Being a Rock in a Hard Place
Grief is hard! Really. Bloody. Hard.
The sad reality is that everybody is grieving for something, whether it is the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, perhaps the last season of Game of Thrones didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. Regardless, grief is something we have all been through in some form or another. Of course, there are times in life when that loss is significantly greater than others.
My first REAL dance with grief happened in 2013 when my brother passed away on Christmas morning, following the diagnosis of a brain tumour just three months prior. The cancer did not only take my brother, it took away a beloved husband, son and father to two young children. The entire community felt our loss. We have some strange traditions in Ireland, not least the tradition of having a wake when somebody dies. Basically, the deceased is placed in an open coffin, dressed in their finest attire while the family form a circle around the coffin and invite mourners to come and offer their condolences. You can often calculate the magnitude of the loss felt by a community by how many people turn up and shake your hand. In the case of my brother’s wake, it was well into the hundreds and I genuinely felt as though I had shaken the hand of every person I had ever met.
In the weeks, months and years that followed December 25th 2013, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by a loving family and very supportive friends. However, one person above all others bore the burden of my grief, my (internally and externally) beautiful wife Mags. From helping to absorb the initial shock of what had happened, to helping me survive the weeks after, to giving me a reason to get out of bed each and every day, she WAS my motivation. She literally held my hand through everything, including a bit of minor surgery I had to get on my eye that caused me to faint like a wimp! My road to mental recovery (if you can ever be truly recovered from something like that) was long. I didn’t truly get a grip on things for the first year and even now, over five years later, there are times when I falter.
Of course, that was very much my grief. Don’t get me wrong, Mags also felt the loss but she had only had the pleasure of meeting my brother a handful of times. I suppose it was natural that she would fall into the position of chief caregiver. Thanks to her support and guidance, I felt stronger and more aware of my mental wellbeing. I was able to overcome my shame about taking anti-depressants to help. Over time, I felt able to attend counselling sessions and even started to get into meditation. All of this was down the strength I felt from having her as my rock.
But how do you survive the worst when your rock is in need of your support?
March 16th, 2019. Our day started with some upset. Mags is five days over her due date with our first child and, despite some positive signs the night before, I received no elbow in the ribs in the early hours. We had both expected to be flinging a hospital bag in the boot of our car, flinging (well, gently directing!) our dog into the neighbours’ house and making our nervous but merry way to the mother and baby unit. No such luck! We were both pretty down and Mags began to get quite anxious that she would go all the way to the standard twelve days over before being induced. To take her mind off things, we went for a drive and got some lunch. The plan was to spend the day strolling around the city but the ever-so-dependable weather hampered that. We returned home to have a relaxing evening, hoping that doing so might be the thing to get things moving (we tried everything else!). Sadly, the relaxing evening was not to be.
Upon returning home, Mags became a little unsettled as she was not getting the usual stir of activity from baby that she was accustomed to at this time of the day. Come to think of it, there hadn’t been much in the way of kicks and wriggles at all that day. As is the advice usually given, she drank a glass of cold water and lay on her side in an attempt to prompt our little squishy into action. She grew quite alarmed when this didn’t work. We called triage and informed them of our concerns and they advised us to come in, just for peace of mind. We drove the 20 minutes to the hospital (bag in boot, dog with neighbours), nervous but not in the least bit merry. Upon arrival, we waited a further 30 minutes to be seen by a midwife. I tried my usual rubbish jokes to lighten the mood but it was abundantly clear that Mags was using every ounce of her concentration on trying to feel even the slightest wriggle.
When the midwife called us in, we could already feel a slight tightening of the air around us. She asked the standard questions and got the Doppler set up. Despite having that slight moment of fear every time the midwife started searching out a heartbeat, we had become fairly used to it. But this time was different. That slight moment got longer…and longer…and longer still. The expression on my wife’s face had changed from ‘rather anxious’ to ‘please help me’. My survival strategy had kicked pretty quickly, leading me to genuinely believe that everything was going to be ok. Even as the midwife left the room to call in a consultant, I was convinced that she was the one at fault because of course my nine months of “expertise” in this field trumped the minimum years of training plus how ever many years she had been doing the job! Despite my deepest desire for her to be wrong, the consultant entered the room, performed a scan and following a few moments (or an entire lifetime, depending on where you’re sitting) of silence, he said the words that changed everything forever. “I’m so sorry. He’s passed.”
