‘Are you okay?’

When you’re grieving, people will often ask you the same question on a regular basis.

‘Are you okay?’

I get it. It’s a natural reflex, like saying bless you when someone sneezes or nodding politely when you’ve seen someone more than once on the same tour of the local Tesco.

It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about the way I often answered this question after my brother died. And probably still do today, six years on.

When I’m struggling, I never really answer this question honestly. It’s mainly out of shame because I think I should have my shit together all the time and I expect other people to think the same (which they often don’t).

But it’s difficult to open up to people sometimes. When people ask if you’re okay, you don’t know if that person is just asking out of politeness. Then I worry I’ll only realise this when I’ve poured my heart out in an epic ten chapter novel about how bloody sad it is I’ll never get to see my brother again yet society expects me to be okay with that.

Nobody wants to read that book though. That’s a really sad book. I’m not even sure they’d have a section for that in Waterstones.

Most of the time, I’m just not really sure what to tell you, so the answer is usually always: ‘yeah, I’m alright’.

It’s not that I don’t want to share myself with you. I’m sure you mean it when you say you’ll listen, but there’s still a lot of stigma around ‘struggling’ and opening up about your grief. Sometimes it’s easier to lie and say you’re coping. People react very differently and those reactions are not always helpful, even though they often mean well.

Last year I was struggling, but I kept it to myself. It’s very typical of me to keep running on a sprained ankle when I should have just taken a break from the race to restore my energy. But people who are grieving are often like birds with a broken wing, hiding our injuries to protect ourselves from predators. We won’t always let you see us struggling, just in case it’s seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

When I’m in those moods and struggling to form a sentence, I start writing all my thoughts down on an iPhone note. Some of the words I write make sense. Some of them don’t. It’s often a flurry of emotions and ideas spat out on the screen like I’m throwing paint at a canvas until it makes a shape or tells a story.

The other day, I started scrolling through those notes. Between an array of to-do lists and strange dreams I’d decided to write down in case they had some alternative meaning, I found a poem I’d written a few months back and forgotten about. It was all the answers I wanted to give when someone asked me if I was okay.

As I read it, I felt like I was reading through my teenage diary. The words were full of angst and raw emotion, like a drunken conversation on a night out, and even though I was slightly embarrassed by its brutal honesty, something compelled me to share it.

I posted it to a Facebook group for bereaved siblings. I didn’t think it was very compelling or insightful, but it showed a side of my grief I often hid, even from the friends who understood my pain. A friend from the group texted me to tell me he’d read the poem to his mother and wife. They told him they’d related to my words in their own grief.

I realised how close I’d been to discarding those words, just like the real and honest answer to the question: ‘are you okay?’

It feels right to share it, so here it is. A poem about how grief really feels, but how we often answer people, mainly due to the fear of judgment. It doesn’t speak for everyone in their journey with grief, but I hope it makes sense to some.

 

I feel the despair in the centre of my chest, like my ribs are coated in lead or my lungs are made of weights. But yes, I’m okay.

My brain in running at 100 miles per hour, words and scenarios running through my head like an old reel of film with no order or sequence. I’m overwhelmed. But yes, I’m okay.

My stomach is tight, a ball of elastic bands all twisted and stretched, ready to break. I’m a piece of porcelain, fragile and balancing on the edge, ready to fall. But yes, I’m okay.

I’m exhausted from the routine of having to put a fake smile on my face when my grief is suffocating me, pulling me under the water like a wave that just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I’m swimming against the tide. But yes, I’m okay.

I feel nothing some days and everything all at once. My auto-pilot is switched on but sometimes the switch trips and I’m thrown off course, like a train that’s come off it’s rails. But yes, I’m okay.

How do I explain in words that make sense to you that some days I feel like I’m drowing? Yet I’m pulling myself up to the surface. I keep afloat somehow. But yes, I’m okay.

Somedays I’m hurting. Somedays I’m a bit broken. Somedays I’m a bit lost.

