50 Shades of Grief

Right now I know of a few younger and middle-aged people who are facing imminent death from that dirty prick of a disease, cancer. There is nothing to be done for them but accept this is happening and try and make something matter out of this completely unfair and early ending.

Death is always tough but young deaths, particularly those where best-laid plans have been headed off at the path by illness are an absolute punch in the face. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was furious, as he said he still had so much he wanted to do. Places to travel with my mum, toys to make in his workshop and more school events to see for his beloved grandchildren. I get it.

When my grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she said to me that she struggled to let go of seeing life happen around her. She said there was always another grandchild to see start school or university, another baby to welcome and knit a blanket for. 

I read an interview with someone who had a terminal illness who said that when you're dying you come to a sense of acceptance. It feels like you have been at Disneyland all day and it's amazing and yes there are more rides but you're tired and at some point, you just want to go home. 

The day my Dad was diagnosed, a very wise friend of mine said to me, "Don't miss it. Don't miss the big love. If you can be there to witness and feel it, it's enormous and so many people miss it because they're afraid of being sad."

She was right and I am glad I didn't miss it. I felt all the pain and the big love. It was huge and to be honest, the energy is similar to when a baby is being born. I guess the endings and the beginnings come from the same place. 

I often say there are two types of grief. Clean grief, which is the healthiest, where you have said goodbye to your loved one. Where you have a sense of ending and privilege for loving them and you have told them this. You are devastated but it's because you miss them but know you did and said everything right. This grief is beautiful and clear, and truly special. It eases and when you cry for them, you also laugh because it was just such a bloody ride to have them in your life. It is dappled and beautiful, like a stained glass ceiling with each colour a memory.

Then there is the other one. Dirty grief. The one where your loved one went quickly and without warning such as suicide, murder, a tragic accident, and often it is a violent death. This is the worst death because you're dealing with guilt, trying to imagine their last moment and thoughts, and how you could have stopped whatever had happened. You need to know every detail but it's awful and if you can't know, your mind makes it up, because it is trying to make sense of what happened. This grief often comes with its own dose of PTSD and it's ugly. It's dirty and smelly and it eats away at you and this is one you can't always exorcise from your life alone. And that's okay. Getting help is often the answer to anything you can't wrestle alone let alone pain and loss. 

But it is possible to turn dirty grief into clean grief, with time, support, and some serious self-care and forgiveness of them and of yourself. And sometimes, you just have to make friends with grief for a while and understand, you're alive and soon, or later, you will laugh and love again.

There are so many poems about grief, but this one by Matthew Dickman is my favourite. It reminds us death is strange, grief is absurd, and that it is a mystery why our name is in the pile of the living and our loved ones are in the other. 

Be kind to yourself. Please. 


By Matthew Dickman

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what’s left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside,
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she’s coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known,
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don’t ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,
crying in the checkout line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead,
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? she says,
reading the name out loud, slowly,
so I am aware of each syllable, each vowel
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.