Monday, 20 July 2009

Death, the Pill and putting grief aside

It's a little over nine years since my father died of Motor Neurone Disease. He was 60. The diagnosis had come a year earlier. It started with a lack of strength in his left leg when he walked my grandmother's dog. Then he began to experience muscle weakness in his left arm and in his hands. For a long time before this happened, he had suffered from mental vagueness, a tendency to smile at all and sundry in lieu of engaging with them. His father had died of dementia. In my father's case, the MND expert was emphatic: you cannot have MND and dementia; MND does not effect the mental capacity of the brain. My father's increased vagueness during his illness began to seem like an undignified surrender to the disease. Why was he not railing against his fate? Or seeking ways to surmount it, or at least confront it? Why did everything seem to provoke this same sad smile of acceptance? I don't know. Except that I suspect he was suffering from dementia, either aggravated by or in partnership with the MND. Had the expert admitted to that as a possibility, it would have spared us all an extra quota of frustration. In any case, he died within a year of the diagnosis.

Despite his vagueness, he was an enthusiast who could speak for hours and knowledgably of Tudor history, cricket, Top of the Pops circa 1973. He held strong views on subjects others might dismiss as trivia. He had an opinion, often heated, on just about everything. He was, incredibly perhaps, an optimist.

I was two months pregnant when he died, and hadn't told him in case it upset him to think he wouldn't live to see a new grandchild. I was numb with new hormones. Three months later, my surrogate uncle died. It was expected, as he'd suffered a stroke and a bad fall some time before the stroke that killed him.

Then, when I was seven months pregnant, my grandmother died very suddenly. I didn't take the news well. Left to my own devices I would've gone into full grieving mode. I did in fact lie on a stone floor and wail at the ceiling. Which scared everyone, myself included. But I was about to have my first child; I couldn't have a meltdown. I put the grief to one side.

Now, nearly nine years later, it is still coming out. A little at a time. Some days I don't think about it at all. Other days I can hardly function because of it. Added to which, since giving birth, I have been prey to what I am told are 'perfectly normal hormones' which would be fine had I, for instance, ever experienced PMT before the birth of my child. As it was I glided through puberty on the wing'd feet of The Pill, which suppressed I suspect all sorts of chemicals with which my body now delights in tormenting me once a month and often more frequently (well, it's making up for lost time).

I have done some things I am not proud of in the last nine years. I have avoided thinking about the three deaths that came so quickly one after the other. I have avoided grieving. I have given in to rage against nothing and no one in particular, without seeking a proper cause for it. I have hurt some of the people I love, and others whom I hardly know.

On the other hand, I have raised a happy child. I have made my mother's welfare a priority. I have survived, which in itself seems a minor miracle when I try for a proper perspective on that period of time when I was so far from myself that it's extraordinary I never called out for help, in panic if nothing else.

In conclusion, I am a work in progress. I have no salient lessons to offer, expect perhaps to say that if you have grieving to do - do it. Give yourself space, even just a little at a time, five minutes every other day. Happy memories; it doesn't have to be Grief with a capital G. Give thanks for what you had, and for what you have. Get help if you need it, and be patient with yourself and others.


Gay Degani said...

Sarah... so much. You know...

Caroline - (Choille) said...


T'is sad. My own Father died 4 years back, and I could not grieve at that time.
When ill, or in pain - people can display dementia-like symptoms. It's as if the brain closes down a little.
My youngest brother died last September with all the drama that he'd lived his life. I still haven't forgiven him.
It takes time & you have had so much in such a short space.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Gay and Caroline. This is what happens when I blog late at night in a state of fatigue - sorry for the depressing post.

Caroline, I'm so sorry about your father and brother, and thank you for sharing because your empathy means a lot. Take care.

Vanessa said...

Hi there Missis

This is a lovely post. It is worth several times as much as the blather I stick on my place most days.


Sarah Hilary said...

V, thanks, but reading your blog is one of the highlights of my day.

I almost deleted this post when I read it back in the cold light of the "next day". But I'm letting it stand because it's the first time I've managed to articulate anything at all about this and, while it reads like a writer trying to articulate something and still be a writer (our curse, perhaps?), it is honest.

Tania Hershman said...

Sarah, thank you so much for sharing this with us, a very moving post. I am so glad you didn't delete it, even though I understand the temptation.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania.

Derek Thompson said...

Thank you for writing with such honesty.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thank you, Derek, and for your kind comment over at Strictly Writing.