Dealing with bereavement – we love each other always now
Leah’s grandma Ivy would felt-tip random messages in magazines. Ivy and grandpa Ernie died within days of each other, together till the end…
“We love each other always now.” Sounds like the title of a new hyper-romanticised dating show, doesn’t it? In fact, those are the words of a note, drawn in orange crayon on white paper, which is stuck to my fridge with a magnet. It’s a note written by my Grandma and the words are followed by a series of chubby orange X’s.
I guess the note was written with my Grandad in mind, but I took it with me when I moved to Australia last month and I don’t think Grandad would have missed it. When Grandma developed dementia, she started to spend more and more time colouring, drawing, and writing. Initially in colouring books and on notepads, but then increasingly in other places. She felt-tipped random messages like “Good luck” and “I love you” in magazines, put ticks and crosses next to pictures in newspapers. More than once she flicked through a family photo album, giving all her relatives bright red lips and huge hair. My grandparents’ house was full of notes like the one on my fridge.
It might sound strange, but we were very lucky with Grandma’s dementia. Some people with the condition become paranoid, hostile, angry, depressed. Grandma was the opposite. I’ve never known anyone laugh so much. Everything was a joke to her – and I mean everything. One of our classic comedy routines was Grandma, wearing about eight layers of clothing in the height of summer, telling me that she was a bit hot and me suggesting that she take her fleece-lined jacket off, at which she would laugh uproariously for several minutes before we repeated the whole exchange again.
Even as her memory deteriorated, she didn’t lose her sense of humour. I remember someone – one of my brothers or maybe a cousin – asking her once: “If you hadn’t been called Ivy, what name would you have picked?” Without a second’s hesitation, she answered, with perfect comic timing: “Hazel. Because I’m a nut!”
And she was, let’s face it, a bit nutty in some ways. She was obsessed with cowboy films and had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of John Wayne in the corner of her living room. She had an eccentric attitude to spelling and always beat me at Boggle by drawing on her own personal Geordie ‘dictionary’. She once spent several minutes blowing into the mini sellotape dispenser she’d got from a Christmas cracker, convinced it was a whistle.
Just a few weeks after I moved to the other side of the world, my Grandma died. My Grandma who’d always been there, from my earliest memory of the house we all shared when I was three, to the house round the corner where I used to play table football and drink Ribena, to the house next to my parents’. The gate and back door were always unlocked, so all I had to do was hop over the low stone wall and stroll into their house, to catch the end of a Wild West movie, to sit in the conservatory eating cake, to lie down in the spare room nursing a hangover.
Grief is strange. In my case, I think the best way to describe it would be: tidal. Sometimes it’s far enough out that the sound of the waves is just a whisper in my head. Then suddenly, without warning, the waves come crashing in.
Unlike the sea’s tides, sadly, there’s no timetable for this, no printed schedule of highs and lows, no pattern of moons or months to warn me when the tide will turn. In the days after Grandma’s death, there were the obvious triggers, of course – picturing Grandma as I last saw her, lying in a hospital bed; angrily recalling the fact that the hospital staff somehow lost her wedding rings after they admitted her; thinking of my Grandad, alone in their house, now his house, after so many years of inseparableness. But sometimes all it took was nothing – a longer than usual pause in a conversation, a delay to a meeting getting started – and the tears just welled up, out of nowhere.
And then there were the things that should have made me cry but didn’t. The meeting I attended, just hours after hearing the news, when a bunch of anatomy teachers discussed cadavers for a good fifteen minutes. The video I watched at work a couple of days later which was titled ‘The future of education’ and turned out to hinge on the idea that grandmothers are the best teachers.
Just four days after I got the news about Grandma, my younger brother phoned me to tell me that my Grandad had also died. I felt the shock like a physical blow. Grandma had been ill in hospital for a couple of months and we’d seen her health deteriorate. I was incredibly sad about losing her, but the news hadn’t come as a complete surprise and at least we could all take comfort in the fact that she wouldn’t be suffering any more. With Grandad it was different. Sure, he was 93 and starting to show some signs of frailty, but he was pretty healthy on the whole.
To bastardise Oscar Wilde: To lose one grandparent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. I’m still grappling with feelings of guilt. Even though I know that it’s completely irrational, there’s still a part of me that thinks, “It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t moved away.”
He died at home, peacefully. Apparently he just stopped breathing.
I doubt that many people that know me would describe me as a romantic. For a while now I’ve been sitting on the fence (and indeed on the shelf) when it comes to marriage and even monogamy as a way of life. But the thought that someone – not just someone, my Grandad, one of the best people I’ve ever known – could essentially die of a broken heart has made me stop in my tracks and really question my attitudes to this stuff. Apparently, it’s a recognised medical phenomenon. The thought that you can love someone so much that, when they’re no longer there, your body just stops functioning…
It’s tragic but at the same time beautiful. As my mum said, “They were always together.”
