A few months ago my grandmother died. She was eighty-seven years old, and although she had been struggling for a while, her death was still a shock.
I know it sounds silly, but I expected her to be here forever. I never imagined a life without her. Even in the last few weeks of her life, when she was very frail, I always thought she would bounce back. She’d done it before. In the past when she’d fallen or been ill, she had a few weeks in respite care, and returned home stronger and fitter and as feisty as ever.
I expected her to come home again, to battle on, to show her spirit and independence. But she didn’t. She slipped away on a Monday morning in October.
‘That’s life,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s what happens.’
Death may be an inevitable part of life, but nothing prepares you for the death of someone you love, someone who has been such a huge and influential part of your life, and means so much. The death of my grandmother is a huge loss to my family.
In the days after her death, I wondered how people survive loss. I found myself looking at others. Many of my friends have suffered bereavement, but they still laugh and love and enjoy life. How did they get through it?
As always, I turned to literature, not so much reading for escape, more trying to understand loss and the grieving process. At the time, I was studying a life writing module at university. Life writing by its nature deals with loss, so many of the books were on my reading list. They included:
Cutty One Rock by August Kleinzahler,
Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuiness,
The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton,
This Party’s Got to Stop by Rupert Thomson.
Others not on my reading list were Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion talks of grief being like waves of the sea. I like this metaphor, because it captures the essence of grief, surging yet receding like the tides. Grief comes over you when you least expect it. It was like that when my grandfather died last December, and it’s the same with Nan, except this time it feels more intense. It’s not because we loved her any more, but because her death ends a part of the family, a time, an era. All I know is that the weight of grief is huge. It washes over you. It usually happens when I’m alone, driving or in the bath, when I have the time and space to think.
My partner, Chris, lost his mother when he was a boy, and his brother a few years later.
‘How do you get over it?’ I asked. ‘Losing someone you love so much.’
‘You don’t.’ Chris said. ‘You learn to live with it.’
I thought about what Chris said. Learning to live with loss is difficult, but that’s what people do. They survive. They carry on. Then in a few days, or months, or years, they’re smiling again. There is a healing process. For me, books and writing are part of that process. They help me to understand loss and appreciate life, which means I can remember all the happy times and smile.