4 practical things to do when grief hits

My plan to write every day didn’t last very long…but I am still here, and grief still sits heavily on my shoulders. It will be 6 months on Tuesday. The fastest and slowest 6 months of my life. However, rather than ruminating over my feelings about grief and loss and life and stuff I thought I’d write something more practical. Over the last 6 months I’ve found different ways to cope when grief hits in a big way, or just to get through 5 minutes/an hour etc. Here are a few.

  1. The Guardian Quick Crossword.
    In the first few weeks after my mum’s death, my dad and I religiously did the Guardian’s Quick Crossword every day. In the first few days and weeks, it felt so difficult to do anything. Obviously, we had a lot of death admin to do, but there was also a lot of time to fill, and it was a time when it was very difficult to do anything ‘normal.’ My brain was fuzzy and didn’t seem to really function, and I remember one evening despairing over the fact that I’d got stuck on the sudoku. I cried and cried and wondered how on earth I’d get back to medical school if I couldn’t finish a stupid sudoku. Of course, I sat there and stared at it, and finishing it felt like such a huge achievement. The crossword has been something I’ve done less by myself, but my dad and I always do it when we’re together, and I do occasionally do it myself. It’s a good way of occupying your mind, of having something to think about which doesn’t matter at all. It’s easily available online, and there’s a great backlog of past crosswords for those days when you just need to do another one.
  2. Running.
    I ran 6 days after my mum’s death. I remember being scared of having the time to think, scared of where my mind would go, scared of being on my own, scared of leaving my dad and sister, but then having a huge sense of peace on that first run. Running was hard work in the first month or so, and although I ran a half-marathon four weeks on, my pace was slow, grief was heavy on my shoulders and it was really hard work. September and October were difficult, and I mainly ran on the treadmill, but in November I got some more miles under my belt, and December and January even more so. I’m now training for the London Marathon, in memory of my mum, and I think it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve found to help my head. Running feels like a great way to deal with sadness; to think and not think at the same time, to get some alone time, to get some peace and some space and some perspective. Endorphins are great too, and a sense of achievement is good for self-esteem. Having a training schedule is also really helpful for forcing me out there on days when I just want to mope.
  3. Knitting.
    To try to get across to my friends quite how difficult the first few weeks were, I often tell them that ‘I couldn’t even knit.’ A slightly odd hobby for a milennial, I love knitting and generally always have a project in my handbag. However, while I managed to knit a few rows on the plane back from France two days after my mum died, I created a huge mental block against it for the first couple of weeks, when doing anything felt so wrong, creating anything felt wrong. Now, it’s good to get back to my ‘normal’ hobbies, to cling onto some of the remaining bits of me from Before. I suppose, a bit like running, it requires just enough brain activity to be a bit of a distraction, but also lets me think a bit.
  4. Twitter.
    There’s a great little world of grief support on Twitter – from bereaved people to charities and support networks, and I also find it quite cathartic to sometimes launch out a few tweets into the tweetosphere about how I’m feeling. I occasionally use Facebook but sometimes that’s just a bit too public, but Twitter often feels like a good place to launch out some feelings. You don’t get the same Facebook ‘likes’ (which can sometimes feel totally inappropriate) but it can feel quite good to get some feelings off my chest, and there are often people there to listen or say something back.
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Day 111

Today started good. I ran my fastest 5k yet (24:02 if you’re interested, whoever you may be), which felt like good progress fitness wise for the marathon. I then went for a really nice coffee with a friend, and had a really good long chat, covering normal life as well as grief. It was great.

Then I drove to Cardiff to go shopping and various things came together to make me sad, after a really good start to the day. I drove to Cardiff full of happiness, singing along to the radio and feeling good. In Cardiff I shopped alone and could have done with someone getting me some different sizes or my mum telling me whether I needed a size down in a pair of jeans. Then I could have done with her telling me whether 5% wool but 95% elastane/polyester is too plastic for a £70 jumper, and whether it would go bobbly after 1 wash. Suddenly every young woman in Cardiff seemed to be shopping with their mum. It made me very sad which was a shame after such a great start to the day.

