let a New Year go by without a Patsy Cline tune or two.

How do I end this? It’s not the end, it’s still on-going. But a quote from my favourite film seems quite fitting…

“The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else. But guess what? Sunday’s my favourite day again. I think of what everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy.”

Silver Linings Playbook

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

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