Thursday, April 4, 2013

After a friend dies - a handy grief how-to

Over the past three years three of my friends have died. Two very suddenly and unexpectedly, and one from cancer (although it was still a huge shock, it felt slightly different in that I had attempted to prepare myself). So I have a bit of experience up my sleeve and some things to share. I'm not going to go into the whole stages of grief thing, there's millions of pages about that, so go forth and google if that's your thing.

Here are some things that I didn't know before, but are handy to understand now.  Obviously we are all different, maybe you'll relate to this and maybe you won't - but if you are reading this and you're feeling this kind of loss I really hope you'll be ok and I genuinely care about you. We are officially Bro's in Loss.

When someone I love dies, I will be out of my mind for a while and that's ok

When your body is processing such a massive concept as the death of someone you love, you're going to have about ten percent of your awareness and energy. This means it's super important to do things like look both ways when you're crossing the road, don't drive if you're not up to it, ask for help from friends or family if you just can't cope with cooking (eat your veggies - you need your strength to get through this). Basic survival things can easily fall by the wayside when all of your physical and mental resources are focusing in on other areas.

The first time someone I loved died who wasn't at the end of a long life, I happened to have an acupuncture appointment booked in on the morning of his funeral. Addam was a dear friend, co-worker and mentor. He was like an older brother figure and I was out of my freaking mind when he died suddenly. My acupuncturist Helen told me something very scary that I thought was awful at the time, but with hindsight has been very helpful. When someone is taken out of our lives who we will miss, every single cell is screaming out for them. The physical body grieves and will do so for the rest of our lives, in varying intensities. 

Geez! Thanks a LOT!... I thought to myself. But when I realised that this felt so true, that my body ached so much and I felt such sadness I didn't feasibly think it was possible to come back from, it enabled some compassion and care to enter into the equation, and things got so much better from there.

Recognise your things as your things

When Addam died, I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. Episode after episode, hour after hour. When I'd had enough, I'd have a warm bath and stare into space, then watch more. When Jordan died, it was Glee. When Rel died a few weeks ago, it was (and still is) Grey's Anatomy.

Visual valium and coocooning are some of my things. Pizza is also one of my things. On the way home from Rel's funeral yesterday, my partner and I went through not one, but two McDonalds drive-throughs (we hadn't eaten a thing all day, but still. Gross) and spent approximately $60. We had feelings to eat, and boy did we eat them.

Being in bed a lot of the time, or on the couch, with many blankets and fluffy doonas in both settings, is one of my things. I understand now that I become physically exhausted. I remember when Addam died, I had made my way into the city about three weeks later to do some podcasting at the station we worked at together and I was walking along Exhibition Street and there was a hotel I had never noticed before. I gave serious thought to walking in there, handing over my credit card and taking the worlds longest nap. I fantasised about big fluffy hotel doonas and hiding underneath them and just letting my mind go blank. In the end I remembered how broke I was, went and did the podcasting and did the same thing at home. 

After awhile, for me it moves on to obsessively listening to the saddest music I can find, and especially music the person loved. I've made an example playlist on YouTube here but they can be kind of annoying because all of a sudden in the middle of a good wallow you'll hear an ad about toothpaste and be all wtf? Whatever your chosen playlist medium, I recommend you keep it. Because sometimes it's nice to listen to those songs down the track.

Another thing I tend to do is assume I will die the same way as the person I love died. Addam had chronic migraines, hey presto - so do I and I'm convinced that they will kill me. Jordan died in a car accident - I'm terrified of driving or being in cars at all for a while. Rel had cancer - I start making plans in my head because my life will undoubtedly be cut short in the same unfair way. This fades after a time, and it's a weird way of being close and having affinity with your person.

Other people will understand

After a few weeks or a month sometimes I get an intensely short fuse, where things that are only slightly annoying before will make me want to slap a person silly, or kick them in the shin. This is another one of those 'physical and mental resources' things. All of your energies are ticking away underneath the surface, helping you to process grief and loss, so there's none left to stop you wanting to commit actual bodily harm to someone who is popping their gum or whatever. Apparently this is really common. I recommend walking away, or explaining to whoever is annoying you (if you absolutely must be around them - i.e. a work colleague) that you're sorry you're such a cranky pants, but you're having a bit of a rough time because your pal is gone and you're finding life hard to deal with. So if you could do me a favour and not pop your gum for a few weeks I'd really appreciate it and I promise I'll be back to my old self soon.

I've found that if you genuinely explain where you're coming from, people are ace and really kind. 

Be kind

Speaking of being kind - be kind to yourself. Seriously. Remember that compassion and care mentioned earlier? It really, really helps. Do not beat yourself up for not being able to be the same as you were before. You have been changed by this, and being changed by other people and your love for them is an amazing part of life. Sometimes it hurts like the Billy-o. Sometimes it lifts us up and fills us with strength.

If you need to sleep, sleep. If you need to watch their favourite movie over and over again, watch it. If you need to yell, or eat pizza, or smash plates, or be alone, or be around people, then do it.

I actually asked my GP about four months after Addam died if it was normal to still feel like total crap and want to sleep all the time, and she said yes it's fine and normal but let me know if you start gambling or sleeping with a lot of people who you don't know. Okey dokey then.

