Several years ago, I attended the funeral of my best friend's mum. I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of her not being there any more. She had always been a part of my life, she was like a second mother to me. I kept expecting her to burst into the room full of weeping ladies, with trays laden down with her delicious sweetmeats and her contagious smile. She had always been the life and soul of every gathering.
It was surreal. She had just turned fifty. The haunted look my friend wore stayed with her for months after the tragedy and even today, if you look closely enough, it is still there. I was forced to consider the mortality of my own precious mother, but I could only hold the thought for a few moments. It was too unbearable.
When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, five years ago, I felt the world collapse around me. I clutched at my hair and shook my head as she whispered the dreaded words, I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to face it, or deal with the morbid thoughts that kept racing through my mind.
Once I had picked myself up and discovered the facts, the question of death didn't even enter into the equation of mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was going to be a straight road to recovery and nothing else. I truly believed she would be one of the lucky ones who would have the treatment and the disease would be banished forever.
Unfortunately, life had paved a different path for her. After her first round of treatment, the disease returned with a vengeance 18 months later. I can still remember the heartbreak etched on her face when the doctor confirmed that the disease had returned. After that, nothing was the same. The hope that we had desperately clung to rapidly turned to gut-wrenching fear. Despite more treatment, she passed away six months later. She had just turned 54. I was four months pregnant at the time, with my second baby.
Every individual has their own unique reaction to the way they handle the initial loss. I felt very lost and alone in my thoughts, I couldn't let anyone in. I felt like my life had lost its sparkle, as she was the closest one to me, but I just couldn't tell anyone how I felt.
A part of me wanted to just compartmentalise it as a very unfortunate episode in my life, and to put it away and carry on as normal. When well-wishers looked at my swelling stomach with compassion and sympathy I would try to make a light-hearted comment such as "that's life," and hope that the sorrow in the air would somehow diffuse. It never did but I desperately tried to ignore the pain, like it didn't exist. Years ago, when my mother lost her father, she was practically crippled with grief. I had to take her to East Africa for his funeral and she could barely walk through the airport. She had to be taken to the plane in a wheel chair. We were so different in many ways, yet so alike.
Harder, not easier
I haven't seen my mum for over two years, and even though everyone keeps telling me that time is a healer, it just seems to get harder.
Helen Williams, a therapist from LifeWorks Counselling & Development, Dubai who specialises in bereavement, says the grieving process has certain stages. When a patient comes to her seeking help to deal with a loss, she ascertains what stage they are up to in their grieving process. Some people feel that they need support from the very beginning, whereas others feel they have to do something after months, or even years of dealing with endless anguish.
At the time of my mother's death, I was strong, stoical even. I didn't let anyone cry for her on her deathbed. I made sure they all had a prayer book in their hands, and that they were saying the necessary prayers that her soul would benefit from. I went into the room where she was laid to rest in her coffin, before her burial, and I didn't shed a tear. I even consoled others around me as they mourned for her. I felt like I had to be the rock for everyone else and kept up a constant stream of platitudes.
In a strange, detached way, I felt proud of myself for dealing with it the way that I did. I felt that I had grieved for her whilst she was ill and fading away, and that my grief had been replaced with acceptance, when she died. I felt like I had closed the terrible chapter in my life and that I was moving on to the next. How wrong I was.
Helen says that grief can be likened to a map showing the path of a U-turn. "A map which doesn't prescribe how this process must be, but shows the way to go when we are feeling lost and hopeless. The process means we can drive back and forth over the same ground as many times as we also move forward, swinging up and down on the U."
I vaguely knew that there were stages of bereavement that a grieving person passes through, but I didn't think that my grief could be applied to this process, as I was too strong. I only cried when I was on my own, I didn't let any part of my life slip, I even faced the world as if nothing had happened.
When mourners would visit, I deliberately avoided talking about the reason that they were there. I would treat the visits as nothing more than social calls. It's a different story now. Whenever I go to the mall, I can't bear to look at mothers and daughters shopping together, laughing together and just being together.
I avoid shops altogether around Mother's Day. It is particularly hard in the UAE, as there seem to be three lots of mother's day celebrations, over a two-month period. I can't open my bedside drawer, where I keep her glasses and hairbrush, with strands of her hair still entangled in it. I can't handle it when anyone talks about her and I can't look at pictures of her. I just want to sink into my dark thoughts and hide away. I recognise now that I was in shock, and denial at the time that she passed away. I have now moved on to the middle stages of the process, which encompass anger and overwhelming sadness.
Bracing for impact
Helen describes the process a grieving person goes through as a journey. "Impact and shock comes first, followed by denial and stumbling in the dark. After a period of driving back and forth from denial, then comes the full impact of the loss.
"Feeling the grief over the loss comes before the experience of working towards acceptance, moving on to letting go of the attachment to the pain. Then comes the ability to move forward, reconstructing and engaging in and picking up life again, moving towards integrating the grieving experiences into your life. Knowing that there are stages and that everyone moves at their own pace with accepting help."
Swinging between desolation and rage seems to be a frequent occurrence, but I have realised this is a part of the course I have to go through, and I have to let myself go with my feelings. As Helen says, going through the stages will eventually lead to acceptance and I feel that I am slowly but surely heading towards that space. Feeling is the same as breathing. We need to be able to go through and feel every single painful thought, every emotional outburst, and every fresh bout of crying. There are different ways our turmoil is expressed; these expressions expel thoughts and feelings that may cause unnecessary toxicity in our bodies if allowed to fester.
It is imperative that we understand the journey that is ahead of us when we are mourning the loss of a loved one. This understanding will allow us to face each stage of the journey, which will lead to an eventual inner calm and acceptance. There are people out there who even use their own experiences of loss, in many positive ways that can help others.
Support is a very special medium, it is a gift that we can offer others out there who internalise their feelings and grief. It is also a gift to ourselves. By supporting, we evolve and grow by reaching new levels of understanding and tranquillity.
Helen is often asked what the best way to deal with grief is; unfortunately there is no right answer. "Grieving is about feeling pain and loss - knowing that the feelings of pain and loss can be very frightening, and understanding that it is a process that needs to be worked through at one's own pace is very important. There is no ‘one way' for grief - everyone's journey is very individual in nature and timing. Crying is part of this and well-meaning people often feel they are helping by discouraging this. Follow your own way and seek help if you feel fearful or overwhelmed."
Recognising that you need some help in dealing with your loss, is in itself a breakthrough, and a positive start to the path that leads to acceptance.
5 tips on coping with the loss
Linda Sakr is a licensed counselling psychologist with the MOH, UAE and a member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (MBACP). She specialises in all areas of bereavement. She says, "Grief is an incredibly agonising human experience, but also a natural reaction to loss. In life, it is almost inevitable that we will experience grief and loss at some point. Although it is a painful experience, grief is also a process that gives us strength to take on the challenges we face in life."
Throughout it all, it is important to remember you are not alone - there are others out there who are also hurting and who can help you get through the difficult time.
Linda highlights five top tips on coping with grief:
1. Give yourself an aim for each day. Write down things that you are going to do and do them no matter how challenging.
2. Make sure you eat healthily and exercise. Your body needs fuel to cope with the grief, and even a 30-minute walk can get your heart working for the day.
3. Let go of the regrets, the "if onlys", the question, "why did this happen?". This sounds awful - but it has happened, you cannot change the past, you can only change the future.
4. Talk to family and friends regularly. Seeking professional help such as counselling, can help you explore your feelings as well as to be encouraged to accept the finality of the loss.
5. Take note. Write down each night, three positives that you have achieved and keep adding to the list.