Handling Grief

Cancer

When I was 22, I stopped my Masters degree to became a full time carer for my terminally ill mum; she had cancer. She’d first been diagnosed at the age of 41 and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy which succeeded – together with an iron determination – in keeping it in remission for around 12 years. Like the world’s most toxic boomerang, it returned with a vengeance twice more in less than two years and the third time it ultimately defeated her. She was 54.

If I reflect on her last moments, I can remember with a clarity of vision far superior than any curved TV, holding her hand and hearing her breaths slowly being further and further apart whilst my heart raced faster and faster at the truth whose light was blinding but to which I refused to open my eyes and acknowledge. And then she left – finally released from the tortuous prison of physical pain to a world, I choose to believe, of spiritual serenity and every freedom imaginable.

So as mum’s physical life ended, that’s when the next chapter of my own, began.

I couldn’t cook, drive, hadn’t ever paid a bill or run a household before. But in the wake of the trail left by the unwanted boomerang here was its gift to me. I’m the eldest of three siblings; at the time, one was at university and the other was two months away from his GCSE exams. My father is a traditional Gujarati man (think dhal, bath, shak, rotli* most nights, Indian TV series and cricket and you’ll get the idea). So I stepped up; not like the steps you use at a circuit class, I mean I stepped up (imagine the furthest your right leg can reach on a staircase whilst your left foot is rooted to the bottom step, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about).

Wonky chappatis

I learned to cook (the rotlis* resembled a politically incorrect and geographically questionable world atlas but were edible nonetheless), took driving lessons, kept my home in order, supported my siblings through their exams with innumerable pick ups and drop offs to the middle one’s halls of residence and the younger one’s exam sittings, took over the administration of my dad’s business and resumed my Masters degree. I was doing great; all systems going simultaneously and everything in order. I mean who needs a break when you’re functioning on permanent autopilot mode?

Smelling the coffee

I was living a lie and the worst thing was that I was both the perpetrator and the victim of it. When mum died, in the flick of an emotional switch, the blinkers came on – I was in survival mode and no peripheral emotions or distractions were going to take me off track. So far in life I’d conquered many challenges and this was going to be just another thing that I’d do – successfully of course because there was no alternative. We had to eat, get to places, survive and so much more.

Nearly 20 years later I’ve learned that the way I’d dealt with everything back then was that I hadn’t actually dealt with them.

I prioritised everyone else’s needs not stopping to consider what mine actually were. I thought I was performing a service by being self-effacing and devoting myself to the progress and happiness of those around me. But the truth is that I hadn’t grieved; I denied myself the breathing space to understand what was happening and allow the support network I had around me, in. I was afraid that by showing my vulnerability people would assume I wasn’t coping and would try and take over, threatening the stability of my family.

What a fanciful story I told myself; I had an answer for every scenario, an excuse to hand perpetually as to why I should just keep my head down and keep going. I was a super charged landmine waiting to be triggered before an epic explosion. I’ve learnt this through lots of reflection and coaching conversations that have helped me to grieve for the loss of my mum and for the girl who lost her youth but which has also enriched my relationships and taught me to feature in my own life.

The new ‘me’

Now, I’m much more attuned to my own feelings; if I keep having a recurring thought I know that something’s bothered me and I’ll do something about it. I make time for me without a side dose of guilt that my children will be psychologically damaged because I’ve missed a bath and story time. I’ll sit in a café reading the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency instalment or meet up with friends for a nice meal knowing that by investing in my own well being, I’m best serving those around me because they get a fulfilled and happy mummy, wife, sister, friend and daughter.

I’m no expert; I can’t dispense educated advice on why you behave the way that you do or whether you feature enough in your own life. That’s a path for you to explore when it feels right for you. But from my experience I can say that it’s absolutely worth pausing to reflect on your life experiences, your fears and whether you are your authentic self or wearing the personas you think that others expect to see.

In my case, I didn’t get a handle on my grief and instead let it handle me by shaping how I featured in my relationships. My grief wore a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak that was so convincing even I didn’t know it was there. But it was deceptive because it seeped into every aspect of my life and bore itself out in many shapes and forms – it created an inner neediness that led me into destructive relationships, created a feeling of heightened paranoia and sat on my sense of worthiness like an elephant on a daisy craning its neck towards the sun.

Pausa

I’m inviting you to stop, reflect and take stock of your own relationships. How do you feel when you see or speak to the people that matter most to you? Then ask yourself why – is it because you can show up as your no-holds-barred true self or is there a tension within, an inner rod in your back that stiffens and causes you to behave a certain way? If it’s the latter, you can live with it or you can do something about it.

Truth doesn’t have to be painful. Unless it’s your little sister telling you, you look like a demon from an ancient Indian legend because yes, your hair really was that long, black and poofy when blowdried. Maybe she could have kept that one hidden. Or at least introduced me to anti-frizz spray.

Until next time,

Reena

*staple Indian meal of pulses (dhal), rice (bath), a dry vegetable curry (shak) and flatbreads also described as chappatis (rotli)

 

Accepting Life’s Lemons

So, like most working mums, I pretty much work at full throttle 100 percent of the time. A typical day looks a bit like this:

The regime

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5:30am – rise and get ready (interspersed with getting kids ready because of course they’re also morning kids – sigh). If it helps, picture me precariously holding an eyeliner brush between my teeth whilst helping #2 take his pyjama top off because apparently only mummy is allowed to do this

6:45am – leave for work and a 1 hour 20 commute where I listen to something inspirational on YouTube (like a talk by Marisa Peer or Brenee Brown for the 20 minutes I’m overground)

8am to 3pm – work with a verve that would give Tim Cook something to think about, eating lunch al desko (anything that can be eaten with one hand) whilst challenging my bladder with the ultimate endurance tests (I just need to respond to this last email before I absolutely have to pee)

