No one can prepare you for it.
Flower was my childhood hamster and coincidentally my first experience with death, as odd as it is to say I foresaw her death a day before she died when I was seven years old. Jokingly, my Grandad would always say “don’t give the hamster talk” whenever I mentioned death to him. Children are so naive and I was naturally immune to the fragility of life. I innocently thought my Grandparents were invincible, convinced they possessed magical powers- I believed that they would always be as they were forever. I have been wrestling with grief since my Grandad passed away in a rather sudden way (though he had been chronically unwell for years and years) in February.
Self-expression is so important and for the longest time, I really struggled with expressing emotion despite being a self-proclaimed ‘talk through your problems’ kind of woman. Grief made me totally numb and unable to manage how I felt at any point in the day. Lockdown obviously didn’t help. At the best of times, I hate having too much time on my hands so naturally grieving whilst at home with limited opportunity to escape was frankly unbearable.
Even before my Grandad died I had always been hyper-alert and every time I received a call from home, I was on edge. He had chronic heart failure and so I think I grieved his death for a long time before he passed away. All illnesses take a toll on family members but with chronic illnesses, it can feel like a ticking clock and Grandad’s nickname became the creaking gate because somehow he would just keep going. He was the gentlest soul and though my Mom would tell me that he was a strict parent when she was a girl, I think like most Grandchildren I lucked out on experiencing the softer more mellow side of his personality when I was a child.
As most of his life was limited to the house and short drives I was able to spend a lot of time with him as I grew up. He’d pick me up from school in his Nissan Micra. You could spot him from a mile away because he would always wear the same Peaky Blinders-esque flat cap and he would always have his walking stick; a kind of magnificent glossy wood with an engraved pattern that my tiny fingers would always trace. If I ever got in trouble with my Nan often for being nosy and searching through their cupboards or for diving into the pantry for treats before dinner, he’d always fight my corner and say “for God’s sake Cal (his nickname for Carol my Nan) give her the chocolate”. Back when renting DVDs was a thing he would order my favourite films and even copy them (definitely not legal- oops). Though I knew he wouldn’t be here forever I sort of naively hoped he would just keep on keeping on.
Best mates. That’s what he would call me and I feel like that kind of childish nickname summarised our relationship. There was a fifty-seven year age gap between us and yet I could tell him virtually anything (within reason, let’s not forget he was born in the early 1940s)! We had an incredibly tight bond and he was a father to me when I lacked one, he was a confidant, he was someone that always had my back even when I was pushing my luck- he was a good man.
Life is weird and shitty without him and even if I can get through the day without crying it doesn’t mean I haven’t had him on my mind. As a selfish undergrad, I don’t think I would often think of him as much when I was too occupied with the hustle and bustle of essay deadlines and nights out. Now that I’m back home I find myself unable to escape him. Walls covered in photos, everywhere seems to bring back a memory and if I see a robin in the garden then it must be him (is anyone else superstitious like this?) I crave his presence and fear forgetting things like his earthy voice or the smell of his aftershave on his freshly shaved cheeks- sometimes he’d accidentally cut himself and there’d be tiny squares of tissue stuck to his face. I’d sit mesmerised as he’d play Solitaire transfixed on the tiny cards as they automatically moved onto the decks- I was crap at this game but he’d always sit with me till I won. Greedy then and greedy now I would hate sharing food with him but he’d always offer me a triangle out of his cut-up sandwiches or a chip from his plate. When someone dies everything has significance. I find myself coding my life around his death and clinging onto those tiny moments that form the jigsaw puzzle of a person.
His death rippled through our family and though us three girls (his nickname for me, my Mom, and Nan) have had to deal with possibly the most difficult time amidst a global pandemic, Grandad’s strength and bravery has been a glue binding us closer together and keeping us from giving in to the uncontrollable wave of emotion that grief throws in your face. For a man that was so unwell he had humour and the day before he died he said to my Mom in the hospital “don’t forget the DVDs they’re behind the telly”. A man that knew he wasn’t coming out of the hospital was still joking with my Mom about his elaborate and definitely excessive collection of DVDs (definitely over 300).
Though my life turned upside down when he died- I feel I have an even greater thirst for life now than I ever did before. Lockdown gave me an insight into a fraction of his life as he lived it in his bedroom. I cried for so long because I hadn’t ever appreciated how difficult and lonely it may have been for him. I know he wouldn’t want me to dwell on these things though. A month before he passed I was sat on the bed with him and on his neck, I saw a swollen vein, unable to process this I began to cry- all he said to me was “no tears now”. Undoubtedly he is the bravest person I will ever meet, books will tell you about the stages of grief about denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It will almost always come at different points there were times when I felt totally numb and others where I felt overwhelmed by utter sadness.
I don’t know how I feel now, I guess I have come to some sort of inner peace. Speaking about him doesn’t bring me to tears as it would have before, I don’t find myself frantically clutching at memories terrified I would lose grip of them, Christmas brings with it great difficulty but with it, I am grateful for the family I have and the life he led that I only hope I can continue in his memory.