Coming to terms

“Grief’s a pressure cooker if you don’t deal with it. One day, you simply explode.”

I came across this quote a couple of years ago while reading Jessie Burton’s The Muse. It immediately struck a chord with me because I knew it to be true, because I had experienced the explosion she spoke of just over a year earlier with the death of my Nan. Three and a half years have gone by since then, and even now I’m not wholly used to the idea of her not being here.

Nan was seventy-six when she died. Not fantastically old by today’s standards, but old enough for it to not be a huge surprise. Her death was an event I had been quietly dreading for years, because I knew the day when I would have to face it was drawing ever closer. Her health wasn’t great, despite her many claims to the contrary. Every time I rang and she didn’t pick up, the possibility that she was lying dead in the flat would flash across my mind. She lived on her own, and I hated the idea of something happening and there being no one there to find her. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

The day Nan went into hospital, I was on holiday. I rang her from the airport, knowing she’d be thrilled that I was going away. I knew something was wrong when my uncle answered. He told me Nan wasn’t well and he was taking her to the hospital. Later that night I had a phone call from my Dad. I was seriously considering coming home; I was only in Dublin, so it wouldn’t have been difficult. He persuaded me to stay, saying that Nan would have wanted me to enjoy my holiday regardless, that my life did not stop because she was reaching the end of hers. He also pointed out that me cutting my trip short would not sway the outcome. She was either going to live or she wasn’t; whether or not I was in the country would not make the slightest bit of difference.

Nan was in hospital for just under a month. I think we knew more or less straight away that it was the end. Her kidneys were failing-the result of an infection following an operation she never wanted to undergo. After suffering for years with a prolapsed bowel, she eventually consented to having part of it removed and a colostomy bag fitted. It was a huge operation, one that has seen much younger people confined to a hospital bed for weeks on end. She underwent the procedure on Wednesday, and by Monday she had discharged herself. Utter. Lunacy. As always, she failed to look after herself properly, and the resulting infection would claim her life not long after.

I only saw her once during those final weeks. I sometimes feel guilty for not visiting more, but her mind was so addled by that point that she barely knew what was going on. She repeatedly asked where Josh was when he was standing at the foot of the bed, and enquired as to when I was next seeing my ex, from whom I had been separated for five years by that point. During one visit she apparently asked my Uncle Paul if he would “pick up Jayne and the kids.” Jayne was my Mom. I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear that, as I think it may have broken me.

Despite her failing kidneys, the doctors maintained that there was hope of a recovery, if only Nan would help herself. Instead she refused to eat anything except the occasional spoonful of ice cream, and her condition deteriorated rapidly as a result. Everything about her became thinner and greyer until she was barely recognisable. Dad had warned me prior to our visit that she no longer looked like herself, and that I should brace myself for the shock of seeing her. Being as emotional as I am, I was worried I would get upset when I saw how much she had changed. To my surprise, I managed not to. I think it was because I knew that that situation was not about me, and going to pieces would only have rendered it more distressing than it already was.

With Nan refusing to eat, it quickly became clear that any hopes for a recovery were futile. She had given up. The woman who had battled TB and rheumatic fever in her youth, who had lost a husband to infidelity and a daughter to cancer and soldiered on with the stiffest of upper lips, had given up. She was taking her leave of life, for all her assertions that she would “catch up on Eastenders” when she got out of hospital. And we had no choice but to accept that she wanted to go. Nan passed away during the night on Thursday the twelfth of March. I was not told until Friday afternoon. Had I known, there is no way in hell I would have gone to work that day.

I had a friend visiting that weekend. His train was due to arrive in Nottingham at six o’clock on Friday evening, and I had promised to meet him at the station. I got the call to say Nan had died around five. Six o’clock came and went, and I hadn’t moved. I just left him there, while I stood in the kitchen crying to my housemate and clutching a hastily poured glass of rum and orange juice. Needless to say, I wasn’t much of a hostess. The whole point of his visit was to cheer him up. He was going through a rough patch at the time, and I felt a change of scene would be beneficial. As it turned out, I was the one in need of cheering up.

Of course, there is never a good time for a loved one to pass away. There are, however, terrible times. When Nan died I was in the middle of Teaching Practice, the intensive second stage of my PGCE. As well as having assignments to write, I was teaching fourteen hours a week, with planning and marking taking up the vast majority of my time. I was tired, stressed and busier than I’d ever been in my life. The way I saw it, I didn’t have time to mourn. So I didn’t.

Instead of taking compassionate leave, I foolishly tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, as if I hadn’t just lost one of the most important people in my life. I thought I would be letting the school down if I took time off, or indeed gave any indication that there was something wrong. This was, of course, complete rubbish. As a PGCE student I was not ultimately responsible for any of the classes I taught and could easily have handed them back to their regular teachers. More importantly, as a person with my own well-being to take care of, I was entitled to some time off. Yet Monday morning found me back in school, planning and teaching lessons as usual, albeit not as well prepared or as composed as I normally was.

