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SIMPLE THINGS I DID TO SURVIVE, ADAPT AND CHANGE IN THE FIRST YEAR OF MY GRIEF
Today’s blog post is about my journey on how I’ve dealt with loss and adapted and changed to grief in the past 10 months. I lost my brother to brain cancer 10 months ago, and it was a three-and-a-half-year journey. In this post, I cover what I did shortly after he passed away that helped me to progress, change and deal with my grief as well as I could. So, if you are currently grieving or know someone grieving, this blog post (or podcast – see above!) is for you or them. Please feel free to share it with anyone you think might need to hear this. I hope that by going through my journey and how I dealt with loss, something resonates with you and helps you in yours.
Grief is a big topic. It’s a difficult topic to talk about. It’s definitely something that until you go through it, like anything, you don’t really understand. I’ve made this the first topic for my blog and podcast because I was reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and one of her first chapters was about the elephant in the room. She went through how grief is not spoken about and how it’s often avoided. And that’s something that really resonated with me because I have found that people often avoid the topic with me. I have family members that don’t even mention my brother’s name. It’s almost like he didn’t exist. And that can be pretty difficult to go through, especially when you feel like people are avoiding it; it almost makes you feel like the person you’ve lost didn’t exist. It can make you feel as though the grief shouldn’t be there.
So today, I wanted to go through my journey over the past 10 months and how I’ve dealt with the loss of my brother Pat. These are simple things I’ve done to help me adapt to all the massive changes that come with grief. I have also found that when I’ve spoken to other people who have dealt with loss, I can get really comforted by the fact that other people also have the same feelings. I hope the same happens here for you. But most importantly, please remember with anything, if something resonates with you, that’s amazing; if something doesn’t, let it go. While I found these things worked really well for me, everybody is different,t and everybody’s experience of grief is different,t so don’t be afraid to drop something if it doesn’t work for you.
My journey starts from rock bottom…
The thing about grief was it was mind-blowing for me how quickly your world changes. For me, I felt like I was starting from the bottom again. Grief changes so much of who you are as a person. It strips you of your beliefs, limitations, and feelings that you feel like you must start from rock bottom again.
That’s how I felt, especially being the carer for Pat for the three and a half years he was sick. Being a carer can be very taxing, both physically and emotionally, especially for a family member. Obviously, nobody wants to see a sibling suffer, and I was really, really close to my brother. So it was a harrowing and challenging journey that, at times, as many people do in grief, has to mask their emotions for the unwell person. I often kept up a pretty humorous attitude from my brother, and I don’t regret that. I think that helped both of us in our own journeys. But that’s the biggest feeling I remember – feeling like I needed to build up who I was from scratch. Now I was no longer required by my brother anymore. This is when the loss of identity kicks in.
Journaling to help me find a new sense of identity
When my brother passed away, I decided to go to the beach house with my mum for a few days to sit and reflect. Our house had been full of people, flowers and cards, and basically, while we had fantastic support, it made it hard to breathe and have space.
My strongest memory is of the drive up there. As I was in the car thinking about how much life had changed in such a short time, I realized that with the loss of my brother,r I’d also lost my sense of identity and purpose in life. I had no idea who I was anymore. Being his carer full time meant I had very few moments to myself (which I didn’t mind because I loved my brother and would’ve done anything for him). But the problem with that was when I had the space and time to have a good, hard look at myself, I didn’t know what I was looking at. I had no idea who I was or what I liked to do. I had no hobbies or interests that didn’t include taking care of my brother or spending time with him.
My way to start processing this was to get a journal – just a basic notebook, nothing fancy – and writing. So I started journaling whatever I was thinking. The most significant personal change came when I wrote a mind map asking the “have I honoured myself” in the middle. This forced me to look at how I’d responded to things in my life and how I’d treated others and myself. I also realized how much effort I’d spent throughout my life trying to control everything. And most importantly, how that had actually taken me further away from who I wanted to be.
These are some of the things I wrote around this mind map when I reflect on this question:
- Actions were and have always been out of fear.
- Doing everything I can to avoid situations I cannot control
- No lightness or joy, permanently so heavy
- Honouring others before myself.
