ADAM ZWAR: ALL KINDS OF GRIEF
Here’s a post about grief with the caveat that I understand my grief-experiences have been pretty run-of-the-mill.
My first legitimate confrontation with grief happened when Mum died in 2001. It took eight years for the cancer she’d been holding at bay to overwhelm her. When she passed, I called her friends to tell them the news, then promptly came down with the worst flu of my life and went to bed.
The flu turned out to be a good thing because it gave me time to read the basket of letters Mum had sent her own mother while she was living in London in the late 1960s. I got to read about the dating habits of Mum’s flatmates, the nasty matron she worked under at the hospital, and her dreams of studying interior design. The letters were smart and funny and strangely helped me get to know Mum better than I had when she was alive. I particularly liked the bit where she told her mother she’d fallen in love with a man called Desmond, who’d soon be flying to Sydney on business and wanted to take her out to lunch. “He’s bald,” Mum wrote. “I don’t have a problem with it.”
I was in my late 20s when Mum passed and my grief manifested as acute weakness and confusion. I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that the world was still functioning without her in it. So I went to a psychologist, who said I needed to write my feelings down. But I wasn’t cooperative. I told her I worked at a newspaper and wrote 5000 words a week, then went home and wrote screenplays at night - so there was no way I could do any more writing. Since writing was the psychologist’s only strategy, we parted ways.
Twenty years went by, and during that time, no one close to me died. I knew I was lucky. I also knew there was a time-limit on that luck. Then, on April 27, Dad passed. It wasn’t unexpected. I was with him during his last days. We said everything that needed to be said. There was no shock.
This time, my grief was a dull, aching sadness. What haunted me was the moment Dad realised he was dying, the guilt of not being there when he took his final breath (I was getting lunch), and the recurring images of the funeral directors taking him away. In the days that followed, my nerves were frayed and I felt a profound emptiness.
My wife, Amanda, was working overseas when it all went down. She offered comfort over the phone, while our 16-year-old cats, Missy and Kaspar, provided on-ground support in the form of smooches and cuddles. Those two are super important to us. So when I got on a plane to London a week later to visit Amanda, I made sure they were booked into a cattery where they were getting the best care.
I arrived in London on Friday and by Tuesday, just as I was starting to find some sort of equilibrium, I got a call from the cattery saying Missy had collapsed overnight and had been rushed to the Animal Emergency. My reaction was not stoic. If it were a Western, I’d be the bespectacled bank manager with the gun pointed at his head. So we called the Animal Emergency and the vet put Amanda and I on Facetime. Missy appeared on screen. She was on oxygen and lying on her side. The vet said she was suffering from hypothermia, her heart-rate was low, and she had agonal breathing, which was the type of breathing a cat has at the end of its life. I wanted to know if there was hope. But the vet said Missy was “trying to pass”. And eventually she did.
The grief I felt over Missy’s passing was the desperate kind. It was the grief of not being able to cuddle her during her final moments or tell her how loved she was. I felt like she hadn’t died of complications related to years-long hyperthyroidism – but of a broken heart because I had abandoned her. She was the kindest, gentlest cat I’d ever met. I think I once saw her chase a lizard. Maybe a couple of lizards. But that was it. In the hours after she passed, my sadness presented as claustrophobia. There was no place on Earth I could escape the sorrow.
It’s now 24 hours later and I’m writing this. I’ve been crying most of the day. Is this extreme feeling of helplessness a sort of compounded grief – the result of two beings I loved dearly passing within 19 days of each other? Or did Missy’s passing just fast-track the grief I’d inevitably feel about Dad? Or is the grief of losing a pet different? Is it that you are their protector, and you feel you’ve let them down?
CS Lewis was right when he said grief is like fear. You’re weakened by it. And there isn’t much you can do to stare it down. Just when a bout of sadness passes, it’s replaced by guilt or helplessness or the haunting images of your loved-one’s final moments. What were they thinking? Were they scared? Did they feel loved?
Right now, I’m certain I’ll never be happy again. But writing this has helped. Turns out the psychologist I ignored 20 years ago was onto something.
“Give sorrow words,” Malcolm says in the play Macbeth. “The grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
Vale to all those we have loved who are here no more.
Adam’s book, 12 Summers, is available here.