This will be a lengthy, personal post full of triggers. Please read with respect.
On 4th February 2016, I lost my favourite lady in the entire world to cancer. That awful, awful C word. I didn’t and haven’t to this day said much about losing my Granny (bar this extremely raw post I shared at the time) and the consequences it has had on my family, but I’d like to do just that today.
The thing about losing a loved one to cancer is that you were always, to some degree, expecting it. I remember the exact day that my Mum told me over the phone (I was living in Hong Kong alone) that Granny had been diagnosed with breast cancer and I remember even more clearly the day that she called me to tell me they’d also found bowel cancer. I’m a bottler: I bottle my emotions up and I don’t particularly like to burden others and I also distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘If I don’t tell anybody or say it out loud, then it isn’t real.’ I desperately wanted so much for it to be an awful dream because there was absolutely no way that my strong, fearless Granny had two types of this awful disease. And because I was on the other side of the globe, unhelpfully 8 hours in front, my own coping mechanism and experience with the diagnosis was far different from my family’s. Never once did I grieve the diagnosis though. Like I said, my head was up in the clouds and I told myself that Grandma was the strongest woman I’d ever known, surviving two wars, the loss of her husband – my Grandad, open heart surgery. Chemotherapy began and she greatly improved, her tumour shrinking each consultation – I wouldn’t be losing her yet.
The turning point for me was the second diagnosis of bowel cancer in October 2015. I admittedly didn’t know much about this cancer and so I consulted Dr. Google and went on to cry for about 80 hours straight and becoming nil by mouth. The prognosis didn’t look good. I almost completely stopped talking to my friends, I became short and snippy with everybody around me and cancelled any semblance of weekend plans. And? I didn’t tell anybody about the second diagnosis, because if I didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t true.
I eventually returned home for Christmas that year after a bit of a battle to get it off work (I had been given 11 days annual leave as an expat, up from the usual 5) and threw myself in to seeing Granny at every opportunity. I landed on Tuesday night and drove straight over to her house on Wednesday morning to make Granny a huge cup of tea, steam her favourite buns for her and hold her as tight as I could. She was overjoyed to see me and we had the best day together and she even cooked me my favourite noodles! She hosted the annual Chai/Chan Boxing Day feast the week afterwards and enjoyed fattening us all up. Two days later, I was due to head back to Hong Kong and I remember having a tearful (me) conversation with her where I promised that I was having a great time in Hong Kong but I would be moving home in February to take care of her, I told her not to worry and that I’d be back before she knew it.
And that was the last time I ever got to speak to her.
Grief is a funny little thing. It creeps up on you in waves and then pools, ready for another day at its own whimsy. When I found out the news, I was about half an hour in to work at the office. I remember cursing the time difference for the way I had to find out over WhatsApp, before running to the bathroom to cry for a solid 30 minutes before my work bestie came to rescue me and tell my manager on my behalf what had happened.
I took a red taxi home, alternately blotting my face with toilet paper and continuing to cry all the way home, wondering how so many people I glimpsed through the windows could continue with everyday life when my entire world had stopped. An intrinsic part of the grieving process is that grief is unique to each person which makes it incredibly hard to quantify and to really empathise with. My own grieving process differs greatly from my Mum’s or even my siblings. I personally struggled especially with the fact that I had kept my promise and booked a flight to move home and that I hadn’t been quick enough. I didn’t make it in time. I went home quietly every evening to my Granny’s apartment, the gravity of knowing that she’d never again step foot here again sinking in more each time. I cried silently and then loudly and then silently, going back and forth and not knowing what the hell to do, alone, on the other side of the world. I cried when I attempted to cook food that I wouldn’t be able to taste in the kitchen that she adored, using the utensils she lovingly chose and the brand new oven she’d been so excited to use. I cried when I attempted to sleep, knowing all of her belongings were safely packed away in that very apartment and that they’d never be used again. I cried thinking about my family, grieving without me in England and I cried when I thought about her vegetable patch and how I’d never help her grow her winter melon crop again.
I cried for pretty much the entirety of my flight home and when I saw my brother and sister at the airport.
Crying is only one part of grief though. That’s the external part. I eventually reached a time when I could stop crying randomly everywhere – in bed, down the frozen aisle in Tesco, in the park, on trains. And then came the guilt. I felt guilty almost all the time for feeling joy or for laughing. Maybe I wasn’t showing grief properly? What would others think? I became overwhelmed with trying to continue with everyday life as well as get my head around the loss and attempting to function through everyday activities whilst maintaining a balance between grieving and enjoying being here. The truth is, you should never let anybody else dictate your grief. And it’s possible to feel elated and joyous even when grieving. Soon though, I began to feel extremely run down and anxious more often than not, especially at the prospect of leaving anybody for any length of time. I’d be on edge whenever my parents went to work or if I had to pop out to buy milk and leave my dog at home for 10 minutes. My panic attacks on public transport continued. And eventually, I was diagnosed with mild depression caused by grief.
Although it’s been more than 500 days since it happened, I’m not really ashamed to say that I’m continuing to grieve today. I find it difficult to process because I never saw her in pain and I didn’t see her deteriorate. That’s something I learned from my family: mid-January, we’d moved her into our home because she wanted to be near the family. She rarely complained about pain until that night when she passed and my brother and Uncle took her to the hospital. There was barely any deterioration. At least once a week, I struggle to get out of bed and find little to no reason to do so except to feed and walk Milo. I’ll get out of bed sometimes and find it’s already 3pm. I rarely talk about what happened in fear of bursting into tears in front of somebody else. I lose myself entirely in my own thoughts and feel frustratingly guilty that I didn’t make it home in time. I never got to say goodbye whilst she was still alive. There is nothing that will prepare somebody for saying goodbye when it’s already too late. Sometimes I’ll be on my way to run errands and I’ll find myself down at the cemetery, sitting legs crossed by her grave with a bunch of tulips, talking avidly about my days and nights and how much she’d love the dog and other such nonsensicals. And sometimes I have good and great days and I belly laugh until I cry (funnily enough). I sit legs crossed in her insanely bright pink armchair that she ‘had’ to bring to our house back in that January and I feel somewhat closer to her. And I feel simply lucky to have such a great band of friends and family around me. Grief is an everyday struggle that ebbs and flows and I think it might just manage to make me a stronger person when I ease out of the fog. That, is my grief.
If you’re struggling with grief, a great source of advice to me has been the Samaritans organisation who’re only an email or call or text away.
Photos by Kaye Ford.