Surprised by grief

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Ruth was upset.

And who could blame her? When her seven-year-old grandson died from a brain tumour, the grief she felt surprised her not only by its intensity but by its multiple facets.

Of course, she grieved the loss of that dear little boy whose life was cut so short, but as a mum herself, Ruth also grieved for her own daughter and wished she could ‘fix it’ for her ‘little girl’. Everything was compounded by her perception that many people she expected would be there for her were conspicuously absent or silent.

It has been five years since I met Ruth in my support group, and recently she shared some further insights about her grief journey.

“Grief caught me completely by surprise,” she recounted. “You read books on grief that suggest how the journey will go. And then you experience it yourself, and it’s never as easy or predictable as it is often described.”

With her permission, here are some of her insights about how she was surprised by grief.

Surprise 1: It gets quiet quickly

Loss is something for which you are never really prepared. In the first few months, you are overwhelmed with love and support. Everyone checks on you – until one day, they don’t!

I discovered in a very short time they would go back to their ‘normal’ lives, and I was left alone to figure out my new ‘normal’.

The friends you expect to be there may seem to abandon you. I recognise now that many could not bear to see me in such pain. They were wondering when the ‘old’ Ruth would return, the fun-loving person I was before my life hit the wall. The old cliché, ‘it’s been three months, you ought to be over it’, is a complete myth. They did not realise I would never be the same person again.

Life is different for me. This is when you have to reach out and say: ‘I am not OK.’

The truth is most people who have not experienced loss simply don’t know how it feels or what to do. Instead of complaining ‘they are not here for me’, we need to teach people how to be there for us. The ones who really care will understand.

Surprise 2: Time does not heal all wounds

My second surprise was that somehow with time it actually seemed to get harder.

When I first told people my grandson was very ill, they were very compassionate. Now when I tell people it has been five years, they simply say ‘Oh sorry’, as if somehow year five should be easier than year one. It’s not! In a way, the more time passes the harder it gets, because you have not seen your loved one’s face, heard their laugh, or shared their presence. You are wondering what they would be like now.

In the first year, I went through the motions. I honoured my grandson’s life any way I could. I started a charity in his name; I celebrated every holiday with him in mind and even left a seat at the table. At year two, I had to figure out how to celebrate holidays, birthdays and my life without him. Reality sets in, and you realise they are not coming back.

I was surprised by how long it took me to understand that.

As one Facebook post said: ‘If you cannot understand why someone is grieving for so long, consider yourself fortunate.’

Surprise 3: I found friends in unexpected places

I have a friend I felt was surprisingly absent when my grandson died. Six months later, she called and said: ‘I know it is quiet now, and you’re not surrounded by as many people as you were in the beginning.’ She explained she had given me ‘room to adjust’, and now that she knew I needed her encouragement, she offered it. And I was ready for that support.

Here was the contradiction of my grief: I didn’t want to talk about it; but at the same time I was upset when people didn’t mention it. That surprised me. I guess at first I really didn’t know what I wanted or needed, so nothing satisfied me.

I could have been angry she didn’t show up for six months, but she showed up when I needed her. She understood because she had been there herself.

Some friends will help you weather the storm, others will run for cover. Who does what is sometimes a surprise.

Dr Bill’s conclusion

The surprising truth is you will never be ‘over it’.

Life can change in the blink of an eye and you never want to take anything or anyone for granted – I suppose that is the ‘blessing in disguise’ in grieving.

I have more ‘surprises’ that Ruth would like everyone to know in my next article.

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