grief penguin title

Greetings Ducklings and Swans!

Grief penguin

Okay, I know, heavy topic. But it’s been on my mind lately and, unfortunately, sooner or later it’s something we all have to deal with. When you lose someone you love, you lose a piece of yourself. And despite the experience in this area that life has handed me so far, there are only two things I can share with you that I hope will help.

One: No one has the right to tell you how to grieve

No one. Not me, not your best friend, not a grief counsellor, not your mum, not that friendly chap at the post office. No one. You do it your way.

For me, grief is an intensely private emotion. I’m rather reserved in person and I don’t put emotions out there generally, but I really don’t do things like crying in front of other people. I might shed a dignified tear in special circumstances, but out-and-out bawling like a little kid who’s skinned their knee and dropped their ice cream cone, not so much.

This sometimes makes people think I don’t care. I do care; actually, I care very deeply. I care so much that it impacts my ability to form coherent sentences (my speech patterns get very odd and full of weird pauses when I’m very upset) and my capacity for coping with people becomes minute. I want to be left entirely alone to find my way out of the fog.

That may well be all wrong for you. Maybe you want to bake a cake with your sister or shoot pool with the guys at the bar, that’s cool too. The point is to find what works for you and do that, don’t let anyone pressure you or judge what you need, which leads to my second point…

Two: It sucks

People don’t like admitting this basic truth. We have all these vague, meaningless phrases meant to offer some kind of vapid consolation because, from what I can see, we’re not very good at handling someone else’s pain. We want to offer sympathy but we shy away from confronting the raw reality, we don’t feel comfortable enough with death to be honest about it.

If the phrases like ‘He’s gone to a better place’ and ‘You have to remember the good times’ and ‘It gets better with time’ work for you, that’s fantastic (you’re in a more socially acceptable place than I am!). My Grandfather died last year (I started writing this between the anniversary of his death and his birthday, which is why it was on my mind) and he was a huge part of my life, he was the nearest I had to a dad and we had interests and traditions which we shared.

When I came home to England after the funeral people kept parroting these ridiculous sentences at me which seemed designed more to comfort their consciences than to acknowledge my grief. I remember telling a friend I seriously wanted to punch the next person to feed me the ‘better place’ line (I didn’t, but I wanted to). I felt like I was being jollied along because people were uncomfortable with my sadness.

At the time I had a second job in a pub and one night two women came in, they’d just come from the church where they had been arranging their father’s funeral and wanted some quiet time together with a bottle of red wine. When she told me this I responded:

– ‘I’m sorry, I recently lost someone, too. It sucks.’ She gave me a surprised look, and then smiled.
– ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘I’ve never heard someone put it so simply and honestly, it does suck.’

I told her that I thought that maybe we needed to admit, to ourselves and those around us, that it did suck, that we had to let it suck, and that the sucking was okay and normal. That acknowledging and accepting that pain was the only way to really handle it, instead of denying it with false comfort.

The woman went back to her sister and shared my ‘It sucks’ theory; she liked it, too. I think we all felt a little better that night, and it wasn’t because of time or good memories or a belief in some snuggly afterlife, it was because we’d accepted a piece of our grief.

When rubbish things happen in life you usually get someone who says ‘time heals all wounds.’ That one is sort of true. I don’t think it’s necessarily healing in all circumstances, there are always going to be holes in my reality where those I loved used to be, but in the last year-and-a-bit I’ve started to get used to the hole where my grandfather used to be.

My sadness that he is no longer here bobs along behind me like a balloon on a string, present, but not something I am constantly aware of. Sometimes the wind changes and the balloon smacks me in the face with all the raw force of the day it happened, sometimes it just brushes my shoulder in gentle reminder. It’s not healed, it’s not ‘better,’ but we’ve learned to live together, my grief and I.

– Catherine.

If you fancy a chat, tweet me through my dog’s twitter account @ChloeAnneChi

PS: Catherine sent this first letter as her Ugly Duckling story. But they developed into a series. You’ll find more Letters from a penguin in our blog. We’d like to thank her for deciding to publish them in our site.


2 thoughts on “Grief

  1. I’m so guilty of going full-tilt Pollyanna when dealing with grief or sadness in others, especially those long-distance acquaintances, people that may have only a fandom in common. You’ve made me think about my own rougher patches and how I might have wanted a comparative stranger to commiserate with me. This post nailed it. In fact, I’ve just shared it with someone else who’s had reason to grieve recently. So, you see, your insight has already benefitted a third party. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! I’m really glad people are finding this useful. I think because it’s a topic we try to avoid in a lot of modern western culture we’ve forgotten how to talk about death or handle it or how to relate to grieving people. I think when we can open a dialogue, we give ourselves the ability to cope with death, or indeed any challenge in life.

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