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How to grieve

The news this week has been horrid. There has been the most astonishing public outpouring of grief and people have been sharing their thoughts, I have not felt alone, but in amongst it has been a few people dictating how to grieve. How can anyone tell you how to grieve? How can anyone dictate how long grief should last or how long you should grieve for?

I don't think anyone can tell you how to grieve. And what's more I don't feel anyone should tell you. Grief is a hugely personal thing. It's humungous, it's a mixture of shock, sadness, loss, anger, despair, relief, pain, bewilderment, reflection, it stirs up memories and a whole load of other emotions.

My best friend died in November. I was recently asked how I felt. Lost. Lost is the answer. I've lost the one person who I talked to about everything. I feel lost when I think of something I want to say to her, I look at the phone but she's not there. She'll never be there again. She won't phone and say "hey guess what?", she won't appear and say "g'day", she won't look at what I'm wearing and say "what the bloody hell?', she won't pour another glass, get irritated when I put something back, intentionally, in the wrong place, she won't arrive at our French holiday home with a bottle of cider and a tarte tartin. She won't read this. She won't know I'm lost. But I know I'm lost. Before she died we had a chat, I can still hear her when she said "you've seen enough cancer you deserve a cake". As she stood with one hand on the door of death she was thinking of my loss.

I've always known that people die, it's how it is. I think the first time something in my life died it was a cat, animals die too. We had cats that died and they left a gap. The new ones appeared but they weren't the ones we lost. As a child it seemed simple.

Mum: Darling, Tiptoes has died.

Young Nell: Oh I loved Tiptoes. That's sad. What's for lunch?

It's not as simple as that when someone dies.

My great uncle died when I was 5, I hardly knew him yet he was known to lots of people. His death was reported in the papers and his funeral was attended by stars of stage and screen. Whilst I didn't know him well I mourned him and I mourn him still. I would have loved to have known him and heard first hand his life. He was family. The brother of my late grandfather. A grandfather I had never met, who died when he was 24, who was nonetheless part of my tapestry.

At 9 my world was rocked and I faced the dying months and death of a parent - my daddy. He was handsome, charismatic, ill and 41. Forty one. Cancer. Hushed tones. Stiff upper lip. The big C. Looking back I grieved but I didn't know what to do about my grief. The older generation had returned home from the war and they got on with it. My friends didn't know anyone who had died. I was somewhere inbetween but so dreadfully alone. I wrote this some years later "Last night my dad turned yellow I said as I went into school, my teachers all were horrified, my friends thought he was cool". I will never ever forget how uncomfortable I felt when I saw my Granny for the first time after the funeral. Was I meant to talk about him? What if I cried? What if she cried? Now nearly 38 years later I still miss my father, we had a very short time together which is why my memories are so precious and that's why I cling on to what memories I have and the hardest part of growing old is that the space between him dying and now gets longer with each year. He has missed every part of my life and I wonder what he would be like now, what kind of grandfather he would be. Would he still drive a Hillman Imp and smoke a pioe. When I was very ill aged 41 and Mook was 9 I suffered dreadfully with depression and anxiety, I was so like my father and I feared I would die at the same age. Then she turned 10, I turned 42 and got better.

When I was 16 my uncle died. He was old and poorly. The loss was immense. He had never married, never had children but he was my favourite uncle and he was gone. I still talk about him. About the time I ate too much chocolate on Christmas morning and felt very sick, about the time he used to sit listening to the radio with his head in his hands saying "bloody hell" at every news story!

My sister in law died nearly 9 years ago. She was 30. Not only was she my husband's younger sister but she was the aunty to my girls and also Laree's Godmother. She died 3 days before my mother in law was 60 and her funeral was on my 38th birthday. I remember when Big Welsh went to stay in Wales with the girls shortly after she had died and one of the girls looked at Granny Valley and said "Aunty Helen is dead", Granny Valley cried. Should we have told the girls what to say and do? How can you second guess grief?

Both of my grandmothers died in a January, one at the beginning and one towards the end. I was pregnant with Loops when Granny S died and it was ghastly, only a few weeks before she died I had told her I was pregnant and her voice was so full of joy and delight, then she was gone. I felt anger that she had died, she had gone to hospital for a hip replacement she hadn't been ill, just a bit broken. When Granny P-G was dying I felt angry and lost. I was sitting by the bedside of my father's mother, perhaps the role normally associated with that of a child but I was the grandchild. Her only child had died years previously and my brother and I would then be the elders of our family, so wrong as we should have had a generation above us.

When Charch died we all felt numb, we knew it was coming because we had spent the last 7 months of her life with her but it was hard. At her memorial service we were all united in grief and happy memories and there were lots of tears, there was laughter too. At supper that evening I was talking to one of my old class mates and I just burst out crying, having held it together for much of the day. No one said anything untoward, because you can cry when you want to and no-one will judge.

Someone I know feels grief at the loss of a parent 20 years ago despite not having him in his life since the tender age of 3.

The thing is this. You don't need to know someone to mourn them. When Davd Bowie died I felt immense sadness that this magical music maker had died but it also stirred up the memories of people I will no longer see again. When I was last with Mme Cholet I told her to get the wine in, find a comfy sofa with a good view and I'll find her. Well she's got a front row seat now.

So, I won't tell you how to grieve. I won't tell you to pull yourself together, I won't judge, I won't say time is a healer, I won't say you'll get over it - just give it time. I might not always know the right words to say, I might not always listen, but I won't ever tell you how to grieve. What I will do is think of you and hold you close and say something stupid.

Because no-one needs a smart arse telling you how you should be feeling or an expert when you're grieving, because there's no such thing as rules on how to grieve.


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