Grief: trying to muzzle the great, black dog

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When I write a blog post, the process usually involves putting pen to paper first, and then using the time to type as a second chance to edit. A bit old-fashioned, a bit cumbersome, but it tends to iron out the mistakes, and helps me avoid repetition.

On this occasion, I have decided against using this method. What you see now is exactly what was jotted down in Playfoots Cafe in Monton on Sunday afternoon. Writing this was cathartic for now, and I feel like I will do myself – and you, the dear reader – a disservice by tampering with the stream of consciousness. There will be errors and repetition. It will not be the most eloquent piece of writing you have ever read – but I can promise you this: it will be honest. The words in front of you will be what was running through my mind, at high speed, at the time.

I try to separate the personal from the professional, and I worry that I am perhaps being too open. In the same way I have always been open about my experiences with bipolar disorder, I should apply that to grief. This is my experience that I had to chronicle; mainly for self-indulgent reasons.

“How are you?”

A seemingly innocuous question. It is the ultimate fallback of small talk. When one has nothing interesting to say, or are perhaps too shy to say it, they reduce themselves to the welfare of others. It is not a loaded question, we do not expect a life story – like the sex life of the average Brit, we expect the response to be short and sweet.

If three syllables seems somewhat overt, you can opt for the simple “Alright?”. Amusingly, this phrase drew the ire of a cast member during Kevin Spacey’s Richard III world tour – in the documentary about the Anglo-American production – who deemed it almost aggressive. “What do you mean if I am alright? Is there something not to be alright about?!”

Not the only enquiry to cause confusion among our international guests. During my time as a student, I befriended many visitors to Great Britain (and Greatest Lancashire). The kind-hearted offer of “want owt from shop?” was met with creased foreheads and startled looks; lacking from linguistic textbooks or tutorage of professors with Mid-Atlantic and received pronunciation accents.

Our colonial cousins’ confusion is only matched with our perplexity towards their niceties. Upon entering a store in the US, I have been accosted with “Hello, sir! How are you? Have a nice day!” I found from my experiences across the water that you must never, ever respond to this vacuous crap and ask how they are in return. Resembling a rabbit in headlights, they do not know the appropriate; it was a statement, not a question.

The Englishman is a selfish, inward race, only caring about their own needs. The American, whom I have grown to adore irrespective of their electoral choices, is outward facing, far too willing to please. The Englishman is very rarely willing to call anyone “sir”, because it highlights their inferiority. The American, thankfully, is not as tedious or petty in maintaining a complex class system, and therefore offer the vocative address in abundance.

I am digressing, of course.

This is because I am not willing to answer the original question.

I could reply with the typically Lancastrian “not too bad, ta”; our pessimism not allowing us to admit to anything being good – if it is, we can only use the phrase “alreight”.

But I am not a liar. From the age of 18, I decided never to lie; which has, no doubt, ended relationships and friendships prematurely.

In truth, I am not okay. I am not okay, whatsoever.

My dear Nan, the living embodiment of selflessness, loyalty and love, has died. My inspiration, my best friend, my joie de vivre has been taken away from me, aged 85. I am heartbroken, devastated, angry, aggressive, depressed and forlorn – and undoubtedly, selfish.

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Grief is a selfish process. I will never see her again. am in so much pain. Though I equip lexis, pretentiously, in my arsenal, I cannot arm myself with any to describe this suffocating and debilitating experience that – that pronoun again – have to endure. Not once have I considered Nan will not see her family, Nan will not spend another day on Earth – or more importantly, Nan is now free of pain.

In times of deep sadness, in the absolute worst of times, I have found that it shows people at their best. Shrouded in darkness, I am grateful that I have not been totally eclipsed in blackness. There have been flickers of light from the immeasurable kindness of family, friends and even strangers. When wars are declared, and people flee from the terror, there are always those running in its direction willing to offer aid and generosity.

I have to confess, I do not usually know how to react when people send their ‘thoughts and prayers’. When a crises hits, a much too regular occurrence, Twitter feeds are filled with pointless hashtags #PrayForX. This wills on inaction, an armchair thought instead of an on-the-feet response. If positive thinking worked, I would have a six-pack, be a millionaire, and be married to Jenna-Louise Coleman. This armchair positive thinking is what fuels the so-called happiness industry, which can be dangerous with its false promises of the universe looking after you. If you do not reap the rewards you lust for, you do not have enough faith. Sickening.

I deplore those who slavishly bleat “but everything happens for a reason”. What a lazy line of thinking, taking absolutely no responsibility for your actions. If everything is predetermined, I would hate to meet this omnipotent petulant child. The working class have religion whilst the middle class have spirituality. The impoverished and less affluent need to believe in a higher power that looks over them because they are truly alone; the self-important, and I daresay delusional, middle class need to believe they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around their humdrum, dull and insignificant little lives. And don’t get me started with karma (again, slothful redistribution of blame) or those patronising, smug Facebook memes with their so-called inspirational messages; although the person who posts them has achieved bugger all and wastes away to insignificance.

