Trigger warning — mentions of death, suicide, and mental health. Also one swear.
Last Tuesday, I had my first panic attack in almost a year.
One minute, I’m twirling the last strand of udon noodle onto my fork and turning to my partner, Scott, to say,
‘I’m so scared of you dying, I’ve been feeling so anxious about something happening to you. I’m so scared of losing you.’
And I was expecting him to say something along the lines of: ‘Oh love, don’t be silly, I’ve turned 35 not 85, or everything is fine, or even, don’t be so morbid.’
Instead he said something along the lines of he’s been feeling like something is wrong with him recently. And it was like my heart stopped, my eardrums burst, and my throat just closed up. Suddenly, I was hyperventilating, the room had gone dark, and I burst into tears. Chest heaving, I sobbed as I tried to breathe.
Recently, someone close to me died, and I’m experiencing grief in ways that I never have before.
I’m fairly candid with my mental health and my experiences with suicide ten years ago. Every birthday since ‘I got better’, I’ve felt on edge, worrying that Death, this cloaked figure with the big knife thing, was going to be staring back at me in the mirror. I’ve worried that the universe is going to notice that I’m still alive after I pleaded to die, and try to restore balance in a better late than never type fashion but it’s too late, I want to be alive now. I have so much life left to live. So much to give, so much to offer, experience, feel. I’ve worried that some kind of karmic retribution is waiting for me, sometime, somewhere.
So combine this grief, this loss, this absence in my life with my upcoming 32nd birthday and my mind is like the perfect setting for a bad rom-com where anxiety stumbles across shame and guilt in a meet cute.
I’ve met Death before, one of my best friends died when I was 18, I’ve had grandparents die over the years, an uncle a few years back, but something about my incredibly unwell aunt suddenly becoming even more unwell and dying, has thrown me off my feet.
They say there’s five stages of grief, right? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. I don’t think it’s particularly linear, I think you can move in-between the stages, forward and then slip back again. Because I feel angry that my aunt who was so full of life in character was betrayed by her body. Sometimes I forget, and I’m like ‘Oh, I should tell Beryl about this when she calls on Sunday.’ And of course, there are no more phone calls. There are no more updates or her asking what wonderful things I’ve written about recently.
She was so vibrant, almost electric with colour and enthusiasm for life. As I grieve her absence, I’m torn between feeling like I could cry for hours and wanting to push myself to experience every moment. Time is literally drip, drip, dripping through the hourglass of life, slipping through our fingers.
Grief has taught me that no matter how much you can anticipate or believe you’ve prepared for something to end, for someone to die, for life to change overnight. You’re never really prepared. You’re still winded. You’re still gonna get caught in the rain with shallow breaths as you remember all over again, and have to place your hands on your stomach and force yourself to breathe in until you feel your hands move.
Grief has taught me that you should say yes whilst you still can. And that we will probably only say yes as enthusiastically whilst we’re mindful that life is precious. In six months time, I may be back to saying no out of anxiety, discomfort, or fear again, because the reminder won’t be as fresh or as painful.
Grief has taught me that losing one person can be like losing everyone you’ve loved and lost, all over again; suddenly all those healed scars are inflamed and red hot again. The stitches have come undone and it hurts.
Maybe it’s just British culture that finds death and mourning so abrasive and awkward. Perhaps, because we don’t really talk about death or dying, it’s this unspoken pain that other cultures deal with more intuitively. Here, wills and last wishes are considered morbid and uncomfortable. Maybe if we were open, if we spoke about dying and how we felt about donating our organs or if we wanted to be cremated or buried, death would feel less immobilising when we’re faced with losing a loved one.
Grief has taught me that every experience of loss will cut in a different way. Every wound will land in a different, new place.
Recently, I read that grief is like a room with a big red button on the wall. And it starts as a ball that fills the room, to begin with, the ball is so big that it’s just constantly slamming against the pain button. Gradually, the ball becomes smaller, but it’s ever moving and sometimes it’ll slam again the button. You’ll be in Tesco and it’s like you’ve been stabbed in-between the ribs all over again. Over time, the ball continues to get smaller, and it’ll still hit that button but it’ll be less often and the ratio of ball to button will mean it hurts less.
I think just as we can go back and forth between the stages of grief, I’m sure the ball can re-inflate, just as it can decrease in size. Reminders and anniversaries can cause the ball to swell and slam into the button. This is a great time to remember that recovery isn’t linear, there’s no right direction, there’s only the best direction for you.
The ball is still pretty big for me right now but as we approach three weeks since I got the call, it’s definitely not as big as it was. Thinking about where I am, and where I was in my grief process, I like to reflect and think about the ball.
So, how do we make it hurt less? How do we prepare? How do we protect ourselves from the knife sinking deep into the space between our ribs?
I’m only an expert in my experience, and as far as I can tell, there’s no way to limit the blow, it’s gonna hurt and sometimes, it’s really gonna fucking hurt. But you can limit the damage.
You know, someone might take a baseball bat to the building that is your emotional wellbeing but if you’ve got solid foundations, a general good level of contentment, self awareness and proactive self care in your life, you can maybe limit the damage that the bat will do.
It’ll hurt, but you’ll heal. You’ll recover. You’ll rebuild the walls.
As I write this, I’m sat in a room of strangers in Portugal, 1500 miles from home. I’ve stepped off the ledge of my comfort zone and I’m on a co-working retreat with five other freelancers that I’d never met before 4pm on Sunday afternoon. I cried in the middle of dinner last night, and I’ll undoubtedly cry again before the week is up. But if I’d mentioned this experience to my aunt, she would’ve told me to go, live, experience, and connect. So, I did, it was challenging to get to this point and leaving my comfort zone but ultimately, I’m pleased I came and I know she would be too.