And then I wrote some points like:
- Honouring yourself is not easy
- Keeping others first is easy because it encourages us to avoid
- Always in fight or flight
- Never really surrendered and felt like I always needed to see ahead when I didn’t
After I’d written those points down and really thought about it and reflected on my life, I then decided to write a list of what I thought honouring myself was. And I think that was a really important thing because it was almost like setting a set of rules for myself or expectations of myself to help guide me in this change that I was feeling. This is what helped me transition from the identity of being my brother’s carer to finding some ground on my own.
The things I wrote about my life to honour myself were:
- Being ok knowing, I don’t have all the answers and never will
- Choosing myself always even when it hurts others (basically to stop worrying about what everyone else thought and whether or not I was going to accidentally upset someone)
- Committing to finding myself and respecting myself
- Having the courage to openly know my values and stick to them
- Putting my feelings first while still considering the feelings of others
- Not doing something out of guilt
- Trusting my inner knowingness instead of others
- Having good intentions
- I always pursue my soul needs without worrying about what other people think.
- Honouring my body and nourishing it.
It doesn’t take the pain but at least gives you a bit of a guideline on how you want to move forward and what you expect from your life. Seeing my brother go through so much made me want to shape my life differently and look at how unhappy I was even before my brother’s diagnosis. So that’s where these lists in this mind map came from at the beginning of my journey.
Deciding whether or not to get back into work
Another big decision I had to make after my brother passed away was whether or not I would get back into the workforce. This was a big step because I’d grown up in a family where work was who you were. If you were fit enough too, you worked. The truth was, though, the 3 years of looking after Pat and now losing him left me depleted. I worried that work would not help me get back into a routine but instead be a distraction for me. Something I would drown myself in to forget how sad I was feeling. I was also aware that if I did this, I was running the risk of using work to push my feelings down so far that they would manifest in a mental breakdown many years later. That was when I decided to take the year off.
This was an exciting struggle for me because we’ve grown up in a society where work has a lot to do with our identity. The first thing people ask you when they meet you is “what do you do for a living” and when they do know you, it’s “how’s work”. So not only was taking a year entirely against the grain, but it also forced me to create a new identity without relying on work to define it.
So I decided to choose myself. To take the year off and give me the space to reconnect, find myself and most importantly, grieve the loss of my beautiful brother.
Looking back, I realize that this decision was also what gave me the power to find my own path. Instead of listening to everyone else, I honoured myself and did what was best for me. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought and did what I truly felt I needed. This helped me not only grieve but also recreate my identity as I started to listen to my inner voice again.
Finding new hobbies and interests and setting new goals for my life
After giving myself the time to breathe, I decided it was time to rediscover what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. I had learned so much because of my brother, and I didn’t want to waste all the lessons he had taught me. I didn’t want his struggle and journey to be in vain. I couldn’t go back to the ambitious, external striver that I was. I had learnt how little that really matters in the end. So instead, I decided to set some simple lifestyle goals and spend the year focusing on who I was and wanted to be.
Here are the goals that I wrote down:
- Running 5k in 20 minutes
- Run 20k (half a marathon to prep for 2020 because I wanted to run a marathon and raise money for brain cancer)
- A fantastic relationship with a guy that is my boyfriend and best friend. We laugh, joke and have fun together on our little team.
- A new fantastic direction for searching for better with the podcasts
- Meditate every day
- Workout 6 times a week
- Walking outside with the dog every day and getting fresh air
- Train my dog really well
- Go to Europe (back to Italy to see family and have a holiday)
- Fun, supportive friendships
- Yoga 3 times a week and master a headstand
- Nourish my body with unique foods
Looking back, I realize how important these goals were. They had helped me look forward and helped to start shaping my life. The last thing you can imagine in grief is moving forward without that person. So while setting goals doesn’t always help with the pain, it became a small stepping stone to how I would rebuild my life whilst carrying all that my brother had taught me.
Learning to be comfortable by yourself again
Another big stepping stone with grief is learning to be by yourself again – particularly if you lose an only sibling if you’re a carer or a partner/spouse.
Watching someone through an illness consumes you. Your life becomes solely about them. But, then, it can be difficult to be by yourself again when they pass because you’re so used to being there for them.
To help me learn how to be by myself again, I started doing things myself that I thought I could only enjoy with other people. For example, going to the beach in the morning and reading were great for me. I took long walks in nice areas. I also went out to cafes by myself.
All this helped me to be in my own company more. It was as simple as finding the things I loved to do and doing them alone.