I have also learned to not listen to 774 or watch the news if every sad piece of information about loss in the world makes you want to curl up and howl for a week. Just take a break, the world will go on without you, and you can rejoin the fight for justice when you're strong again. You will be strong again, but only if you're kind to yourself and let yourself feel all the things that need to be felt.

When you have to go to work/look after kids/function in energetic ways you don't feel like

This is a tricky one. When Addam died I was working on air in breakfast radio, and there were weeks where I literally did not remember anything about that morning's program when 9 am came along and I would go home to bed. I realised this was going on and called my boss to ask if I sounded like a zombie on air, and he said to take the rest of the week off. I was lucky to get that time and understanding, but I was able to work on autopilot and apparently it didn't sound any different. Weird.

Ask for help when you need it. Delegate and just put things on hold where you can.

I don't have children so I'm not really sure what advice to share here - but from what I understand, it's good to be real with kids so they will learn to be honest with themselves and their own needs. They might enjoy snuggling up with you to watch DVDs, and entertain themselves while you're having down time. Keep them updated. Tell them you're feeling sad, or you're feeling a bit better today so let's go to the park.


Yesterday morning when I woke up on the day of Rel's funeral it struck me as so odd that the word funeral starts with 'fun'. I had this strange mood yesterday morning, I was actually pumped about going. I was excited about seeing people who understand and love Rel, and I think ultimately pleased to be doing something positive in the grief journey. Funerals are there to be healing and help us feel what we need to feel.

Every funeral is different. Yesterday was the first religious funeral I had been to since my crazy and super old Grandma died in the 80s. I wasn't raised Catholic, but my partner was, and she found it really therapeutic to be in something so old and sacred, to say the parts in the mass that everyone mumbles along with, to be a part of a ritual that was comforting and familiar.

I found it really interesting and appreciated how inclusive the priest was - he encouraged everyone to not feel self conscious if they didn't know what to say in response to the prayers, and let us know there would be a lot of sitting down and standing up and kneeling if we wanted to, and to just participate in the bits we felt comfortable to.

Halfway on the drive there I was practicing my bible reading that I was doing in the funeral (side note on that, I was so privileged to be able to play a part in yesterdays funeral, I know Rel had a LOT of friends who she loved and who love her so it was really, really amazing to be able to speak) and there was a bit about how Jesus suffered and I lost it and my bubble of high and stokedness just popped as I thought of the suffering my beautiful friend went through. I let out the sadness, and then stabilised a bit around a dim happiness to be in a group of people who understood.

I laughed a lot in the funeral at photos and the amazing eulogies spoken by Rel's gorgeous sister Mich and her BFF Dans, and felt such peace to be sitting close to her coffin. It was nice to be close to my friend again. Other funerals I haven't been able to bring myself to look at the coffin. You just gotta roll with it hey. 

I found I held it together until after I read the thing I was reading, then I cried big sad gulpy tears and that was ok because a lot of other people were too. A lady sitting in front of me turned around and held my hand and her baby stared at me and gurgled and I thought I could see Rel staring out at me through the baby.

Anyway, it was a big day, exhausting and uplifting and sad and peaceful and loud and everyone I spoke to had a massive headache by the end of it all. It was wonderful to come home and put on my jammies and curl up on the couch with dogs and Grey's Anatomy and have a big sleep and I woke up this morning feeling like I had angel arms curled around me. My bones and musces and cells all felt fizzy and lively and loved.

I'm not sure what I believe, but I feel that in this instance Rel is an angel for all of us and I'm very fortunate to have her in my corner. She's like Santa - she can be in a million places at once, wherever she's needed. If you need your friend who is gone - just talk to them. Out loud or in your head. Chances are you'll know what they would have said in response, and that's a pretty amazing gift for a friend to leave behind.

I'm going to watch Anchorman and have some porridge now, because Rel loved jazz flute and being in a glass case of emotion and putting cinnamon on things. I'm also going to not answer my phone because I feel like being quiet.

How are you going?


  1. Beautiful .... hang in there and hopefully there will be some glimpses of joy for you soon. Hard whilst grieving I know Anne x

    1. Thanks Anne, that's really nice. I had a family wedding two days after the funeral and it was lovely to be swept up in all the celebrating and happiness for a few days.

  2. Last night I went to the supermarket to buy some sweet potato chips and ended up leaving with a carrot cake, some ladybird slippers for my visiting friend Nina and a leopard print snuggy.
    I think all of these things were all spontaneously necessary.

    I returned home to resume my position on the couch, cradling a rose quartz crystal that Rel's friends had given me and Super Grover - my last gift I had given to Rel.

    Thank you for sharing this post today, it has helped me and will help many others.

    P.s Eric pointed out to me week ago when I was in the midst of planning Rel's funeral that you can't have a funeral without FUN and REL ;)

    1. FUN + REL. I love that! How funny.

      Your shopping list sounds perfect Dans, I bought two weird pink lipsticks on Saturday at Woolies. Go figure. Keep on keeping on beautiful lady xoxox

  3. Thanks for posting this Jenny :) Rel is the first friend I have lost in my adult life and I have felt affected by it, but wasn't sure to what extent. This definitely made things clearer for me. When your world is rocked- it's important to allow yourself to stop and reconnect. XX

    1. Oh Carly I hope you're doing ok, the first loss is absolutely earth shattering. I am sending you large quantities of hippie love. I promise you will get through this. It sounds like you've got a good handle on your process xoxoxox