I’ve been trying to write something like this for a while now, but I just haven’t had the words. Or rather, I’ve had the words inside me, but have been unable to get them out. But at this moment in time, I finally feel at a point where I can.
One year ago in February, my grandfather — fondly known as Pa-pa, or Pa-pa Mouse by my brother and I — passed away after a short, cruel battle against throat cancer. It was just mere days before his birthday.
Grief is hard to deal with. A vast understatement, I know. But this past year has been the first time where I’ve really been affected by it.
I’ve learnt that, as in all patterns of healing, grieving is not something that is linear, and it’s something that each individual person deals with differently, as I’ve seen it play out in and among my family. There is no adequate timeline for grief. It doesn’t have a start or an end date. It just feels, to me, something that is never-ending. Or as if I’ve taken a slight wrong turning and am incapable of turning around and getting back on the road I once knew and travelled so well. This road looks a lot like the one I’m used to being on, but it’s different. Something is missing and things feel out of place. Maybe there are one too many potholes and the sky is a bit darker in this direction, but it’s also similar enough to the road I was on previously. So I can pretty much manage to navigate my way down it, there’s just a few unexpected bumps in the way.
With all this silly talk of roads, lately, I feel as though I’ve gone a few paces backwards in feeling “okay” about things. I think people expect you to cry and be sad about death for a bit, but then a few weeks and months pass and most people assume you’re okay and stop asking. Or they ask and all you can say is “fine” or “okay.” I think I’m as un-okay as I have been in recent times.
I reckon this is in part due to the way in which I reacted to Pa-pa’s death. I was at university in the final year of my undergraduate degree when it happened, and over 200 miles away from home and my family. After receiving updates from my family throughout the week, I was sitting in a 9 a.m. lecture when I got a text from my dad asking if I was free to talk. Of course, I knew then what had happened, but I sat through the rest of my lecture, still taking my notes. The rest of the day is tricky to recall, apart from my friends consoling me. My friends have been, and continue to be, my rocks. They are like a second family to me, but I didn’t even cry that much then, not by my usual standards anyway.
I decided to stay at university until it was time for the funeral. I thought I would fare better surrounded by others to keep my mind preoccupied for as long as possible. I forced myself to get up and out and to do things with people. I tried not to cry so much. I didn’t want to isolate myself away. I think I did all of that because I wanted to show to my family that I was fine, that I was coping, that the state I was in didn’t need to be one more thing for them to worry about. They had enough to cope with back home.
Ultimately, I think this had an adverse effect on me in the long-run. Now, I cry and think of Pa-pa and miss him more than ever. I suppressed as much of my grieving feelings as I possibly could, and I reckon that over the past few months they’ve started to resurface. I have by no means exploded with my grief, but there’s the odd crack here and there. Yet, I feel guilty for talking about my sadness because I think people expect me to be okay with things now, and the last thing I ever want to do is worry or upset anybody further.
I’m beginning to think that perhaps the older I get and the more I grow up, the heavier the grief might get. Because, through every new experience, through every up and down in my life, through every joyous moment, I can no longer share that with Pa-pa. There’s so much I look back on and wish I had shared with him when he was still here. There’s so much I wish I had asked him too.
Pa-pa was, as grandfathers often are, one of the best male figures in my life. A beacon of strength, humour and kindness. He was full of determination and had countless stories to tell, such as his time spent working out at sea, as well as how he wooed my grandmother. Something that I really miss, that had never occurred to me until he was gone, is his voice.
