Most mornings in lockdown for me start with a long walk. It’s been one of the most important aspects of my self care routine especially while I’m not working. I pop my headphones in, grab a coffee and off I go. I’ve taken to listening to podcasts on these walks instead of music and one podcast in particular I have binged since I found it. The podcast titled ‘Death Becomes Him’ (reminds me of one of my all time favourite Goldie Hawn movies from the 90’s) has been created and presented by Brian Dowling Gourounlian. It came about 2 years after his mother passed away, and as a result of his curiosity about his own grief and the processes that we all go through with it. If anyone in Cork has seen me out on these walks while I’m listening to this podcast they will have witnessed wild outbursts of roaring laughter and deep, sad sobs as tears roll down my face. This is a podcast that really gives a voice to the grief most of us have felt unable to express, it has created a space where it is not only safe but encouraged to really talk about the soul shattering and life changing experience that is losing someone you love. And I am utterly in love with it.
Who’d have thought that self care could come from listening to a podcast where strangers talk about and share their experiences of death, grief and loss? But for me, it’s exactly that. I’m finding it cathartic; the shared experiences, the similar feelings and the sense of not being alone. It has allowed me to revisit my own grief in a more caring and compassionate way too. This podcast is in its third season and I’ve only just come across it, a mere couple of weeks before what would have been, what should have been, my Dad’s 64th birthday. My Dad lost his battle with lung cancer almost 11 years ago at the age of 53 and while I’m very aware eleven years is a long time ago, I have days when it still feels like it was yesterday. The moment he left us. The moment everything changed for me. The call to come back into the hospice centre we had only just left. I remember knowing what that meant. I remember being met by my brother in the hallway as we walked in, he could barely get the words out, flushed with emotion, amidst the tears he gasped “He’s gone”. And that was it. Months and months of hospitals, home care and hospice centres had led to this very moment, even though I knew it was coming, I collapsed to the floor with only one irrevocable thought in my mind; I will never see him again!
I believe I have learned to self care from the people in my life who have loved and cared for me over the years. My Dad was one of those people; he had the ability to comfort and soothe me and wrap me up in a big bear hug unlike anyone else. “It’ll be alright pet” was all I needed to hear from him to feel at ease. Not having him around when I needed soothing more than ever was agonizing and while there’s no denying his flaws and shortcomings my father was jovial, kind hearted, encouraging and fun and some of my fondest memories are immersed in music and dancing and laughter with him and my mother. I am thankful that these memories were relived in his final days and over the duration of his funeral too. In fact I remember people telling me that my father’s was “the best funeral they were ever at”. Seems inappropriate but I knew what they meant. It was what is known as “a good send off” in Ireland. He had time to plan his funeral and music was a core component of it. We played Bob Marley, his favourite, while he was laid out in our front room! A number of his friends are singers and musicians; one friend of his sang Bob Marleys “No Woman, No Cry” at the burial, another sang “Bring Him Home’’ from Les Mis and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel in the church, all at my fathers request. His funeral was a celebration of him, the music he loved and the life he lived. While I don’t consider myself to be in any way religious, I understood for the first time in my life, the importance of the funeral and the rituals that went with it.
The initial days and weeks after he died, I was running on adrenaline and stress hormones, I felt like I had taken such a physical hit that even the thoughts of eating, or drinking water or any of the basics turned my stomach. It was only when I found myself enveloped by an Irish funeral that I realised the value of the swarm of people around you. While it can be overwhelming and exhausting, it also gave support in such a profound way. I can clearly remember one of my Dad’s friends arriving at the church with small bottles of water for us knowing that we would forget to drink water; he was right. I also remember the big homemade lasagne and the trays upon trays of sandwiches that arrived at our house that I was basically force fed, but really needed. The neighbours, friends and family that dropped everything to come to the house to clean, cook and be on standby for anything we needed, I will be forever grateful to everyone that showed up for us, that did that for us, and for my father. These were the people that reinforced the importance of care and compassion though I didn’t I realise it at the time.
12 months later, to the day, I set foot on The Carnival Magic, a 1,000 foot luxury cruise liner to begin my first contract working onboard as a spa therapist. In his final days my father had been trying to find ways to come to terms with his own death, one suggestion he received was to use a visualisation technique and imagine how he would like to pass on. Dad had never been on a cruise but said it was something he always wanted to do, and so when he passed, he wanted to go on a cruise ship. For many people, that may seem like a nice coincidence but for me it held far more meaning. I felt close to him for the first time since he passed. Like it was an adventure with him by my side. I had spent the previous year keeping my thoughts and feelings about him as close to my chest as possible, with the exception of grief counselling I rarely spoke about him at all. It was too painful. I couldn’t do it without breaking down in tears. I wanted to close myself off from everyone, I wanted to be alone with my grief and alone with my memory of Dad. It made everyone too uncomfortable and awkward when I got upset and so in my mind it was best to avoid that at all costs! And there was a cost; it took a serious toll on my already strained mental health.
