The Truth about Grief by Barbara Giles
“Anytime I start crying, this is what I do – I catch myself. If I didn’t, I genuinely believe I would never be able to stop crying”
Seven years ago, my big sister died from cancer. Orla was her name, but we all called her Og. She was the eldest and I was the baby, and we were the best of pals. Lovers of all things Zara and home decor, with conveniently matching size 6 feet but devastatingly far from matching figures (the skinny witch). She was 32 when she was diagnosed with an extremely rare and awful cancer, and 35 when she died. I’m something of a closed book when it comes to being fluffy and open with my feelings so even looking at those sentences typed out has made my eyes water and that familiar chest tightness appear as if Ghost Og is squeezing it like a stress ball.
I am 33 now. Smack bang in the middle of her horror years when she was facing death every day. Her cancer was terminal from the day she was diagnosed on February 1st 2010. I remember being upstairs in the canteen of the hospital when my Dad came back from the oncologist meeting and my lovely uncle squeezing my hand so hard as Daddy sobbed “that’s it, she’s riddled”.
And now my tears are rolling. This is what happens – if I allow myself to actively think back on the actual events, I get completely overcome. I feel a real physical sensation of tightness in my chest – what I imagine older people’s angina must feel like. I look up to the ceiling and put my fingers under my eyes to stop the tears from soaking my face, take a few deep breaths and consciously stop myself crying. Anytime I start crying, this is what I do – I catch myself, and on autopilot, shut myself down. Because the alternative is too painful. If I didn’t switch to autopilot, I genuinely believe I would never be able to stop crying at the horrible reality and whilst medically impossible, I do think my heart would physically break in 2.
I can say that with fairly strong certainty, as I am actually a qualified doctor. A lot has happened in the 7 years since Og died. I went back to study medicine after she died, we have had a family wedding, a family funeral (cancer also took my fabulous aforementioned hand-squeezing uncle), our sisters have added 4 more children to our next generation, and I have met the love of my life. It’s a strange feeling seeing such enormous life events happen – you almost feel guilty that the happy events have even happened. And whilst life must go on – a certain part of my life died the night Og died. I do believe that a part of my heart is broken forever, and can never be repaired.
I am lucky enough to have had certain moments of extreme happiness in recent times, but it seems these “peak” happiness moments now exist hand in hand with immediate (but fleeting) tears and sadness. I can’t believe that I can’t share these moments with Og, nor can I believe the unfairness that she can’t experience that happiness herself.
Grief is a very strange thing. Probably even stranger when dealing with a terminal diagnosis of a loved one, as you can almost begin to grieve in advance. I don’t think I did this – I went on carer/entertainer autopilot and whilst I was very aware of the prognosis, I couldn’t allow myself engage with that awful certainty. I remember one day in one of her rages, she asked me “why don’t you ever cry!” and I get her frustration - it probably did seem slightly cold or aloof, but it was my way of surviving. As it is now.
Grief can overwhelm you. After our uncle died and added to my already extreme sadness, I would drive up and down to college a lot and I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if my car just left the road and smashed into a wall. A passive death wish I believe it’s called from my psychiatry days. But I never had any actual real intent or plan – just a longing for the extreme pain of my grieving to stop. Which it did – now it’s just a dull, chronic ache.
Grief is so individual to everyone. My sisters are completely different to me – they love talking about her, and how sad it is that she is gone. I am the opposite – I almost (not almost, I do) get annoyed when they bring her into what seems like every conversation. Again I’m fairly aware it seems a bit cold and strange, but I just cannot allow myself to talk about her for any lengthy period of time, or I will break – and Ghost Og might squeeze my heart so tight that I might die. (On a lighter note on individuality, I was hoping to maybe experience the storybook grief where you can’t eat or drink and that I would lose weight effortlessly. Not so. It seems I am more of the “eat my grief” variety.)
Grief is also a rollercoaster – you can be feeling absolutely fine one minute, then the most innocuous thing reminds you of your person and BANG! For me, it can be seeing her handwriting, a nautical top or Chanel blazer in Zara, or for the most fleeting of seconds, thinking “oh I must ring Og!” It blows my mind that seven years later this still happens to me fairly regularly. I have kept the jumper I was wearing the day she died, as I was in bed with her for a lot of that day cuddling her. I never wore that jumper again, and it lies neatly folded underneath the pillow I sleep on at home just in case there is the slightest of smell or touch remaining of Og.
A part of me is beyond repair, but I have come to terms with that. I have been given a perspective on life that I don’t think I ever would have had, and I do think I am a better person because of it. I am the happiest I have ever been, and I am the luckiest person to have had the best big sister in the world. I genuinely believe she has played a part in all the good things that have happened since she went skywards, and whilst she was taking the piss for a while with the men she was sending my way, she eventually hit the jackpot. In her defence, I’m sure it takes a while to hone your angel skills. This is another part of my coping mechanisms - I do like to believe that we will be reunited again. For me, it makes coping that bit easier to think we can be reunited as a Glam Ghost squad clad head to toe in Chanel.
Grief is inevitable. It is part of living and loving, and the more you love, the more you will grieve. Coping with it therefore becomes a new and constant part of your daily life. I hope that for any reader of this, you only experience it when you are old and wise and grey, but for those of you who some of the above might resonate with, we are all in this together. No one follows the same grieving timeline – what works for me is not for everyone. Disable your autopilot button if you feel it becoming too much, talk to someone you love, talk to someone you don’t even like, write something down. There are so many outlets out there to help navigate this lonely journey. See a counsellor, go to your GP - they can help you and signpost you in the right direction.
Whatever you do - be kind to yourself. It’s not easy. It’s really, really hard. But you can and you will survive it.