Most people who hear those words immediately start with “why”. But I couldn’t even get past the “how”. How could I bear hearing that my son had just died? How could I get through the next five minutes of living? How could I make things somehow “ok”? How is Mags going to get through this? How do you breathe again?!
Somehow, in that same instant, I knew that the most important thing in the world was making sure that I was there for my devastated wife. Not just there in body but really there. I did my best to hug her as much as I could, even when the midwives were trying to take her pulse and I was awkwardly in the way. I listened to her every word in a way that I don’t think I ever did before. I tried to get to the level where I could read her mind and do whatever she wanted without her having to say anything. This was how it was every moment of the day and night right up until she brought our baby boy into the world.
On March 18th 2019, our beautiful son Milo was born. Mags did extraordinarily well during the labour and I have never been more proud of her. Even in the happiest of circumstances, I can see how labour can be a seriously traumatic experience, even from the point of view of the humble husband, but Mags sailed through it the way she does with every big challenge she faces. Aside from the odd outburst of unintelligible rambling after a particularly long intake of gas and air, she absolutely breezed through it. Before we knew it, we had Milo in our arms and we were parents. As distraught as we both were at that time, I will always look back at that moment with a warm heart.
In all of the adversity that we faced during our time at the hospital, we were fortunate enough to have our family there with us. Though we received a mountain of support from them (as well as the team at Forth Valley Royal Hospital), I remained conscious at all times that Mags needed me by her side. We remained in a cocoon of shock for the duration of our stay in the hospital. We were careful to make sure that we didn’t overexert ourselves and I was keen to make sure that Mags didn’t have to leave the bereavement suite she had been admitted to, for fear that she would have to witness another mother’s journey.
Once we left the hospital, the grief really started to set in. We were both exhausted. Our brains couldn’t cope with completing even the most mundane of tasks. I remember needing to sit down after I had hung out some washing because of the complexity of the task I had just completed. Mags would regularly burst into tears and I would hold her for as long as I needed to. I didn’t get visually upset as often as she did. It wasn’t that the tears weren’t there, they were just bubbling under the surface waiting for their opportunity to spring out. At one point, I think Mags was starting to get concerned that we weren’t in the same place with our grief. It was at the moment that I realized that I had been trying too hard to stay strong for her. So hard, in fact, that it had started to make her feel a little alienated. Once we had talked it out, I became more aware that there were three areas of grief at play, my grief, her grief and our grief. I then understood the importance of keeping the three in equilibrium. The only way I can be a rock to my wife is if I myself am in a decent place.
Please don’t think that I am proclaiming that there is a ‘way to be’. At time of writing, we are 11 weeks into our journey as parents who have a baby sleeping on a star. I am still finding my way just as my wife is finding hers. I have made several mistakes along the way (e.g. bawling my eyes out on the packed train home from the pub because the wrong song came on when I hit shuffle on my phone) but am trying my best to learn from them. I find that taking the time to do the things that really engage my brain are a big help. For me, that ranges from doing some amateur woodworking to learning the basic drum rudiments. Conversely, I find it important to take the time to turn off my brain too! This is more along the ‘watching-mind-numbing-television-while-scrolling-aimlessly-through-Facebook’ lines and only works if there is enough of the aforementioned brain engagement to balance it. I also find that the most important thing to do in balancing the shared grief, my grief and my wife’s grief is to talk it out. We say what’s on our mind at all times (taking care to remain respectful of each other, of course!), down to the most basic things.
My wife found me in the kitchen one day, staring forlornly at the kettle. When she asked me what was wrong, I burst into tears and shouted “I don’t want to have veggie cottage pie for dinner, I want chips”! Sometimes, a portion of cheesy chips is all it takes to keep you going.
You can follow Bryan and hear more about his journey on his Instagram https://www.instagram.com/bkgriffin