2 weeks ago

A Reader Writes: Facing Grief During a Pandemic

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In this new online series, A Reader Writes, readers share their stories of coping with lockdown and the emotions and feelings it is uncovering. Here, Caoilfhionn McNamara explores how this time has allowed her to grieve and heal old wounds, remembering her great love and coming to terms with the great loss …

Unexpected grief can arise at any time. Unsurprisingly, it is more prominent during the coronavirus, when we are facing the loss of so many. As we watch the numbers increasing daily, the weight of these losses are a heavy burden to carry. For many, this cross is too heavy to bare. Instead, we are left focusing on the greatest individual moment of suffering we have ever experienced.

Three weeks ago, as the fear of the coronavirus slowly crept its way into my life, I moved home from Scotland, to my mother’s house, and now, I am sleeping in my childhood bedroom. Not much has changed in here really, except the colour of the walls, and the movement of furniture. The tired piano that was once practiced daily is sitting silently in the corner. The windowsill holds a stack of worn-out books, some read, others still waiting patiently to be finished. The people who were once here have grown, but the memories they created still linger. It’s the old photographs on the walls, or maybe the ones that are now absent, that can distract you from the present moment. That can force your mind into flashback mode, replaying unfinished conversations between misplaced friends and past loves.

It is in this room that I realised it had been nearly six years since his death. Immediately, I felt a constricting lump forming in my throat. This is the guilt I thought, felt by someone who is forgetting, who is moving on, getting a job, getting engaged, and of someone who is living. A sense of overwhelming grief suddenly snuck out of nowhere, like a punch in the stomach, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. This grief that I thought I had dealt with, had now wrapped its thick cloak around me, weighing me down and making the air feel heavier than it should.

As many people have experienced in these unusual times, I have been having very vivid dreams. I have dreamt about him often, since the day he died, but when working from home, these dreams become more painful to wake up from, to escape from. Each dream involves a different day that we meet, where I realise he is still alive, that the tragedy never happened, that it was all a disturbing mistake. The dream is so intense and real, and we are both still so imperfect, but he is alive and that’s all I care about. Grief is a strange thing to encounter, one minute you are making your bed, and the next you are 18 again, reading out a handwritten letter you wrote to the boy you fell in love with, knowing that no words will ever be enough for him.

Since then, I have tried to cope with these feelings by listening to old recordings of him. His high-pitched, soft, youthful voice with his funny lisp. I sat on the floor and opened the bottom drawer in my bedroom, where I have kept all of our old love letters, and I cried as I read them. They all still make sense to me. I have gone through our old photos, where we both look so young and foolish, but innocent and in love. I have called family and old friends, who knew us both back then, to talk about our memories of him, of us. I have even told new friends, which is something I couldn’t do before. All of it has helped.

During this pandemic, I have been forced to come to terms with a great loss and realise that even today, I can still feel the love that we experienced back then.

Last week, I visited his grave, which is somewhere I haven’t been able to go since his funeral.

When I found his name on the gravestone, my body felt stuck, paralysed. I remember standing here when he was buried, but I was sure I had seen him since, in so many places. This particular day, the sun was warm, the light blue from the ocean reflected onto the sky, so you couldn’t tell which was which. There were two horses eating grass in the field next to us. I was the only person visiting, so I sat down with him. I didn’t know what to bring so I read him a poem. He always used to read to me, so I felt he would either have appreciated it or made fun of me. I was willing to take the risk. I am not particularly religious but that day I felt like he was there with me, listening. I promised him I would go back, and I will. Being there, near him, gave me a sense of peace; a feeling that he is at peace, wherever that may be.

It’s quite a delicate thing to mourn the loss of someone you loved when you’ve already replaced them. It seems wrong to feel so completely lost without him. I think I knew that if he had said “love me”, I would have loved him, and that’s what always kept me away. How mighty and intoxicating love can seem, that you believe no one has ever felt this intensity before. The inexplainable magnetic force that pulls you in, that draws you together, as if you have created something so rare and extraordinary, just by standing in the same room. A tumultuous whirlwind of ecstasy that sucks you in with such dominance that you think you’ll never escape. And maybe you never do.

Being in this room, I am pulled back in time to the night that he died. My first love. He was only 27. I remember getting the phone call from my best friend. I was running. It was a cold, dark night in October, the stars were swelling and shrinking, pulsating in the cloudless sky, and then my phone rang in my hand.

Mostly, I miss our conversations. They usually happened lying in the dark, often dreaming about what life would turn out like and where we would end up. Conversations that went on forever; everywhere and nowhere. I miss them. There are few people in this world who can truly inspire both passion and creativity in you. Who can light a blazing fire, fuelling your mind with hope and fear at the same time. Ours was the kind of love that we both knew could all end in bitterness and despair, but at the time we let it happen anyway because it made us happy, and because we couldn’t stop it.

I remember the last time. When it was finally over and we finally gave up. Two years later he emailed me. He said it was his biggest regret, how everything had ended. I’d wanted to believe he meant that. But I didn’t. One year after, I remember hearing what happened to him and knowing I would never talk to him again. Going to work the next morning before realising I couldn’t be there. Feeling like a fake for not knowing him anymore, but reliving every precious memory of the four years we shared together.

His dad said we were too young. That he always loved me. His mother had no words left to say. His sister offered me tea, I said no, she offered me again, I said yes. I remember his youngest sister hugging me and asking if I was ok. I couldn’t believe she would think to ask that. His best friends carried his coffin. His colleague read a speech. I sat there, with my boyfriend, feeling numb. Like I didn’t belong and like I was never there. One of the hardest things I have ever gone through was losing him over and over again, like a conveyor belt built solely on heartbreak. I always thought we would see each other again, that we would bump into each other one day as “grown-ups” and fix everything. But for some reason, we didn’t, and six years later I’m still here, and I’m older than him now. He was always the oldest.

Something in me changed the day he died. I don’t know what exactly, but I lost a piece of myself. I’d like to believe he has it. That he stole it and took it with him. It would be very like him to do that. I regret that I never told him how sorry I was for how life actually turned out and where we ended up. I regret that I could never be his friend. When it comes to him, I probably regret almost everything. But I don’t regret him. I would happily sit on that conveyor belt and go through it all again, if I could get him back and laugh with him one more time. Even when something in me knows that if he was here today we still may not have spoken.

As I sit here on my bedroom floor, reminiscing over these hazy memories, that I am pleading with my mind to hold on to, I feel hopeless and hopeful at the same time. During this pandemic, I have been forced to come to terms with a great loss and realise that even today, I can still feel the love that we experienced back then. A love more powerful than time and loss could ever be. A love that will surpass the faded photographs and forgotten letters, one that will live on in my memory, and in my heart for as long as I’m alive. A love that will let me live, and move forward, knowing now, that for a time, it was all worth it.

To see more of Caoilfhionn’s writing follow her on Twitter: @caoilfhionn_mc.

In this new online series, A Reader Writes, readers share their stories of coping with lockdown: exploring the emotions and feelings it is uncovering, discovering new hobbies and pastimes, navigating your new normal or just general observations surrounding this somewhat slower time. To share your story email [email protected] with ‘A Reader Writes’ in the subject line. We will publish a selection of new stories online each week.

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