A personal reflection on why living with loss through bereavement is not the same as other losses.
Having lost both of my children, my brother, my parents, my calendar is filled with special dates: Birthdays, anniversaries of their passing. Of course the focus is on my children Pax and Catherine, and their anniversaries are not just annual but daily, which you’ll understand if you’ve lost someone really dear to you.
At the moment I have another anniversary, and that is my surgery for kidney cancer. One year ago, I was just preparing to go into hospital. Mercifully I hadn’t foreseen how difficult the surgery and recovery was going to be – not medically, but as far as recovery. It was my second major surgery in a 2 month period – the first was knee replacement – and I’m not exactly a spring chicken. At the time I was just anxious whether they were going to be able to operate successfully and remove the tumour. They did, thankfully, but along with that, my kidney went too. Since then I’ve had a year of working to regain energy and get more mobile, and enduring endless tests. So far, so good, though I’m still waiting for the latest CT scan result.
I have certainly kept busy, but I’ve never been quite the same. I am very glad to be in better health, presumably cancer free, and cannot thank the NHS enough for all they’ve done for me. (And thanks too for the comforting reassurance from God.) So this isn’t a complaint, far from it! Still, it’s not been easy to have this long recovery. One year onwards and I still need a nap most days. While I used to be able to walk 10-12 miles, now it takes me all day to walk 5 miles, pushing it maybe to 7, and then utter exhaustion. My internal thermometer doesn’t seem to adjust properly – I can’t handle it too cold, too hot, too anything. My brain power and concentration often seem diminished. Perhaps also having a broken heart (because of my kids) has made it harder to recover. Who knows. Still, the acute pain of the early period after surgery has passed, and my body has adjusted to having one kidney.
In some respects it has seemed so much like bereavement. The initial disbelief as the doctor gave his cancer diagnosis; the shock and denial that this could be happening to me; the acute pain of loss as part of me was removed, never to return; the gradual easing of agony, regaining strength and mobility, moving onwards. At least at the moment my cancer journey feels like it’s on a linear route. As long as it doesn’t return, I’m on the way out of that particular valley.
And this is where bereavement follows a different trajectory.
The raw agony I felt so acutely on the loss of Pax, and then the loss of Catherine 27 years later, has by and large passed. I feel calm most of the time. Lighting candles for them, praying for them, and having a little good night chat, are part of my daily rituals. But then there are the moments of panic when I can’t conceive of where they are. The desperate ache to see them, talk with them in a two-sided conversation, for the phone to ring, to go shopping together, to share a coffee in the kitchen. It’s the moments when I suddenly realise again just how old they should be. It’s the heart-sinking that I can’t remember the sense of their presence as clearly as I used to.
It’s those special days, it’s the 13th of each month (Catherine died on the 13th April), the 27th (Pax died on the 27th May), the other anniversaries. It’s trying to figure out which charity to give a Christmas present to this year, in their memory, and just wanting to give it to them. It’s sudden images on the TV that remind me… It’s reading about another parent who has lost a small child to illness, an adult child to suicide, or in an accident, or in a shaky boat on a tumultuous sea. It’s meeting other people in the early, most unbearable stage of their bereavement, and remembering just how that felt.
Living with loss can be linear. You can lose your job and get another one. Your relationship comes to an end and you can find yourself enjoying solitude or finding a new partner. You can have your knee replaced and get walking again. I’ve got used to surviving with one kidney.
But living with loss through bereavement is different. There’s no comeback from this. I will never get accustomed to being a “childless parent“, a parent with no surviving children. I will never reconcile with the loss of Pax at age 3; of Catherine at 30. Their lives were too short.
Although there is no endpoint on grief in this life, and it’s not a linear process, we can live. I have times when I enjoy life. Immensely enjoying Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing by the way. It’s not many things that can make me laugh out loud, but he is one of them. And despite my whingeing about lack of energy, I have quite a few activities and projects on the go. My life is continuing.
That’s the recovery part of bereavement, of living with loss, when you can enjoy life and you can do things you want, and feel a sense of purpose. You’re grieving, but you’re living your life as best as you can, albeit under circumstances that are not of your choosing.
I hope anyone reading this who is struggling at the moment might take a deep breath, look up at the sky, think about one beautiful memory of their loved one, and then think about one nice enjoyable thing they can do later today. That’s grieving, that’s living. That’s it.