3:30pm (because who actually leaves on time) – return commute home and of course normal people don’t travel at this time so there are no ‘fast’ trains or ‘short’ platform exits, no no, it’s the full travel experience the scenic way

4:30pm – home, put the kettle on, quick hugs and hello’s whilst hearing both parties’ representations about how the other has aggrieved them (not easy when they’re doing this simultaneously), express my sympathy and feign understanding at their pain, remind them that they are brothers that actually love each other and there’s no need to quibble over that one toy because there are 999,999 in that pile over there they could choose from

4:45pm – kettle boiled, put (some variety of) pasta on – change into home clothes (the dry cleaning bill would outstrip the cost of my work dresses within a week otherwise)

5:15pm – serve up the kids’ dinner with a dose of ‘why is he eating faster than me, that’s not fair!’ on loop

5:45pm – clear up then upstairs for bath and pyjamas (this bit can take as long as you like because it’s dictated by numerous factors including how long they’re on the loo, if they discover a toy in their room they have to play with straight away, if it’s a hair washing day (God forbid), if the older one decides to practice his gymnastics routine – in his pants or naked; somewhat different to the TV gymnastics most people are familiar with – and of course, mood

7:00pm – upstairs for reading time (again this can vary from one book to five however slow and monotone I make my voice)

8:00pm – If I haven’t accidentally nodded off with one of them (happens a lot) then it’s downstairs to root around in the fridge for the world’s speediest dinner or ingredients to achieve the same end (omelettes and stir-frys are a firm favourite) and I’m usually ably assisted by my darling husband who’s also returned home from saving the world (he’s a hospital based optometrist so only comes home after he’s seen the last patient – not a job you could boil an egg by…)

9:00pm – dinner done, we settle down for some TV time but I’m usually robbed of this and fall asleep a mere 15 minutes into watching a re-run of Gogglebox (why is it so compelling watching others watch TV?!)

The bump in the road

Any of it sound familiar? Well, you can imagine my horror when I recently had to undergo emergency knee surgery (I’m fine, don’t panic) and was told that I wouldn’t be walking properly for up to three months. I was in complete denial with a leg locked at 40 degrees yet still messaging my team from A&E to say I’ll be a “bit late” – that was five weeks ago and I still haven’t made it in.

I was obsessed with getting back to work and managing my household because my body knew no speed other than road runner mode. The thought of being ‘idle’ sent shivers through me; what was I going to do? I’m the matriarch, the one people come to for help when they need looking after; the one who can whip up tasty meals for unexpected guests and can host an impromptu kids party with innumerable activities that could give a vaguely decent entertainer a run for their money.

I was so focused on how I’d return to my crazy normality that I ignored my needs in the here and now.

Well, they say everything happens for a reason (I’m not sure who ‘they‘ are but ‘they’ feature in my life a lot and seem reliably knowledgeable). In my case, my injury provided me with the gift of time and a forced halt to the 1200W blender that is my life.  Instead of focusing on surviving through my convalescence, I used the time to take stock and make some really powerful life changes (more of that to follow in later blogs).

So, I thought I’d share some tips for any similarly highly charged people to avoid derailment if you’re stopped in your tracks for some reason.

My survival 101

1. Accept help.

I know on a normal day you can juggle plates on a scale worthy of the Moscow State Circus but acknowledge that things aren’t ‘normal’ temporarily and so it’s ok to allow your loved ones to cook/clean/tidy/nurse you to recovery – they’re only doing it to reciprocate the love you’ve showered upon them so really, fair’s fair.

2. Make lists.

Writing down the things that you want to get done rather than bottling it up in your head, will make you feel like you’re doing something and then you can either delegate the tasks or if you’re up to it, do them yourself. I took the time to put a bit more effort and research into gifts for the three upcoming kids parties my son would be attending as well as booking a long overdue fridge and oven clean. Amazing what you can do with wi-fi, a credit card and an armchair.

3. Sleep.

Seriously, when did you last have the house to yourself and the freedom to do this guilt-free? My last proper night’s sleep was definitely before my kids were born so nestled with my favourite fluffy pillow and a snuggly blanket, I’ve made my own daytime den in the living room where I can keep Come Dine with Me on low volume whilst I snooze (I can’t reconcile sleeping in my bed during the daytime because it just feels wrong). For the days I need a cat nap but just can’t get to sleep, listening to Dr Wayne Dyer’s Everyday Wisdom on low volume sends me gently to la la land.

4. Read.

Anything – be it trashy magazines, that book you’ve always wanted to read, recipes to finally use up that packet of buckwheat you bought knowing it’s a super grain but having no idea what to actually do with it; just read. When was the last time you read for pleasure or read something which was entirely unconnected to one of the hats you wear (mother, wife, employee), just reading for you. Indulge yourself, you deserve to and you’ll feel great for it.

5. Reflect.

‘Normal’ life is manic, you’re spread so thin across all your roles and responsibilities that you’re practically transparent.

You’re so busy doing all day long that you don’t get the chance to think about simply being.

Here’s your chance. Close your eyes and think about you; what did you aspire to be when you were a child? Did you achieve that? If not, what happened? What excites you? Do you have excitement or passion in your life? What does it look like? If you don’t, can you make some space for it?

Reflection and coaching during my convalescence has helped me to realise that I love to write and whilst my life and career are happily geared towards the service of others, actually writing is also a medium I can use to achieve this. And this is how my blog was born and I’m sitting here writing to you all, sharing my experience from my warm sofa den whilst my leg is bandaged up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feel free to share your own survival tips with me!

Until next time.

Photo by Alex Loup on Unsplash