He was the one who taught me how to play chess. We spent every summer picking plums from the tree in his garden, and every autumn collecting conkers from the horse chestnut trees at the end of his driveway. Every Easter, he and my grandmother organized the most spectacular Easter egg hunt. Sleepovers at my grandparents’ house was always an exciting event and Pa-pa would, without fail, enthusiastically play any role my brother and I demanded of him in our imaginary games. I don’t know exactly why we called him Pa-pa Mouse, we just did, and he always kept a little toy mouse hidden in a certain corner of his house at all times. Throughout my childhood, and even as my brother and I grew older, Pa-pa would occasionally produce little trinkets for us from the depths of his pockets, with a smile and twinkle in his eyes, and give them to us. Each object had a certain meaning and purpose, thoughtfully found and given to us for something specific, such as a little purse to keep my Euro coins in for the first time I ever went abroad without my family, or a little beaded bracelet to calm my nerves before exams at school.
These are a glimpse into what I reminisce about when I think of Pa-pa. The good times, the happy times, the simpler times. When doing so, sometimes my sorrow consumes me, but other times I feel alright. He passes through my thoughts but I can continue on without breaking down. The missing him, the grieving him, the hole that’s left behind is ever-present, but more often than not the memory of him is calming, reassuring, safe. Because that’s what he was to me, and I want to carry that part of him with me always.
But when things get hard, or when something happens in my life and I wish I could speak to him, his absence feels heavy and I wish he was here. Grief, I’m learning, doesn’t have any boundaries. It doesn’t hold back and it shows up unannounced, in instances you wouldn’t think twice about.
I also know now that grief doesn’t always show up in bouts of tears. Often I’ll look up at the stars and stare and hope that as cliche as it might be, Pa-pa is somewhere out there, looking down on and still loving me. Sometimes my grief surfaces during some of my happiest days — I don’t cry, and I don’t feel like crying — but I do feel a sort of ache deep inside me, usually around my chest. It serves as a reminder that someone deeply loved is missing, but in spite of that, life is still lovely. Life can still be lovely, even when navigating your way through the pain of losing a loved one.
I know I’ll never stop missing Pa-pa, but I suppose that grieving his death means that I was lucky enough to have loved somebody so much, and be loved in return. I had someone very special, significant and influential in my life, so maybe the sadness that accompanies grief is the price we have to pay for loving someone so much, so completely. As the famous quote goes, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I don’t want to stop missing Pa-pa. I don’t want to forget him. I don’t want to discard my memories of him. I want to look back on the life he lived and celebrate it because he deserves to be remembered, as tough as it may be sometimes.
In doing so, I would like to carry with me the thought that those we love yet lose never really leave us. Perhaps they become even more so a part of us. A way that Pa-pa does so is through my dancing. I started ballet lessons when I was about 4-years-old and it’s something I still do now. It is one of the greatest pleasures of my life, and it was my grandparents who really got me going with it. Every Christmas and birthday present was ballet-themed. We watched ballets at the theatre together and they came and sat front row to all the shows that I was in. They sent me good luck cards for all the exams I took and in general, have been the biggest supporters of my dance pursuits. I’m now part of my university’s dance club, and as well as attending classes there, I’ve also competed in competitions and participated in the club’s own shows. And despite no longer being with us, it is Pa-pa I think of and Pa-pa I picture in the audience whenever I dance now. I’d like to think he’s by my side every step of the way.
I am an optimist, or at least I try to be. I try to see the good in all situations, in everyone and everything. And I think I’m beginning to realise that I can be hopeful for the future, I can still see the joy the world has to offer whilst still missing Pa-pa.
The last thing he ever said to me was “Take care,” and I’m really trying to do just that.
Maybe grief never fully goes away. Life waits for no one, but even as we heal and move forward, maybe the grief that comes from missing someone becomes part of who we are. And it’s not a bad part, it’s just a new part that you adapt and learn to live with. We will always miss the person that we lost because they were a loved part of our life. They were a part of us, and they always will be.
Maybe grief is love’s equal. Whilst grief stays with us, so does love. I’m letting this love that I have — for Pa-pa, for the rest of my family, for my friends — fill me up, and I’m taking it with me wherever I go.
If you like this article, check out: https://www.harnessmagazine.com/life-is-like-the-ocean/