I felt completely in the dark about the reality of grief until my dad died

This summer, I watched my dad die.

My sister and I sat either side of him and clung desperately to his hands as he took his last breath. We told him that he was so loved, that we were proud of him, that it was OK for him to go. And then he went.

No one warned me that grief is so painful, or that it is so much like fear. No one told me it would feel like someone was stamping on your chest, squeezing the air out of your lungs, crushing your heart to pulp.

People frequently use the metaphor of drowning; they say grief hits you in ‘waves’, but the ocean is too indifferent for that to be true. This pain feels intentional, violent and personal. For me, grief is a rooted, earthy agony that pins you to the ground with its solidity – the ocean feels like a relief in comparison.

In the days after the doctors told us there was nothing more they could do, I would stand in front of the mirror and imagine I was reading a eulogy at Dad’s funeral. I googled what happens in the last moments of life.

I tried to picture my life without him. But there is no preparing yourself for this feeling, and culturally, we don’t have the language or the capability to help each other through grief either.

We are living through a period of collective loss on a scale that hasn’t been seen in this country for generations, and yet we are woefully ill-prepared to cope with our own grief, or the grief of those around us.

We are already hurtling towards a national mental health crisis, and if we can’t find a way to better support each other through bereavement, that picture will only get bleaker.

In the early days and weeks of my grief, I suddenly realised that I had probably never given my grieving friends the support they needed when they were going through their own bereavements.

It was only now, feeling it for myself, that I could conceive of what they might have needed from me, how much I hadn’t understood, and just how hard it must have been for them.

One of my closest friends, Donna, lost her dad four years ago. She insists I was supportive and helpful when she was at her lowest, but I wish I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now and be better for her.

I’m angry at myself for my inability to fully comprehend the realities of grief without my own personal experience of it, but we are never given the tools to be able to do this. So much of this comes down to societal narratives about death and grieving.

Death is still a taboo in Western culture. We don’t talk about it, or even think about it, until we are forced to. Why aren’t we taught about the end of life in schools when we are taught extensively about conception and birth?

There is no preparing yourself for this feeling

Why aren’t we taught about the logistics of somebody’s death, the endless and complex admin and legal responsibilities that so many have to deal with on top of their grief?

And there is still stigma attached to grieving. There is an excessive focus on getting people through it as quickly as possible. The grieving are avoided, the subject of our loss skirted around, as though our pain is contagious. I have already felt the pressure to provide people with a positive trajectory of progression when they ask how I am. ‘Better,’ I say, and I can see the relief in their eyes.

We are repeatedly told that time is a healer, without anyone ever addressing what exactly we are healing from. This feels like an entirely passive response to another person’s grief, a response that absolves you of any real responsibility to provide meaningful support.

I am very fresh to my grief, but from what I can tell, time doesn’t heal, it simply carries you away from the blast site. Your loss is further away, but it isn’t healed. What grieving people need is something much more hands-on than simply waiting for time to trickle by.

We need people who continue to check in, who give us space to talk about those we have lost, who aren’t afraid to say their names. We need people who understand that grief is not linear, that it doesn’t have a time-scale.

I don’t blame people who avoid the eyes of the grieving, I have been those people. I have awkwardly danced around bringing up a death with a grieving friend.

At the time I believed I was protecting them, shielding them from painful memories, but I was really only protecting myself. We see our own vulnerability reflected in the eyes of people who have suffered loss, and it is too much for most of us to bear.

We need to take the fear out of it, and the best way to do that is to talk about it – because we will always be more afraid of the unknown.

I don’t blame people who avoid the eyes of the grieving, I have been those people

What we need is better education around grief, loss and death. We need to talk about it in schools, we need to have an open dialogue in our families, in our friendship groups, we need better legislation that protects grieving people in the workplace, we need easier access to grief-specific mental health support.

Earlier this month, on the four-year anniversary of her dad’s death, Donna sent me a message to tell me that it wasn’t the first thing she thought about when she woke up that morning.

She said she was still sad, but she was able to have a semi-normal day, and that one day I would feel like that, too. I hope I’ll be able to do things like this for my next friend who joins the bereavement club. I hope that by paying it forward I can make up for not doing enough in the past.

I always imagined that grief was just a longer, more intense form of sadness, but it is a different beast entirely. Almost five months on from that surreal, sunny day in August when we lost dad, I realise that grief is unchartered terrain.

Sometimes it is deep sadness, sometimes it is breathless fear, often it is sick longing. But the central and frequently undiscussed feature of grief is its permanence.

Although it may fade, or becomes less intense, I already know that this grief is something I will live with forever.

Grief is multifaceted and it isn’t only made up of despair and hopelessness. My experience of loss has taught me so much, too. It has refocused my priorities to the things that really matter – which is the people in my life and essentially nothing else.

It has increased my empathy for those around me and the battles they might be facing in private. It has been an urgent reminder of the finite nature of all things, a reminder to appreciate what I have now, rather than throwing all my energy into endlessly planning for the future and manically ticking off achievements.

There is possibility in grief – the opportunity for change, reevaluation, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and those around us. But only if we learn how to talk about it and how to help each other survive it.

Every single one of us will experience death, grief and loss in our lives, and the pandemic has accelerated that journey for millions of people. It is vital that we are better prepared.

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