It sounds cheesy, I know, but I suppose I have been thinking about what Grandma and Grandad taught me. I think it’s a natural human instinct, to want to feel that there is some part of them that lives on, to internalise some aspects of their character – to become as bold as Grandma when she fled a job as maid at Eton College in the middle of the night on a stolen bicycle, as conscientious as Grandad when it came to recycling, as positive and life-affirming as they both were, encouraging us grandchildren even when the paths we chose were so different to how their lives had played out.
Above all else, Grandma and Grandad enjoyed the simple things in life. They liked to be surrounded by family, particularly if the family was able to provide them with a steady supply of tea and biscuits. They loved music, especially the old classics, and Grandma often acted as a sort of public service announcement, repeatedly making sure everyone knew just what a long way to Tipperary it was. They liked their food. Even at 93, Grandad liked to tuck into a Chinese takeaway on a Friday night and he was so keen to eat the chocolate birthday cake I made him last year that he didn’t even notice that the candles spelled out ‘Happy Bidthday’. They liked a drink. I’d helped my Grandad wobble his way home from the local after a few pints of Spitfire on more than one occasion. And the first time I went to visit Grandma in hospital, when I held a beaker of water up for her to sip from, she grimaced and said, “Can’t I have a proper drink?”
I think it’s easy for people of my generation to feel that nothing we do is ever good enough – that if you don’t have a successful start-up, a diamond engagement ring, and a penthouse flat by the time you hit 30, then you’re doing something wrong. When really, if your life’s been filled with love and laughter, music and colour, like my grandparents’ was, that’s plenty.
It’s a bittersweet fact of life that sometimes it takes something devastating happening to show you the best in people. Sometimes it’s on a large scale – the heroic actions of volunteers in the wake of an international crisis. Other times, it’s on a smaller scale. A colleague offering to cover a training session so you can sit and stare unseeing at your computer screen. Your boss buying you lunch and distracting you with office gossip. A couple of guys who’ve known you only a few weeks, buying you beers, paying for countless pool games, dancing like wild things for your entertainment, and not judging you when you’re drunk.
I’ve never been very good at asking for help and so I suppose the people I value most in life are the ones that understand that and offer help regardless. With most of my friends and family halfway round the world, it’s been absolutely amazing to find myself surrounded by people who are willing to do that. The thought that I won’t ever be able to hop over that wall and walk through the door and see my Grandma and Grandad again is terrible, but I am lucky that there are other gates, other doors that people are opening to me now. My advice to anyone going through something similar: don’t feel like you have to cope on your own. Have space when you want it, but surround yourself with people who will distract you, support you, balance you when that’s what you need. Even sitting in silence on someone else’s couch can feel worlds better than being alone.
Of course, everyone reacts to grief differently – and one of the most important things I’ve realised is that that’s ok too. I got the news about Grandma on Shrove Tuesday and I’d planned to make myself pancakes. As crazy as it might sound, I found myself caught up in a serious internal debate – was it somehow wrong to enjoy a plate of pancakes when my Grandma had just died? The truth is there’s no right or wrong way to react. Eating pancakes doesn’t mean you don’t care. Staying dry-eyed doesn’t mean you’re not sad. Going out and laughing and joking with friends isn’t disrespectful. You do what you need to do to get by. So I ate my pancakes – and as I was cooking them I remembered that before Grandma became too ill to manage the cooking, she made me and my younger brother pancakes and I suddenly had a really clear image of her shuffling into the living room in her slippers to offer us seconds, brandishing an incredibly hot frying pan so close to my brother’s head that it almost burned his ear off. And that made me smile.
I fluctuate between bawling my eyes out and feeling happy that I got to spend so much time with two such fantastic, eccentric, generous, positive, hilarious, spirited, loving people. It’s early days, but I guess I just have to hope that the ratio of tears to happy memories shifts over time, to the point where I can talk about my grandparents without breaking down. When friends or colleagues look at me sympathetically and ask how I’m doing, I just want to crumble and cry my eyes out. But I think I’m almost getting to the point where I can tell them about my grandparents’ John Wayne obsession, Grandad’s love of Charles Dickens and Shaun the Sheep, Grandma’s controversial Boggle tactics (or should that be ‘taktix’?)…
Grief is a very personal thing, and I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should cope with it. I’m sure that for some people, the last thing they’d want to do at a time like this is sit down and write anecdotes about the loved ones they’ve just lost. But for me it feels therapeutic , I suppose. Remembering the good times and sharing them with people who care seems to be the only way forward. And I like to think that Grandma especially would approve, given her love of writing messages to the people that mattered.
‘Rest in peace’ is entirely the wrong epitaph for Ivy and Ernie. Wherever they are now, I hope it’s one eternal party, with Grandma strutting her stuff on the dancefloor and Grandad going to town at the buffet table.