But yes, I’m okay… I guess?

 

 

 

Losing my brother: Five years on

Time feels like a strange concept when you’re grieving.

It feels fleeting, brief and sudden, like you’re racing against an hourglass, watching each grain of sand as it trickles away. And yet in some moments, it feels like an eternity.

I was only ever aware of this after my brother died.

In the early days of my grief, it was about surviving. It was about getting through a single day without collapsing from the weight of sheer panic and despair. It was all about trying to see that little glimmer of light at the end of a very dark and distant tunnel. You wonder how you’ll ever get through it.

Then time starts to feel like a large predator, grabbing at your ankles as you feel yourself slipping behind. You become more aware of the value of life when you lose someone you love. You realise the fragility of life and how every moment counts. There’s a pressure behind those thoughts that nobody seems to recognise until grief touches their family.

You feel like you owe it to your sibling to live your life to the fullest, to do all the things they wouldn’t do, to live in the moment and seize every opportunity that comes your way.

Last May marked five years since my brother died. It was the first anniversary where I had realised just how quickly the past few years had gone.

Most of those early years I don’t remember. Every once in a while, whilst I’m laying on bed struggling to go to sleep, a moment will flash by like a passing train. Inevitably it’s a haunting memory, the look on my brother’s face before he collapsed or the moment he was stretchered out from the back of an ambulance. But sometimes it’s a comforting memory. A simple, yet happy time when we were blissfully unaware of the pain that would consume our safe haven.

In December I turned 25. In the grand scheme of things, it rather an insignificant age. It’s not a milestone. Nobody gets a big birthday party or a special tacky glass or teddy bear to commemorate it, and yet for some reason I felt sheer panic in the pit of my stomach. It was like I’d woken up and noticed I’d slept in for too long. Five years had passed without my brother being alive.

You can’t blame people for moving on with their lives. I understand. But it doesn’t stop you from resenting it. The earth continues to spin on it’s axis, even when your world is falling apart.

I’m five years away from the moments I last spoke to my brother. Five years on since I last held him in my arms and told him I loved him, even though he was a pain, like most little brother’s should be.

The truth is that time doesn’t make it easier to deal with. If anything, sometimes it’s more difficult. When you first lose someone you love, you’re inundated with support. Cards and flowers cover every inch of surface within your home. Your notifications are constantly popping up, Facebook messages from school friends who are thinking of you or emails from family members with poems about love and loss. But what happens when the flowers wilt and die? What happens when the messages dry up and people move on?

We are left with an emptiness that will never quite be filled. Over time the pain is no longer as overpowering or unbearable. It’s more of a heavy weight that sits on your shoulders and seeps in to your being, becoming part of your DNA, your identity. Grief changes you. The pain reminds us of what we have lost, what we will never again find and how fragile life is. We wouldn’t change it. Although at times it’s more painful than words could ever express, it is who we are now. We carry it with us for the rest of our life, hoping we will find other human beings who are compassionate enough to notice our loss, respect our story and allow us to frame it on our wall, etch it into the tapestry of our life.

Five years without my brother may seem like a long time for those who haven’t lost a loved one. But for our family, we carry this grief with us for the rest of our lives. We are navigating a treacherous terrain and no matter how far we might get on this journey, there is still a chance we could slip or fall.

I have learnt time changes when you are grieving. It takes a new form.

I panic sometimes that another five years will go by in a flash, another five years without my brother’s voice or his smile will pass me so fast I can’t comprehend it. But one thing I do know for certain is that he will always be a part of my life and who I am. No matter what happens, he is always there, shaping who I am and who I want to be.

If you haven’t already listened, I did an episode about sibling grief for Beyond Today, a podcast by Radio 4. I shared my story alongside other bereaved siblings, including correspondent Matthew Price. I hope it’s helpful to those who need to talk about their grief:

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06w5z3m

Thank you,
Georgia