I was 26 years old, working on a cruise ship, travelling the World and to an onlooker, I was living my best life! Internally it was an entirely different story. My heart was broken. I thought about him all of the time. I longed to speak to him and hug him. When I look back now I realise that I spent years trying to numb those thoughts and feelings with alcohol, partying, and keeping as busy as possible. I was devastated and angry and I didn’t want to face it. It was too raw and too overwhelming even after years had passed! I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I would never see him again! The finality of it. The severity of it. I became consumed with anger. It was bottled up inside me and I continued to say I was fine until the times where I would have too much to drink and it would come spilling out of me. No one else seemed to be talking about their grief, it had me thinking that maybe I just wasn’t coping because I was still feeling the way I did. I started to berate myself for having these feelings, called myself weak and pitiful because I hadn’t ‘moved on’, and it became a vicious cycle of grief, sadness and self criticism.
Dealing with grief when you already have an existing mental health disorder is debilitating. My panic attacks became even more frequent and my anxiety was shrouded in the anger that I felt consumed me. When I look back, I believe I spent years in a high functioning state of anxiety, I controlled as much as I could but it was inevitable that it would eventually get too much to continue with. To those close to me I know I was hard to be around; passive aggressive, reactive and pessimistic. Behind closed doors I would swing from moments of absolute panic until I crashed into a crippling state of depression. In public however people would see me as outgoing, social and smiling. For a long time I believed that was how it was supposed to be. That it was best to keep my grief, and my struggle to myself because it would be too much for others. That I would be too much for others. This left me feeling more isolated than ever and for years that is how I existed. I had done a handful of grief counselling sessions the summer after Dad had passed away but nothing in the years since then. While I can’t point to one particular moment in time, one situation that made me decide I needed help, I do know that one person saw the real struggle I was living with and wanted better for me. That person was able to communicate to me that they supported and encouraged me. They reassured me they would always be there for me, but that it was time I sought out professional help. Initially I resisted but in time I came to see that I wanted more from my life and I started what I now see as the journey back to my real self. Not the same person I was before Dad died, that girl was long gone, but a returning of sorts, to myself.
I don’t believe that this is a journey with an end. I don’t believe that after we lose someone we reach a point where we no longer miss them and where we no longer feel their absence. What is true for me now at 36 years of age, seems to be true for most of the guests on the ‘Death Becomes Him’ podcast and that is that we can learn to live with their absence, we learn to become familiar with them not being around, but the longing for them doesn’t stop. I will have days, weeks and even months go by during which I feel I can talk about and remember Dad without getting upset, and sometimes then, seemingly out of the blue I’ll be hit by a wave of overwhelming emotion and I’ll feel the weight of his absence and the longing to see and hug him. So, why am I talking about this on a blog entitled Rituals by Rachel? Doesn’t seem like a relaxation inducing conversation does it? But I don’t believe we can talk about relaxation, personal self care and wellness without discussing the events and traumas and pain that have happened in our lives. I don’t believe that there’s anything to be gained from hiding the fact that we are not coping. But I did it for years! So I’m here sharing my experience of grief as just one way that grief can impact and shape a life.
Self care is very much a part of the grieving process, albeit the very last thing we think of, in fact I know I recoiled from it. In the initial and very raw days of grief, getting the basics covered seemed like an impossible task. These are the times we forget to eat, or drink water. These are the times when sleep seems impossible yet staying in bed is really all you’ve the energy for. These are the days when we aren’t even in survival mode. The grief is all consuming. I am forever grateful to the people who showed up for my family and I over the course of Dad’s illness and his untimely death, the friends and family that have provided me with a safe space to talk, to those that encouraged me to, and to the myriad of counsellors and therapists who guided me along the way too. These were the helping hands I didn’t know I needed, and often refused. These were the people who showed me how to care for myself in their caring for me. Thank you from the absolute bottom of my heart for sticking with me all these years, and for being patient and understanding. Moving from surviving to thriving is much easier said than done. It’s taken me years to get here, and I still continue on that path.
What I believe now to be an absolute truth is this; our pain needs a voice, our trauma needs to be witnessed, our grief needs to be heard. Time is not the healer when it comes to heartbreak and grief; talking is. So take the time to sit with your feelings, allow yourself to feel them, it will be painful and it will feel heart breaking but you will come out the other side. Use the time to talk about how you are feeling, when you are ready. Time is needed to process but it is talking that will do the healing. It is my belief that the way to cope is to talk about the person we have lost, to remember them, their flaws and their attributes , the impact they had on our life, both good and bad and to really express how we are feeling now that we must learn to live without them, even if it is years since they died. Feeling first hand the physical, mental and emotional impact of grief over a prolonged period of time has allowed me to see the importance of a holistic approach when it comes to how we live and how we care for ourselves and those around us especially as we grieve.
Our longing for our loved ones is not a sign of weakness, it is a testament to the love we had, and continue to have for them, that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t love what gives our life meaning after all?
And so I leave you with this one thought, a new favourite quote of mine from Marvel’s WandaVision . . .
“What is grief, if not love persevering?”