The relative’s room

It’s the early hours of the morning. The walls of this room are cold and clinical, like the paint has been dulled, and worn by the amount of sadness it’s been witness to over the years.

This is the relative’s room. Every hospital has one. A small, quiet box room shut off from the world. It’s the place you go when your family member is seriously unwell and close to death.

This is the space where hours turn into minutes, the place where time no longer exists as it did.

There is a large grey clock on the wall, like the ones you get in school classrooms. It ticks slowly and never seems to stop. Or maybe it does when you leave, but you’ll never know. Tick, tick, tick.

And yet, it’s eerily quiet, like the world has stopped turning for a moment, and the life you know has been put on pause.

This is how the characters in a book must feel when you shut the pages to put it down; lost, confused, without purpose.

There is nothing on the walls of this room but cracks, stains and peeling paint. Forget Dulux’s Timeless, for this is a shade of grief.

There is a chair in this room. It’s a small chair, and yet it feels so big when you sit in it.

In this chair you shrink to half your size, like a child in their grandparent’s armchair.

Why does it feel like you’re in a doll’s house?

Is the room shrinking? Because every time you look up, the room gets smaller, and smaller.

The walls are closing in, and the shiny vinyl floor is getting further away from your feet.

Maybe if you just concentrate on a button on your clothes, and then look up again, you’ll see this was all just a bad dream.

If you pretend it’s not happening, maybe it won’t be. It worked when you were a child, so why wouldn’t it work this time?

In the corner of the room there’s a wheelchair with the words ‘departure lounge’ on the back. The irony of such words is lost in that moment.

A doctor without a face walks in to say it might be ok. But then what feels like days later, more doctors walk in to say it won’t be ok.

The ground is really falling now, like the moment the lift drops to the bottom floor in an action film. But it can’t be stopped like they do in the movies.

Everything is in slow motion, like the moment you go flying over the handlebars of your new bike as a child, seeing yourself about to hit the curb as your arms go out to soften the blow.

Grief is the same type of pain that you feel when you’ve been winded, a tightness in your chest that sends you into panic. It’s a karate chop to the gut.

It feels like you’re watching a playback of your own life, like an out of body experience where you’re seeing yourself from a distance.

That noise isn’t you, it can’t be. It doesn’t sound like you, but someone in this room is wailing.

This is the room where everything changes, where you leave a part of yourself etched on the walls, where every single brick holds a memory.

It has seen so much, this small, tired room.

There is nothing outside of these four walls.

‘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