Struggling with the grief of losing a loved one? Do more of what feeds your soul

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” – Rumi

It’s early January and I’m contemplating ‘The New Year’. I don’t really know how to feel about 2017 coming to a close and facing into a new year, a new chapter of grief and challenges, but equally a new chapter of life, joy, love and hope. I suppose it could be an overwhelming time but right now I’m feeling strangely disjointed from my emotions about it all – perhaps out of necessity (or perhaps because of the large gin my brother-in-law made for me earlier!).

Looking back on the following poem from a journal entry on New Year’s Day last year, I struggle slightly to identify with myself as being the person who wrote it. I am proud of that person who so early in her journey of loss (you can read the article I wrote about the grief of losing my husband Mal here) was able to express any degree of optimism for the future.

New Year

I’m expected to hate 2016, but I don’t.
I’m expected to be relieved that it’s over, but I’m not.
What has changed since this time yesterday?
A six has transformed into a seven but very little else.
The loneliness is still overwhelming.
The guilt is still crippling.
The heartache is still devastatingly painful.
My Mally is still dead.
Our girls are still amazing.
People are still kind.
Love is still here and
Hope is still alive.
2016 tried to break me but failed and then decided if it wasn’t going to break me, it might as well help me with the repair process.
It began the arduous task of piecing me back together and now it has passed the baton to 2017.
Do a good job New Year – there’s a lot riding on you.

Reflecting on this poem, I find myself silently thanking 2017. For it did indeed take the baton from 2016 and did its best to assist me in moving forwards on my journey of healing. It wasn’t always a smooth road though. There were regularly times when it felt like I was taking two steps forwards and three steps back. There were days when I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel and days when I got so frustrated with my lack of progress that it was a genuine struggle to get through the day. I realised that I had quite a set notion in my mind of what grief involved and fortunately I eventually realised that that ‘notion’ did not reflect the reality of my experience whatsoever, and more importantly that that was okay – it didn’t mean that I was failing at grieving!

Grief’s Spiral Staircase

No linear stages for me.
No ticking off of disbelief and progression to denial.
No conclusion of bargaining and advancement to guilt.
No cessation of anger and onset of depression…
No sudden dawning of acceptance.
Instead for me grief’s spiral staircase.
Its precarious and unpredictable steps terrify me.
Never knowing if the next tread will deliver me to the dungeons or propel me upwards.
I’m afraid to look down but I daren’t look up.
This staircase is not without its gifts.
Lingering on a step from time to time,
I witness pure beauty, pure reality, pure love.
If you meet me on my staircase please hold my hand and stop a while –
It gets lonely here.

So what got me through 2017? First and foremost, the answer is my children. The reality is I am now a single parent with two young daughters and they depend on me for a lot. Although lying in bed and pulling the covers over my head for the day was often what I felt like doing over the past year, it simply was not an option. They needed me and continue to need me and if I’m honest there are days when I resent them for needing me so much because the responsibility is sometimes overwhelming when you don’t have a partner to share it with. For the most part however, I am intensely indebted to my two precious little princesses for needing me the way they do. They give me purpose and hope for the future. They ground me in a way only children can. I need them just as much as they need me – we have developed a heartbreakingly beautiful mutual dependence on one another.

Bedtime Wee

Gently I lift your warm, limp body from your cosy bed.
Do you need a wee? I don’t know but I need you.
I need to know I’m still loved-
A different love but just as strong.
I need to know I’m yours and you’re mine.
I need to know he lives on in you and still holds me close.
I need to know we created perfection-
The pain is worth it.
Through bleary eyes your smile melts my broken heart.
You wrap your arms around my strained neck and squeeze as if to say
‘nice to see you Mammy’.
Tense muscles let their guard down under the weight of your languid body.
Your warm breath on my skin acts as yet another reminder of our mutual dependency.
We’ll make it little princess I promise…
Daddy Bear will make sure of that.

Although our girls will always be my priority, it became very clear to me that I would be doing both them and myself a disservice if I didn’t actively engage in some pursuits that brought me joy, provided an outlet for my emotions, gave me some space to be Sarah the person and not just Sarah the Mammy… that fed my soul.

