A story of grief by a man and a boy
Over the past few days two different interactions with two different people on two completely different topics have led me to the same conclusion – grief has the potential to completely change a person’s personality.
The first thing that got me thinking along these lines was a text message from an old friend and colleague from an agency where I used to work. ‘Will we be seeing you any time soon?’ she asked after several other exchanges. Given the depth of consideration I gave to her question for a long time after I’d actually replied, my response seemed rather shallow. ‘I’d love to see everyone at some point’ was pretty much all I said. But it wasn’t all I thought.
I tried to picture myself walking into the office we used to share but I couldn’t see it happening. I tried to imagine myself arranging to meet up for drinks with her and our other old workmates and wasn’t able to picture the scene. I couldn’t work out the right timing or the appropriate occasion to see everyone again. Worse still I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea; I’d chickened out of meeting up even before I’d checked my diary, and she hadn’t even suggested a date yet.
This might not sound like a big deal to some – not finding time to say hi to some people I used to work with at some point in the future – but to me it is. I worked at this place twice: I left once and they still thought enough of me to have me back; and when I did go back a second time, I left again and they still thought enough of me to throw a great leaving do, buy me an excellent present, and come to my wife’s funeral when she died. They gave me my first job out of uni, put up with my early-20s tantrums (and hangovers), bought champagne to toast my wedding day, sent gifts for my son when he was born and sent even more when his mum was killed. They are my friends. How strange then that I can’t even imagine meeting up with old mates who have, through their own continued affections, told me that I don’t need to feel bad about leaving them not once but twice. You’d have to be Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton to get away with that sort of behaviour outside of the workplace.
The second thing that led me to think about how grief can affect a bereaved person’s character was a conversation with my father-in-law. We discussed how hard it is to ‘get on with your life’ when losing a loved one has so dramatically changed what that life once was. It’s inevitable that a person’s death will most affect those closest to them in life: the friends who were like family; the father who spoke to his daughter almost every day; the mother who came to stay every week; the older brother who had cared for his little sister his whole life; the child who loved his mother more than anyone else in the world; the husband whose very existence made more sense when he met this amazing girl whose life is now no more.
For others life eventually goes on. My life, on the other hand, feels like it has gone on pause. And that can be hard to handle when other people seem to live in fast forward. It’s Christmas again soon and the conversation has turned to food, decorations, gifts and nights out, but I can’t seem to switch on. I just don’t care. I used to love Christmas but now I feel completely indifferent about it. In fact, just this week I realised that I’ve spent all year gearing up towards calendar dates that ultimately don’t matter – a series of ‘firsts’ since my wife’s death including birthdays and anniversaries – and Christmas is just another. I just don’t think that I need to be reminded every day for the next month that Christmas is coming because I already know. And I’m as excited about it as the turkeys waiting to be slaughtered. I don’t begrudge anyone else’s fun at all, I just don’t feel much like being a part of it.
And I think this is all because my personality has changed. I may still be the person I was before but I’m not the same. I’ve lost my confidence. As coincidence would have it I bumped into an ex-colleague from the same agency I mentioned earlier just before concluding this post and I broke out into a sweat because I was at a loss for what to say. Somehow I feel unable how to succinctly answer life’s most common question, How are you?
I’ve lost my desire to socialise. I instinctively conclude social interactions with an always well-intentioned but generally unfulfilled future arrangement.
I’ve lost the ability to be able to contribute to light conversations about things that now feel irrelevant to me. I can’t show enthusiasm for topics that don’t matter to me anymore, and I just can’t act content when I’m not.
I’m often bad tempered. I used to reserve my sulky behaviour for very special occasions but these days I’ve got a face on me most of the time. And when I am in a bad mood I mostly just want to get on with it without being disturbed.
And I guess this is all because I’m changed, because I’m hurting and because I’ve just realised that I’m probably deeply traumatised by what happened last November. Anxiety that I wasn’t even aware that I had probably makes me live my life in a subconscious state of fear rather than joy, as I did before.
I suppose people often want to try to treat bereaved people the same as they did before their loss. They might even want them to be the same because in losing the personality that they once loved, they are somewhat bereaved too. I’m as disappointed as the next person that I’ve had to said goodbye to the old me because I used to really know how to enjoy myself. But right now I don’t really feel like much fun at all. And what I feel like even less is pretending to be something I’m not.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last week or so and I’ve learned something about others too. It’s nice when they get in touch out of the blue to ask how you’re doing. Even at times when you don’t want to be wanted sometimes it’s still nice to feel wanted.
And so the many contradictions of grief continue…