From over the last couple of years, I have experienced grief in various forms and through a series of ‘Goodbyes’: London, a place I loved, XLP, a charity I started and worked at for 22 years, and now my nan, one of my favourite people to walk this earth. Again, I wrestle with my thoughts and ponder on what it really means…
My Nan was a precious soul. Alzheimer took her mind years ago and as a family, we have had to witness this beautiful lady slowly get worse over time. Seeing her memory deteriorate to the point of not remembering who we are has been a painful experience, and especially so for my dad. Watching this amazing lady no longer react to what was going on around her, seeing her void of emotions when faced with what once brought her pure joy, has been really tough.
We could argue that the person we knew and loved had already left us ten years ago in some ways. Yet, there she was in front of us, a body and a face and every now and then, there was an odd smile, a word… My Nan had the funniest laugh, yet I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard it. My dad often said she may have forgotten who we are, but we know who she was, and it was important we visited her even if and when she didn’t seem to notice we were there.
When you look into the eyes of someone you know is dying, you become strangely aware of the pain you are carrying. It is the pain of lost relationships, the pain triggered by traumatic events you didn’t expect or didn’t think you would experience. Nevertheless, life brought them on and you have had no choice but endure the undesirable feelings that come with those. You are never given a choice as whether you wanted this to happen or not and so the only thing you can do is cope with these feelings and emotions by accepting them and recognising that while unpleasant, their impact on you and your state of being, is natural and a normal process we cannot escape from. That process is called grief. You can try and suppress it, but you will only be putting up a front, deep within the impact these difficult life events has on you, cannot be shunned or denied.
Having been a Christian all my life, I cannot help but think about the classic advice given by many of my Christian friends in those moments: give your pain to God, as if I had not thought of that or even tried. While well meant, we need to recognise that calling upon God in those moments will not make us forget what happened and minimise the pain we are experiencing. We must also accept that wounds take a long time to heal.
While I am conscious of God’s power to heal over time, I am also realistic and accept that there are no quick fixes in those moments. My solace is that I am not suffering alone. God, rather than removing me from the pain which I am experiencing, something I sometimes wish He did, joins me and suffers with me. Love is not a refuge from pain, but pain can’t keep love at bay. Love is always there and where there is love pain may follow, and sometimes we might even wonder whether those two strong emotional states can in fact interact independently from each other. If you love, you will experience pain!
Our attitude to pain is often shaped by our upbringing, the environment and the society in which we live. I believe that it is better to ‘let pain happen’ rather than to run away from it or to avoid it. This is particularly difficult for men in our society to do as they would rather escape or toughen up. From a young age, they have been told that ‘boys don’t cry’ and in due course to ‘man up’ and not let their emotions show. The suppression of emotions that result from such expectations and social norms can only lead to a wealth of emotional upsets an imbalance and I believe can be really unhealthy in the long run in the life of a man.
When you become aware of pain and of the love of God at the same time and accept both, you can see beauty in most things. You realise that grief isn’t getting over something or someone but getting through a situation and it is so much easier to get through stuff with company than on your own.
Pain tells us we are not alone and something inside us longs for relationships not just from those around us but from God Himself.
Over the past ten years, I have watched my dad faithfully visit my Nan weekly in her home. I have watched him being involved in the smallest details of her care even though during most of that time, he didn’t have a meaningful conversation with her. I have seen him shouted out and hit by the person he loved and cared for. I have seen him sat in A&E for hours on end knowing that she might not be aware of his presence. That love of always being there, that love expecting nothing in return, that love comes from a deeper place than is humanly explainable. That love…. That unconditional love.
Loving when we are loved back is easy. It does not require much effort on our part but loving without being loved in return is one of the hardest things.
When you reach that time in your life when you are so close to death, the space between life and death consist of a very fine line. At that time, the people around you are those you loved and who love you whether they were there all along or disappeared and reappeared or not for whatever reasons that may be and as influenced by busy lives and an overloaded diary…. Recognising that what keeps us alive is meaningful relationships is essential.
Around my nan’s dying bed, we gathered, believing that despite her lack of response, all she would want at that time, is to have the people who love her there. And so, we continued to talk to her, to hold her hands not knowing when the next time we’ll speak to her will be but despite her not showing it, believing in our heart that she knows we loved and cared for her. We wanted her to know and express she would never be left or forsaken, as it is promised by God in the Bible.
In Honesty Over silence, I wrote that:
“Neither depression, nor anxiety, nor self-harm, neither cancer nor OCD nor an eating disorder, nor Alzheimer’s, nor pain from the past or the present or the future, nor disappointment or shattered dream can stop God loving us.”
In some relationships and friendships ‘goodbye’ means ‘goodbye’ as one season finishes, and a new season starts. I have experienced the pain of that, but in the case of my Nan, it is not one of these ‘goodbye’ that I said to her, but rather a ‘See you later’.