Prior to Mal’s death the only writing I had done outside of work was love letters and notes to him – and shopping lists. I never kept a diary or considered writing as a means of expressing myself during difficult times. My Dad was a journalist and as far as I was concerned he had passed on his gift with words to my eldest sister. She was the writer in the family and I envied her ability to put her thoughts into words with such ease and accomplishment but writing, I thought, was just not an endeavour for me.

For this reason, I was caught off guard when I found myself regularly putting pen to paper after Mal’s death. Writing has become a powerful outlet for me for expressing the craziness that’s going on in my head sometimes. I can commit to paper thoughts and feelings that I don’t necessarily feel safe verbalising to other people but that nevertheless need to be expressed. On the darkest of days, finding some space to write has been a very effective means of unburdening my sometimes heavy heart.

Another pursuit which has brought me many moments of joy over the past year has been singing. I have always enjoyed singing but hadn’t been part of a choir for many years and would never have had the courage to sing on my own in public. I now sing with a local group every Monday night. It is special, it is simple and it is pure. It is solely singing for the love of it and it is a soul-stirring and heartening thing to do. We won’t be making any hit records in the near future but it always touches me to see how much people smile when they are singing with others and how individuals who sometimes have little in common on the face of it can connect on a very deep level when music is involved. In addition to the singing group, I regularly sing on my own at a monthly folk club meeting which is held locally. I still find it extremely nerve-wracking and shake like a leaf when performing but the sense of achievement and the awareness of sharing and being listened to by others is unique and uplifting.

Writing, singing, and other activities such as swimming and kundalini yoga are relatively uncomplicated and straightforward endeavours to pursue which undoubtedly serve to feed my soul. Something else which I have always been aware of my deep need for, but which seem to be quite evasive and difficult to succeed in attaining are hugs. I used to tell Mal that when I was getting very stressed and overwhelmed about something that he shouldn’t talk to me, shouldn’t try to reason with me, he should just come and hold me tight until I calmed down. He soon learned that this was good advice and had perfected the art of transforming me from a premenstrual crazy lady back to my usual only semi-crazy lady state through hugging alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I have several people who are willing to give me a hug when I need one, but frustratingly, they are not the people I want hugs from. I think this is because I know they are grieving for Mal too and our shared sense of loss when we hug can sometimes just be too overwhelmingly sad.

Drug of Choice

Caring, healing touch – my drug of choice.
An innocuous craving you might think.
Indeed in days past I overdosed daily,
got high routinely,
felt intoxicated by its effects frequently
but I remained unscathed.
On the contrary,
my drug of choice enhanced every area of my life,
made me a better me.
Nowadays, I’m rarely offered a hit,
my magical elixir evades me at every turn,
‘trips’ are denied me on the basis of lack of supply.
I ache for my drug of choice.
I hunger for its consequences-
the calm, the sanctuary, the assurance, the serenity, the invulnerability.
Unexpectedly I get a fix and it feels good.
All those blissful feelings come rushing back…
momentarily at least.
But the side effects have become so foreign to me that now they lead to confusion and disorientation.
I realise with sadness I’m no longer a seasoned ‘user’.

Thankfully, in the past couple of months I have improved at expressing my need for hugs to a couple of people close to me and luckily they are always happy to oblige.

So instead of beating myself up for my vices and formulating a list of things that I am not going to do in 2018, I am resolving to continue to identify and engage with the people, places and pursuits that bring me joy and feed my soul. I am making a promise to Mal and to myself that I will do all I can to enjoy the coming year. I will tune into what feels right for me pursue happiness and healing whenever and wherever I can.

I wish you all every blessing for the coming year. x

Sarah Billington
Sarah Billington
Sarah Billington is a 38 year old primary school teacher who lives in Westport, Co. Mayo with her two daughters, Lottie, 5 and Rosie, 4. Sarah is a strong advocate of mindfulness practice for children and is passionate about promoting well-being in schools.