When grief gets ugly


(Me with my sister. Because grief is the price we pay for love)

Brave. Positive. Strong.  Inspiring. These are just a few words used to describe people who have lost someone they love in a tragedy.

In the thirteen years since my sister died, grief has indeed made me stronger, kinder, more compassionate,and less likely to sweat the small stuff.

But grief can also make you a total arse. And that’s something that we don’t talk about.

My sister Helen would have been 30 this week, and I’m finding it hard. Partly because 30 is so much older than 16- the age she was when she died- but still so young. Partly because I think of all the things she would be or might be doing- I had a child by the time I was 30 (but then, ‘would be’ doesn’t exist for her; there is no parallel universe, she just isn’t here). And partly because  it’s just wrong, isn’t it? To take flowers to a grave for a 30th birthday instead of celebrating with her.

And so I find myself experiencing again all the ways that grief makes me into an arse. It’s like some twisted version of the seven dwarves, but with extra unpredictable outbursts:

I’m Bitchy. I have sour thoughts. If you post a lovely Facebook post about how much you love your sister, I will pull a face at the screen. I have very little tolerance for people being whiney, people being self-pitying, and people in general.

I’m Lazy. At these times, I basically want to be in bed, or in the bath, or on the sofa. I don’t want to think about what to make the kids for tea. I don’t want to move, really. There have been days when I have done approximately ten minutes work, and spent the rest of the time googling my sister’s name, and ‘top ten saddest poems ever’.

I’m also sometimes Boozy (because being comfortably numb seems so appealing until you are two G&Ts down and wailing ‘I CAN’T GET AWAY FROM MY OWN HEAD’ at your poor partner), Greedy (because it’s possible to eat your feelings in the form of four Dairylea triangles and five slices of salami straight from the fridge), and simply Crazy.

None of this is dignified or inspirational, but it is the reality for me when grief rears its ugly head- and I can only imagine that it is for others too.

We do most of this behind closed doors, with occasional seepages of public embarrassment, when a song surprises us in a shop, or the back of a stranger’s head tricks us for a second on the street. Because we know instinctively that the world at large wouldn’t be comfortable with the ugly face of grief. And that’s understandable. It’s human to want to reassure ourselves that everything is OK. That death- something  we fear so much as a society that we feel profoundly shocked when an elderly celebrity dies- can be mastered, and grief overcome: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, done. We want to know that those left behind can survive and thrive and be happy. And that when they are sad, they weep in a dignified manner, with lovely candles.

And those left behind do survive. We thrive, and we are happy, and we grab onto the good. We grow and learn and occasionally we are dignified (though to some of us it does not come naturally). And we do have lovely candles.

But we’re also, sometimes, great scrawly messes of badness and yuck and snot and tears.  We snarl and sulk and eat all the things. We are sullen and shallow (retail therapy is a real thing, believe me) and we are bad company. Because grief sometimes just sucks.

I write these posts in the hope that someone who is going through it- perhaps someone who has not been walking this road as long as I have- might read. What I want to say to them is: it’s OK to feel crap, to be crap, when you are grieving. Even when years have passed and an anniversary or a birthday kicks you in the guts. It’s OK to be a mess. It’s also important to do the things to help you out of the hole (‘self care’, I believe the millennials call it)- for me this is exercising, watching GBBO, listening to comedy podcasts, cuddling my kids, reading Bridget Jones Diary for the hundredth time. But it’s also OK to be in the hole for a while. Not just OK, but a necessary and a healthy part of grief.

There’s nothing to be done but what Bridget herself does after losing Mark Darcy- to Keep Buggering On. It won’t seem so bad tomorrow. And if you really disgrace yourself- it’s not your fault, right? Grief made you do it.





Has being a parent made me a crap friend?


Last night, we missed a friend’s 40th birthday because- 20 minutes before our neighbour arrived to babysit- our daughter announced that she was going to be sick.

We really, really wanted to go to the party- and I’m not just saying that because the birthday boy might be reading.

While I cradled my daughter on the bathroom floor post-vomit, she asked me, for some reason: ‘Mummy, would you give up anything for me?’. And I said yes, of course I would, in a moment. Including a rare night out with my fellow Parental Unit, in the big city. Including being with a friend to mark his landmark birthday.

Being a parent, of young children at least, means giving up all sorts of things. Lie-ins. Privacy. Abdominal muscle definition. An existence in which you never have to wipe another person’s bum or nose. Your heart, in its entirety. But I wondered, as I messaged our friend to apologise for our no-show: does being a parent also mean giving up the ability to be a good friend?

Part of me says that I should give myself a break. Much of life is ruled by sod’s law, and even more so when you have little kids. Last night wasn’t the first time we’ve had to cancel a night out, or leave one mid-evening, because of an ill child. That’s unavoidable.

But another part of me knows that there are dear friends whom I haven’t seen for a year or more. Pre-kids, we used to meet up most weekends. There are friends who have had two children, and I’ve barely met their first. There are SMS and WhatsApp notifications, sitting there all red and accusing on my phone, that I swear I’ll reply to ‘when I’ve got a spare minute’.

Of course, literally speaking, I have spare minutes- especially as I am currently between jobs. But a minute of clear headspace and heartspace to properly engage with friends in the way I want to? That feels like gold-dust. When your knackered brain is full of after-school club timetables and flu vaccination dates and panicking about what to do for your kid’s birthday party which is suddenly three weeks away and you haven’t planned anything, and your hands are packing school bags and combing nits out of hair and squeezing cheeks a bit too hard, and your heart is constantly bursting and bleeding, it’s tricky to grasp those minutes.

When the chips really are down and a  good friend is in crisis, I hope that I’m there. But, regretfully, even that’s limited. I mean it when I say ‘call any time, I’m always there’, but due to circumstances beyond my control (one aged 4 and one aged 7), ‘any time’ can mean any time apart from 6am-8.45am and then 3.15pm-8pm; and ‘always there’ means I’m there, but unfortunately often unable to be there in person- because there’s a bug in the design of children which means they’re not able to look after themselves, and partners are, inconveniently, not always on hand to do the job.

And, just like any relationship, it isn’t just the crunch times that matter in friendship. Staying in touch for the humdrum times, the casual coffees and the comfortable silences, is important too. But how to do this? For me, partly it’s about squeezing in power-palling sessions when I can. Partly it’s about staying in touch in other ways. Social media- so often maligned for ruining ‘real’ communication, is a godsend in this respect. There are many friends who, even though we may not be able to meet or talk often, because of geography or the fact that we are frankly a bit crap, still feel very close, because of social media.

There will be a time, in maybe ten years, when I think/hope I’ll have much more time for connecting with these friends in person. But in the meantime, in my heart of hearts I know I can try harder, and do better. I value my friendships, and don’t want to lose them. So while I may not be able to magic an ill child better, or leave the babies alone in the house, I can apologise for not attending a party, but offer a dinner invitation instead. I can plan mate dates, and stick to them. Because I would give up anything for my kids, but I don’t have to give up being a good friend. Until the next tummy bug at least.