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

I am being rude. I am lashing out. I am not sorry.

There is no guide how to grieve properly, no etiquette to respect the dead. We are not willing to address our own mortality, therefore we do not plan the necessary decorum.

A person has “passed away”, we have “lost” our Nan (in the supermarket?!), she is “on the other side”. Our sugar-coating becomes a bizarre variation of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch: he is an ex-parrot, he has ceased to be.

Death is a violent act. Not necessarily the cause of the demise, but to the mourners. We are suddenly bereft of a mother, an auntie, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has been suddenly removed from our lives without consultation. Our constant, our rock, has vanished.

I wanted to ring my Nan the other day, as I often did throughout the week. The conversation was always the same, but it was always comforting. Not even being able to say hello broke my heart in two, as I tried to contain my anguish whilst travelling on the bus. I was not successful.

And so, we rely on our memories. I remember Nan on Christmas Day, beaming with joy at the family opening their gifts. And then, she was gone.

She was not well over Christmas, a fact made clear when I returned home for the holidays. One of the most beautiful pieces of television ever created – and one of the rare things to make me cry (alongside the film Pride) – Royle Family’s Queen of Sheba was broadcast on BBC. This episode mirrored everything we were going through, and reduced me to a hopeless mess. On Christmas Eve, the family watched Nativity 2 on DVD. Admittedly not one of the finest films ever made, but as the twins were born and the sparring brothers (also twins) reunited, my mother and I sobbed uncontrollably (both of us twins, but sadly my brother Anthony not making it past birth), exhausted at what we were facing.

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Throughout this festive period, I have been an exposed nerve, with even a faint breeze of wind causing sorrow and pain.

I got to say goodbye to Nan, and as she closed her eyes for the last time, she was surrounded by her family. As she let go, my body reacted in shock. In a complete incomprehension on how to deal with the enormity of grief, I simply stopped functioning. If my father was not behind me, I would have crumpled to the floor. Every eon of me wanted to scream. Inside, I was on fire, Outside, I was cold. Something guttural needed to shriek in despair, but when reaching my vocal chords, it whimpered through a cracked voice. I could not function, I did not want to function.

Grief is not just one emotion, it is a multitude, all attacking you for different positions. My head pounds, my very insides twist and twist and twist. I am at my most primal. I have been reduced to a wounded animal.

And like most wounded animals, I lash out. I am not an angry person: grumpy, yes; passionate, indeed. The red mist, however, I do not tend to experience. This alien emotion has crept up on me.

I am, undoubtedly, a coward. When given a choice of fight or flight, I have already booked an all-inclusive package holiday to Majorca. I will drink a lovely Sangria at the Blue Bar, Palma Nova situated just on the beach front. As the news hit, much to my shame I explored the possibilities of escapes to Europe; the key word being “escapes”.

Instead, I am feeling terribly tense and hyped up. I have not slept properly. One night, after giving up, I went downstairs to the kitchen table to write my Nan’s eulogy for her funeral. This was 1.30am. I did not return to bed until three hours later.

I am a lover, not a fighter. Okay, a lover is being too generous. But right now, if Conor McGregor offered a chance for a spur, I don’t think I would turn him down. Much like my schooldays, I would be beaten to a pulp; unlikely my schooldays, I would most likely attempt to fight back.

Grief is selfish, and grief is irrational.

This antagonistic behaviour is further exasperated by my current aesthetics. I did not leave the house for a week after my Nan’s death. I was unshaven, with unruly hair, and appalling baggy clothes. To those who know me, I am a man who prides himself on his appearance; and for a week, I let myself go. After she lost her husband Albert, Queen Victoria wore black. Although interpreted as a sign of respect, I understand her logic: it is the equivalent of telling people to fuck off. Even with my pitiful attempt at facial hair, it meant, at least, I was separated from humanity even with just a few millimetres.

And then, I remember.

Every time I visited my Nan, even after one day of not shaving, she would inspect my face checking for stubble and say, “Ew, tufty”. My brother Ciaran with a full beard would never get this treatment – in fact, she rather liked his beard – but if I was not clean-shaven, there would always be a comment.

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I have learnt a great deal about presentation from my Nan. She might not leave the house, but she would always look impeccable. You might never know what guests to expect – one year, my Nan was visited by the carnival queen desperate for the loo during the parade. She dressed for the occasion each and every day.

So, I have left the house. Gillette rejoices at their prodigal son and my barber is happy for the custom. The unmistakable pain is still ever so present, haunting me like the great, black dog of depression.

But I will not be hounded without a fight. Returning to a routine thanks to a simple, silly memory, I have found a muzzle.

It’s still here, this unfathomable bottomless grief and by gosh it hurts, but I need to train the great, black dog. Small steps. Let’s start with “give us a paw”.

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