I met my dad a bit later, at our place near Cardiff. I attempted some work (not very well) while he met a friend and then this evening we went for a meal. I feel lucky to be so close to my dad, we haven’t had to suddenly adjust to being close and I hope that for him it’s not constantly daunting being left parenting his two daughters. He really is the most amazing dad ever. I remember pretty early on after my mum died, my dad and I went for a coffee and i got really upset as there was a mum and daughter having a mother-daughter coffee and I cried at the idea of never having that again. Then I pulled myself together and remembered that I get to go for really nice father-daughter coffees. Today, when I went for coffee with my friend this morning, there were (what I assumed to be) two mums and two daughters breakfasting a couple of tables along from us and I didn’t mind at all. That feels like progress.

Tomorrow I’m running a 7 mile marathon training run, along one of my mum’s training routes. I hope that will be peaceful.

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Day 110

Another up and down day. It’s strange, the things that I find difficult. We had a lecture this morning about safety to drive in relation to sleep apnoea, and I didn’t expect it to be distressing. It involved a lot of discussion about road traffic accidents, and while my mum’s death wasn’t a car accident, and was very different to what we were talking about, it clearly hit some kind of nerve. I was pleased to sit it out and deal with my emotions, as there have been a couple of lectures earlier this term which I’ve had to leave.

I spent all day trying to decide if I would go out with my friends this evening. Nothing special, just dinner and drinks, but somehow I found the prospect really daunting. I find it difficult to know what to talk about sometimes and can feel a million miles away from my friends, but I finally pulled myself together this afternoon and decided that I would go. I had a nice time. There were times when I felt very sad, when I didn’t really want to be there, but it was a nice evening, and I know it was much better than sitting at home feeling sad and feeling sorry for myself.

I’m really not enjoying all the increasing talk of Christmas. I’m not looking forward to Christmas, and I wish I could pretend it’s not happening. I hate all mention of it. I don’t want to do Christmas without my mum.

Day 109

Grief is unpredictable; it oscillates between unbearable and somehow ok, and those oscillations can hit at the most surprising of times.

Today was good: the medical school send us to a GP surgery once every three weeks, and today was one of those days. I really enjoy GP this year and am considering it quite seriously as a career option. I had a really good day academically/professionally: I impressed myself with my knowledge, and I think I also impressed the GP I was with. Sometimes recently I’ve found chatting with friends difficult, as my life feels so distant to theirs, but today I had some really nice, normal chats with coursemates I’m placed with. After I’d finished at the GP surgery, I studied at home before going to the gym. I was infuriated by stupid traffic in town, and some of the endorphins from my gym session lost their impact a bit after what should be a 10 minute drive home doubled. In the last few weeks, since I’ve found some motivation and drive to get back to running and gymming (getting my marathon place definitely helped in terms of motivation!), I’ve found exercising to be a really good relief to acute grief: I can think about grief as little or as much as I want, I can distract myself as little as much as I want, and I can get some much-needed me time. The endorphins from exercise really do seem to help, and I generally feel a lift in my mood and wellbeing.

I came home from the gym to a planned evening chilling with my housemates, and soon my mood seemed to really drop. I find grief very alienating…particularly when my friends are able to be cheerful and jokey and chatty about superficial things. I feel very distant from the me BSD, who was cheerful and jokey and chatty…I feel like a shell of that former self at the moment. I don’t know what I want from my friends. I don’t think I want them to be very sombre to match my mood, and I know I can’t expect them to be able to read my mind and know what’s going on in my mind at any given time, but sometimes I find the cheerfulness and normality a bit too much to bear. Navigating grief as a single 24 year old student seems to have a lot of challenges. I know the grass is always greener, but I can imagine that having a partner could help with some of this loneliness and sense of isolation, having a partner who is able to read your moods a bit better and learn how to be able to react in a fitting way. However, I hope that in the future I’ll be able to be proud of getting through this myself.

