The roller-coaster of grief

Posted by , 21 July 2017

The date is marked in my calendar, and etched in my brain like a fingernail running down a chalk-board.

In some ways it seems like just yesterday. In others, it is a lifetime ago. I find it difficult to talk about, but at the same time I know that talking will help me to deal with what I’m thinking and feeling, and to keep the memories alive. I guess that is the nature of grief, isn’t it? A roller coaster of feelings, of not being able to put into words how much you are hurting, of one minute crying your eyes out and the next laughing or smiling quietly at a fond memory.

August 19, 2015. The date is marked in my calendar, and etched painfully in my brain like the sound of a fingernail running down a chalk-board. The anniversary of her death is less than a month away. I want to remember, but I also want to forget. But most of all, I want to pay tribute to one of the most important people in my life, and let the world (or at least anyone who bothers to read this) know just how much I miss her.

I’ve written about Nan before. After she died, I really wanted to write about her again, but the pain was far too great. I was scared that if I didn’t write the memories down, I would lose them and my children and grandchildren would not know enough about her. Every time I tried, my fingers froze over the keyboard. It was tough. I think that sometimes you just have to let the feelings sit for a while, you have to turn the memories over in your mind, you have to come to terms with the loss. Then, and only then, can you share with others your innermost thoughts. I struggled to write a eulogy for the funeral but desperately wanted to honour her. If writing it was tough, getting up in the church and actually delivering it was even tougher.

They say time heals all wounds – that’s a very trite saying. I hope I never, ever, say this to someone who is grieving, because it is blatantly a lie. But time does give you some perspective. It sorts out the good memories from the bad. Those last painful weeks and days creep into the background where they belong, and the earlier, brighter, better memories rise to the surface. It all becomes a little easier to bear, sits more comfortably on your shoulder, and you can even sometimes get through a whole day without it sticking in your throat or sending a burning pain through your heart. And then it catches you by surprise again, a viscous cycle. There are the milestones: the first birthday, Christmas or anniversary come and go, you cry, reminisce, and wish she was still here. Then the next day you get up, keep going with everyday life – which is how it is meant to be.

In the months before we returned from Geneva, Nan was getting very tired. She was short of breath even at rest and it was noticeable when we spoke on the phone. I’m so glad I made the surprise visit to see her in January 2015 – that time was really special and really was the last time we were able to go out together and have lunch or do some shopping. Catherine’s video of the surprise visit still reduces me to tears. She was unwell while I was here, and we spent many hours together in the hospital and doctor’s waiting room. When I left, I honestly thought I might never see her again. Saying goodbye was terrible.

Thanks to the wonders of technology and skype we talked every week, and I knew she was doing less and spending long hours sitting in her chair. She had lost interest in going out. For a previously very active, determined lady, this must have been very difficult. Our conversations were open, honest, and yet at the same time filled with unspoken words. We knew each other so well, we didn’t need to say anything out loud. Every conversation ended with her question: “When are you coming home?”. I would remind her of the date, and she would promise me that she was waiting. We both knew time was running out, but she was determined to wait until I came home.

In fact she did just that. A few days after we arrived home I received a call from my Aunt to say Nan had been taken to Queanbeyan Hospital by ambulance. When I arrived, her first words to me were “I told you I was waiting for you to get home”. She was transferred to Calvary John James Hospital, where she spent the last six weeks of her life. I reluctantly went back to work, but visited every afternoon on my way home. We spent many long hours at her bedside. Just talking. Reminiscing. Being together. There were a few scary moments – rapid atrial fibrillation in the early hours of the morning resulted in a mad rush to be by her side, and a couple of very tense days as my parents were out of town and couldn’t get back. I begged her to hold on. I tried to help other members of the family come to terms with the fact that medically there was no more than could be done – this is something I do on a daily basis in my work, but when it is your own family it’s tough.

The last few days were long and tiring. I didn’t go to work – how can you possibly go and look after other people’s family members when someone you love so dearly is dying and has only got days to live? I wanted to spend every precious moment I could with her. It was a privilege to help the nurses care for her – washing her, helping with medications, just being there. On the 19th August, I reluctantly left her bedside to go home for a few hours and cook dinner for the family. It was Jayden’s birthday on the 20th, and we needed to spend time with him. Mum and Dad also took the time to go out for dinner with my sister – we were all exhausted. Just after dinner I received the call I was dreading. We made our way slowly back to the hospital – there was no need to rush now.

At first I was angry…how dare she die while I was not there, when I had spent so much time by her side dreading the last breath? Then I realised that she probably planned it that way. We had said our goodbyes many times over the past few days, we had hugged, kissed and held hands. Time had run out, and I am sure she was determined that our last memory of her should not be of her last moments. I thank her for that now, but it took some time.

I miss her. Desperately, some days. The way she called me love or darling. Her strong hugs, even when she was at her weakest. Our quiet moments. The conversations about her past. And the moments when I could confide in her my worries, fears, concerns about my children or just life in general. I could tell her anything, and she would have a few sage words of advice, or just be a compassionate listening ear. She would have been proud to watch me step into my first Nurse Practitioner role – and she would have told me so.

We still had experiences to share. I know she would love our new smallest grandson, Thomas. She was so excited in the weeks before she died when Jonathan and Casey shared their exciting news with her. I think she would delight in his cheeky little smile and play cars with him. She would be proud of Jonathan and the wonderful job he is doing of being a daddy. She would enjoy Jayden’s serious little chats about superheroes, lego and preschool. She and Catherine were very close, and I know she was excited that Catherine was taking her steps towards home ownership. Now that it is ready and she is just about to move in, I wish Nan was here to see our lovely young woman spread her wings and fly into adulthood, and to visit her for a cup of tea in her new apartment. She would enjoy more visits from Steve, chatting to him about her past, sharing mutual concern about the world – she would have absolutely hated Donald Trump. She would have loved to visit us in our new home by the lake and sit on the lounge to look at the view with Molly curled up next to her. There is a huge gap in my life that will never be filled.

I’m trying to remember the fact that, at 89, she readily admitted she had lived a good long life, she knew her time was up, and she was very ready to die. She believed in Heaven and often said had loved ones waiting to greet her. We joked about the fight that would break out at the pearly gates when she arrived and they all wanted to be first to welcome her. She told me she was not afraid, she was just worried about her family and how they would cope. The answer is pretty badly at first, but we are holding our own. We all grieved in different ways. In the end we are left with beautiful memories. A long line of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren who are able to talk about her and remember her. She made the most of her life in spite of many hardships, and taught us to do the same. Life will never be the same, but it goes on. Carpe Diem.

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