Going through grief for the first time – and what it’s taught me about love

It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one… It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.’
-Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

I came across this quote for the first time when I was a child and it terrified me.

At that time, loss and grief were unfamiliar to me. The adults in my immediate family showed no signs of going anywhere and I took comfort in that, but Lemony’s words rattled around the back of my mind. I knew that one day I would really feel them; that my foot would eventually fall down through air with nothing beneath it and it would be worse than anything I’d ever known.

Years went by and while bereavement touched my life, the people closest to me remained. I felt increasingly lucky but at the same time my fear of going through true, heartbreaking grief kept growing.

When I reached my 20s that fear became real. My grandad Gordon, who I’ve always completely adored, developed a form of Alzheimer’s and his health began to deteriorate.

Before the illness really got hold of him, my grandad was the funniest, most mischievous, kind and caring person I knew. He would sneak sweets into my hand when my mum and grandma weren’t looking and tell me what my Christmas presents were weeks early, only if I promised to keep it our secret. He was always there to give me a lift when I needed one, Tom Jones playing from the stereo, and nothing was too much trouble for him.

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His decline spanned a few years. What started as forgotten words here and there ended with my grandad being unable to speak, walk, clothe himself or do any of the things that had always made him my favourite person.

When things were very bad and I knew the moment I had been dreading would come soon, it played on my mind constantly. The thought of losing him ricocheted around my brain, leaving me crying at the supermarket, in the shower and walking home from work.

On a balmy night in June my grandad passed away. Hundreds of miles away, I sat on my bed, holding my favourite photograph of us together and crying hot, stinging tears. As the days rolled on, pangs of grief continued to remind me what had happened and what I’d lost. The night before his funeral I listened to Tom Jones and sobbed until I fell asleep.

Saying goodbye to him at the funeral gave me a sense of closure and pushed me out of the grief-stricken limbo I’d been in. With my mind a little clearer, I started thinking not just about loss, but love.

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My grandad and grandma loved each other for 60 years and I loved him wholeheartedly all my life. Feeling the absence of a love that great, and seeing my grandma missing it so deeply, has shifted something in my mind.

Growing up, I felt that love – especially the romantic kind – is something of an easy option; that it’s a comfort to go through the world with someone holding your hand but somehow braver to face it alone.

Now, I understand how wrong I was.

There’s so much onus on having a life full of love and we’re taught that it makes everything better, but no one ever talks about the day it will be pulled away from you like a blanket on a cold night. Love, which many of us work so hard to find and nurture, will always have a time limit because none of us can be here forever – that’s a cruel fact.

My grandma spent 60 years with the man she loved, only for him to go, slowly and all at once, leaving her feeling lost. She’s struggling to remember she only needs to make one cup of tea now, not two. I can’t imagine going through the loss she has, of a life partner, but that unknown can’t stop me, or any of us, from the brave act of loving and being loved.

What I know now is that love isn’t an easy option. To love someone with everything you have, even though one day the way you feel will have to become a memory, is the opposite of easy. I’ll always remember my grandad and how unwaveringly he loved, right until the end of his life, and I’ll never let myself forget how courageous we are for opening our hearts to each other. Grief is a terrible thing but after years of fearing it, it has given me one good thing – a new perspective on just how brave love is.

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