My aunt Liz passed away yesterday. I’d known she was unwell for some time, but it still came as a shock, as everyone thought she was on the road to recovery. Having had some seemingly successful rounds of chemotherapy over the last year, she was apparently out walking the dog just two weeks ago. Then we had a fall at home and her decline was rapid.
My Dad was going to come up and stay with me next week so we could both go to see her, but a phone call on Wednesday from his Mam suggested we shouldn’t leave it that long. Thursday afternoon, we went to see her at Sunderland Royal and I think her condition shocked us both. Dad kept it together, as he always does, but his resolve left me all the more haunted. It is a stoicism that runs in the family and it’s something I try to actively not be good at. It feels better to feel, even if it never comes as easily as you’d like it to.
Liz was in a lot of pain and they were waiting to move her to a hospice in Ryhope. The family’s stoicism was self-reflective then. My cousin and my Nana both made the same comment: it felt strange to wait patiently for someone else to die before your own loved one could have a more comfortable voyage-out of their own. She was finally moved on Friday evening, but passed a few hours later in the early hours of the morning.
I got the call I was dreading whilst at work yesterday, after Nana rang my Dad who then rang me. I haven’t known what to do with myself since. I’ve mostly been watching TV and drinking beer in bed, taking phone calls and trying to numb the numbness. A bad coping strategy, but one that at least feels acceptable for a day or two. I’d spent the two days since we’d seen her in the hospital trying to distract myself in other ways, but something about the joy of seeing friends with the lingering awareness that a phone call was due felt worse. I’d forget about everything, then feel a sharp guilt when back at home or, as happened on Friday, when in company. Something about life and death comingling, or simply life going on regardless. As it should, of course, but it feels wrong every time.
I had no inclination to write any of this down but I’ve tried to force myself anyway. The more natural(?) impulse to repress felt like the wrong way to carry on. Better to write down what wasn’t said, to acknowledge the feelings somehow, to make some testament to how much she was loved, to add a notch somewhere that marks the occasion before time unfurls as it always does.
There’s a real uncertainty that lingers about doing this. The privacy to feel un-publicly. But I hate it. Give me the release of wailing in the town square over a British “keep calm and carry on” coldness. But still, a product of these isles worries about the whole thing being unedifying.
There’s also a self-consciousness that comes from trying to feel my way through things as someone who has already written a whole book about mourning and melancholy. But the problem is that grief always hits like it’s the first time.
My grandparents seem to feel differently. Sitting in their living room, as they field phone calls from other relatives, Nana says to my cousin, who left the hospital after we did, that “it’s sad but it’s also life.” She’s right, of course, and no doubt that matter-of-factness is necessary at their age, when you’ve already lost so many friends and family members. But I struggle to understand it. Maybe there’s nothing to understand. Maybe it’s just the reassurances of a wise old woman to her grandchild. She’ll grieve in her own way. I just wish I knew how to respond to it, to feel let into it, and to feel it together.
Dad’s side of the family have always seemed close. He moved away from Sunderland with my Mam in the late Eighties, then they adopted me, and both those facts have always left me feeling like I have one foot in and one foot out of their inner circle.
A more protective approach to grief has never helped matters. The only family funeral I’ve ever been to was my uncle Tim’s — my Mam’s brother — when he died from cancer in my late teens. We’ve lost plenty of others: uncle George, uncle Tom, my Mam’s Dad during Covid. With the exception of my grandad, who seemingly had no funeral due to Covid restrictions, I was always too young, they said. But the sudden absences with no farewell ritual have only ever left me raw, echoing the adoption trauma that the body remembers on the mind’s behalf.
The distance always makes me feel like it’s not really my place to feel anything, like whatever feelings I have are inappropriate. (Grief and queerness blend together too well sometimes.) I never feel close enough for my grief to be warranted, even when it comes to family. But I think grief can often feel like that — or at least I hope I’m not alone in it. You always feel like you could have known someone better, like there’s always someone closer, like there’s always someone with more stories to tell or a bigger gap in their lives to mourn. But you feel how you feel regardless.
I imagine that grief is so irreal because no one really knows how to enter into it. Death is that peculiar thing, so intensely natural to feel abjectly unnatural. The “Real” is real but always inaccessible, after all.
Death’s little disappearances in the fabric of your own reality can leave a sense of having no claim to your own experiences. But all the more reason why I always have this compulsion to sketch the absences and make something more solid from the unclaimable.
I lay a claim: I loved my auntie Liz. I wish I’d known her better. I think she might have felt the same way about me. She invited me to stay with her last Christmas, but back in December I was too unwell (both physically and mentally) to go anywhere — and adoption status always looms largest at Christmas anyway. I couldn’t help my health, but I am left with a deep regret over my indecision, before a month-long chest infection made that decision for me. I had offers to stay with friends too, and leaned towards those for a time, but ultimately felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.
Why? Grief. It always comes back to grief. The patchwork of absences makes it hard to draw your own map of belonging.
Dad kissed Liz on the cheek when we left the hospital. I didn’t. I have a creeping suspicion that she was too drained from the pain and morphine to even know entirely who I was. But of course she did. She must have done.
We didn’t talk much. I talked to her son and her husband, simply “shooting the breeze”, cracking jokes and catching up, like nothing was different, like we were catching up at any other family gathering, like we were at a wedding reception rather than sat around a deathbed.
Liz’s work colleagues came by too whilst we were there. She said all the same platitudes we did. “You’ll come back?” Liz asked through tears, and they said “Yes” through their own. She clearly missed her friends more than anyone else. Family is one thing, but I can’t imagine how that prevaricating around the validity of your own grief can feel from the other side. We were family, we didn’t have to adhere to normal visiting hours at that point, faced with the inevitable. What about everyone else Liz loved? They were heartbroken and I think I weirdly felt how they did, deferring my own feelings for the sake of those who no doubt felt “more”. But what are we left with? Our own confusion and the cruelty of our own politeness.
I didn’t know what was expected of me in that moment or what was appropriate so I did nothing. I said nothing. Only “we’ll see you next week.” Now we won’t.