Dragon fruit, blueberres, melon, some salad, focus on the list, don’t think about it, concentrate, just pick up the fruit get to the till and get out of there. Hold your breathe, pause the podcast, you’re not listening to it anyway, and focus.
Too late, I’m crying in the cucumbers.
Grief will hit you everywhere. It doesn’t care that you’re in the middle of the fruit and veg aisle trying your absolute best with what little energy you have to do a mini shop on your way home from work.
Chocolate… C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E, I’ve started spelling words out slowly, over and over in my mind just to get me through paying the cashier without bursting in to tears.
Usually when I feel the sudden rush of tears, shortness of breath, the approaching panic in my mind, I just imagine cute goats, honestly, to distract me from the all encompassing tidal wave of sadness. Unfortunately, I had shared this wonderful distraction technique (I’m being sarcastic) with my dad, SO I can no longer distract myself with cute goats because they now make me think of dad (the person at the very root of my grief) and that makes me cry even more.
During dad’s illness (the fast and aggressive life-changer that is pancreatic cancer) and after his far too early death I’ve cried absolutely everywhere.
Tears in a taxi? Been there done that. In my classroom, yes indeed. In the lift, yep. At the beach, in the cinema, in my bed (often), in a garden, anywhere my dad’s ever stepped foot or wanted to step foot, tears have indeed fallen.
It comes in waves, it’s like you’re tip toeing on the edge of a calm sea enjoying some peace and quiet and then BAM out of nowhere a salty wave soaks you through.
You’re not supposed to bury it and most of the time I don’t. I know ignoring grief, trying to hide from it is really unhealthy. You have to cry, you must embrace the downs alongside the ups, I just find that it’s still a struggle when it hits you out in public or when you are actually having quite a good time out and about. If I’m going to suddenly break down ordering a coffee I really wish I had sticker on my head that said, ‘my dads just died’ so people might get it without thinking ‘oh shit’ and asking, ‘what’s wrong, why are you crying’?
In the weeks leading up to dad’s death (writing that is hideous), when we were told the unbearable, ‘there’s nothing more we can do’ I started to get a really tight chest. I’ve never ever experienced this before so I didn’t know what was happening. I kept having to take really deep, long breaths all day everyday, it was so bizarre. As my life was being consumed by cancer naturally I connected everything to death. Before I realised the tightness in my chest was caused by the anxiety of my dad dying, I honestly thought there was something seriously wrong with my health (this makes me laugh a little now). I kept thinking, shit dad’s dying and now I’ve got a heart condition, best not tell anyone that I’m going to die next.
A friend shared the following breathing technique which I found useful when trying to calm down and ease the tension in my chest and mind:
breathe in for three breaths,
hold your breath for four breaths,
and breathe out for five breaths.
If I’m awake I’ll count the breaths on my fingers as well to help me focus.
When dad was in one of his final stays at The Christie in Manchester I went to a relaxation class at the nearby Maggie’s Centre (it’s like being in a Grand Designs building, an amazing set up). We got comfy and laid down as the woman leading the class talked us through each part of our body from head to toe, slowly concentrating on every section and relaxing each millimetre. It worked, I didn’t fall asleep but I felt calm so I’ll often do this in bed too when my mind is shouting at me that my dad’s died. Also after this particular class I went back to dad’s hospital room and talked him through it, he said he enjoyed it which still makes me smile.
As grief can consume you at any point, all of a sudden, day and/or night sleeping can be tough. I’ll sob into my pillow trying desperately to drift off but getting more stressed and anxious by the minute. I know dad really struggled to sleep during the night because he was in constant pain, so I told him to use Headspace (search in your app store and/or YouTube). I’ve recently embraced this myself (well more than dad did but I’m not in any physical pain so everything is easier). The sleep section (particularly ‘doze’) has been hugely beneficial to my sleep, I seriously love it. I’ve also played the Stephen Fry sleep story which is on the Calm app numerous times, he talks about the beautiful lavender fields of Provence in France, it’s really lovely. (If you sign up to Calm with an education email address I’ve been told that you can access the entire platform for free, something I wasn’t aware of when I had an education email address, gutted!)
I find writing therapeutic, it calms me down because I have to focus.
If you’ve ever seen my Instagram captions you’ll notice that I’m not very succinct, I mainly ramble but I enjoy it.
Scribbling in notebooks about dad’s experience of pancreatic cancer and my own experience of living abroad as he suffered at home is something I’ve done for a while now and I’ve decided to share some of it here. As ever my ‘wander with coffee’ blog is sporadic and often non-existent, so let’s see if I can increase my public output about death and grief as I wander, with plenty of coffee, for the next couple of months around South-East Asia. (As I pressed that full stop I’m currently typing at night, alongside Bon Iver who are playing out of a mini speaker in my dimly lit, yet cozy, tiled bedroom, on the outskirts of Hoi An.)
Throughout dad’s illness and since his death (eugh, still hideous to type, it makes me question his death every single time I type those characters) I’ve found a huge amount of comfort in blogs and Instagram posts about grief and death, I’ve also become addicted to The Griefcast. (This is a genius podcast which I WISH I had listened to before dad died, more about that in another blog. Although if you happen to be reading this now as someone you’re close to is dying and you’ve no idea what to expect, listen to episode one with Adam Buxton as he explains exactly what happens.)
Hearing from someone else about their grief and thinking WOW I feel the same honestly helps me sleep a little bit better or makes me pause in the supermarket as I remember I’m not alone, I’m not abnormal, I’m not failing, these are surprisingly common emotions it’s just most people don’t share, they bury it. To hear from other people in the dead parents’ club has been enormously comforting.
So, I’m going to share my experience of grief here; my experience of living in Malaysia as my dad went to chemotherapy in England, of quitting my job because I knew on some level that my dad’s death was approaching even though at the same time I thought there was just no way he was going to die. My experience of seeing my dad suddenly physically and mentally change into a completely different dad, a dad with cancer; of the joys of my nephew being born right in the middle of the most horrific time for my family; of my irritations of never getting a moment alone with my dad when he was dying because suddenly everyone wanted to sit with him… There’s so much, too much, but every character typed helps me breathe, so I’m typing.
Maybe you’ll read it and think I feel like that too. Maybe no-one will read it but typing these letters makes me feel good and at the end of the day in the midst of so much sadness I’ll take every bit of goodness I can get.
Also, when your dad dies, you just think fuck it, I’m going to do whatever helps to get through the day (and night)!
(Terrible typing disclaimer- I’m rambling on my dad’s old tablet, using a recently purchased Bluetooth keyboard which I’m still getting used to. If you’ve noticed that some letters are missing I think I’m just not hitting the keys hard enough and I just can’t reread it anymore sleep is calling!)