Day 108

Today’s been a rare good day. At the moment good days get marked as Good Days, they’re still rare, a protected breed, and something to be celebrated. Generally, I live in hope that things are slowly getting better, but the present itself can be pretty terrible. Today I felt that the present is actually manageable. I’m not sure what’s shifted in me to make me feel this way, and I’m not going to examine it and try to work out exactly what’s going on, I’m just going to enjoy feeling a bit better.

I know it’s important to go through the emotions of grief, but today when I was driving to the gym, some fleeting thought triggered the sense of an impending wave of grief. Somehow, today I was able to stop its progression, to say, ‘Today’s a good day, and today I’m not letting this grief hit me.’ It felt empowering – for 15.5 weeks I’ve felt like I’ve had no control over my emotions, and today feels like a step towards being in control of them. Another real positive today was a chat I had in the sauna at the gym…my mum and I used to have many conversations about whether men talking to me in the sauna were trying to chat me up or genuinely just friendly. Today I think they were friendly. We talked about running, and running marathons, and after talking a bit about my fundraising, I mentioned that ‘this year I lost my mum,’ and it didn’t have to be a big deal. It is a big deal, but it also feels like progress. In the first few weeks I wondered how I’d ever be able to say ‘When I was 24, my mum died,’ and while those words are still the most terrible words I can believe I have to be able to utter, it feels like such immense mental progress to be able to ‘just’ say it. While grief is awful, painful, unbearable at times; while losing my mum is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, I’m starting to see that I will get through this, the pain will get easier. I wish it didn’t have to, but I know that this is my life, there’s no changing what’s happened, but there is hope that things are gradually getting easier.

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Day 107

(Yesterday’s post…a tiny bit late)

At the moment, I live in hope. I live in hope that things are getting easier, will carry on getting easier. I can look back and see that I’m coping better than I was 3 months ago – in the first few weeks just getting up, getting dressed felt like huge ordeals; my brain just wasn’t functioning properly enough to make the most simple of decisions. We spent days just sitting at home, checking the post and crying over condolence cards, waiting desperately for news of my mum’s repatriation before we could start to make funeral arrangements. Now, I’m functioning enough to be at medical school, to sit exams, to go to the gym, to socialise with my friends. I’m still a long way from where I’d like to be, and getting through individual days is bloody hard work, but I can see that it’s better than where I was. There’s hope that I will get through this, that in three months I’ll be even better than I am at the moment. That hope gets me through.

I feel very far from my friends and the rest of the world at the moment, but apparently that’s very normal in grief. My life’s priorities feel very different to my friends/’peers’/colleagues…but for me it’s simply progress to even begin to be able to weigh up my priorities. To be able to prioritise things is a step above simply functioning, so that must be counted as progress.

Today there is hope.

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365 days of grief – day 1/day 106

I’ve decided to write a little bit about grief every day. The idea is to write for 365 days, though I’m not sure when to count as day 1. It’s been 15 weeks and a day since my mum died – 106 long days. I can’t believe it’s been that long. Sometimes I feel like I want to go back to day 1, when it was so sudden and raw and shocking. I don’t like the time ticking past, the ever-growing gulf between BSD and ASD (before she died and after she died). There’s an ever-growing gulf between now and the last time I spoke to her, the last time I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have to tell Gug about that’, the last time I didn’t wake up with the ever-present weight of grief on my shoulders.

It’s been 106 days since my mum died, but also only 76 days since I went back to medical school, and 68 days since my mum’s funeral. It’s 10 days until my mum’s inquest…and it feels like once the inquest’s over, then all of the ‘bereavement bureaucracy’ is over and we really have to just ‘get on’ with life.

At the moment I feel very distant from the world, my friends, my course, my normality. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been catapulted into this world of normality: I started back at medical school exactly 4 weeks after flying back from France after my mum’s death, and still 8 days before the funeral. There’s been a real need to put a brave face on and get on with things. I feel like a very different person to who I was BSD, and it’s taking a lot to understand how to be me ASD. I know that gradually I will find a new way to be me, to understand this new ASD life and to forge a new future, but for now the present is very difficult.

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