In hindsight, this was a huge mistake. In pushing through, I wasn’t allowing myself the time or space I needed to grieve. All I was doing was pushing my feelings away, sweeping them into a dark corner where they would continue to fester until I could ignore them no longer. For me, such behaviour was highly unusual, as I am normally very expressive when it comes to my emotions. Suppressing one’s feelings is, I find, not only difficult but downright unhealthy. And yet when I am deeply, chronically unhappy, that is precisely what I do.

As Nan’s was not the first death of a loved one I had experienced, I couldn’t help but feel I should have handled it better. In the weeks that followed, I tried to remember how I had coped when Mom died. The truth is I couldn’t. It was so long ago, and I was so young, with such a sketchy understanding of what was happening. As a child I had been kept on the straight and narrow by the unwavering strength of the adults in my life. Now I was the adult, and I had no idea how to mourn.

The result was that my grief would explode out of me episodically in ways that were alarming even to myself. I would fly into rages over ridiculously trivial things. One night I hurled a wineglass at my bedroom wall. I was picking the shards out of my bed for weeks. Such behaviour was so uncharacteristic, so uncontrolled, that it frightened me. Unbridled rage and destructive impulses were not things I was accustomed to feeling, but they took hold of me in the aftermath of Nan’s death. There was even a time when I considered hacking my own hair off in a desperate bid to wrest back some control. Luckily, I have wonderful friends who can talk me out of doing such ridiculous things.

It was during this time that I started to feel I had the beginnings of a drinking problem. I was sinking a bottle of wine most nights because that was the only way I would let my feelings out. I would get in from work, down the whole thing and then ugly-cry to myself in my bedroom. Some nights I would drink and drink and drink, and I’d be waiting for the hit, but the hit never came. I should have known from past experience that drinking while depressed was a bad idea. In those instances I skip the euphoria phase completely and go straight to the crying mess phase.

For almost two months I struggled. I resented school more and more, and became increasingly withdrawn from my colleagues. In her feedback following my final observation, my tutor said it was clear I wasn’t myself. This resulted in me getting so upset that she insisted on driving me home. It’s true, I didn’t feel like myself. I tried explaining this to one of my housemates one day, and he looked at me confusedly and asked, “Who do you feel like, then?”

With my moods becoming more and more erratic, and me unwilling to seek support, I suppose some sort of breakdown was inevitable. By late April I was unravelling, and in early May I went to pieces.

For me, the final straw came when the guy I’d been involved with pretty much since the start of the year began a serious relationship with someone else. Of course, he was always at perfect liberty to do so, as ours was only ever a casual arrangement. She was lovely, and very pretty, and believe me, I would not bother writing that if I didn’t genuinely think it. It wasn’t one of those instances when his choice left me scratching my head.

Still, I can’t pretend I wasn’t gutted. I missed the intimacy, obviously, but there was more to it than that. I was gutted because, as I saw it, I had lost the person who had been my main support throughout a very difficult year. It may never have developed into a full-blown romantic relationship, but we did have an undeniable rapport. We could mess about and be silly together. We had our own in-jokes, watched films together, and at Christmas we cooked dinner for just the two of us. We even spoke about travel plans, although they never came to fruition. But crucially, he had the wonderful ability to make me forget about everything else-the lesson plans, the assignments, the crappy class I’d had that morning. He was there to calm my nerves on the eve of my first ever lesson, and he was there to comfort me when Nan passed away.

If I am perfectly honest, I had hoped it would come to a natural end when I left Nottingham at the end of my course. So, when I discovered that he was in a relationship, I took it very badly. In my already delicate state, I needed the rest of my life to keep ticking over just the way I wanted it to. Of course, life doesn’t work like that and never has. I am sure that, had it happened in isolation, I would have handled it far better. But it didn’t. It happened at a time when I was already struggling to cope with the loss of my Nan. For weeks I had been soldiering on, attempting to keep a lid on my feelings. Now they broke free, and the pain I had been refusing to feel came pouring out all at once.

I remember the night of my breakdown. I was so inconsolable that he refused to leave the house until he knew one of my friends was on their way to look after me. The friend in question ran all the way from her place to mine. She coaxed me into eating the dinner I had cooked myself hours earlier, and then left on the side because I was no longer hungry. After much talking we went for a midnight walk on Jubilee Campus in a bid to clear my head. I remember standing in a field in the pitch black and screaming at the night sky. Climbing a fire escape and having a heart-to-heart about how shit life can be sometimes.

The very next morning, a decision was taken to pull me out of uni for a week. My stepmom’s decision, not mine. I would never have made that call, because being as stubborn as I am, I will doggedly soldier on until someone else forces me to quit. It is both a strength and a weakness. When I told my tutor that I wouldn’t be in school that week, she didn’t sound overly pleased. She reminded me that I was “building the foundations of my career.” I felt like saying, “No, I’m going insane.”

My stepmom knew that the reason Nan’s death had hit me so hard was because she was my Mom’s mom. Having lost Mom so young meant Nan became centrally important to me. I wasn’t just losing a grandparent; I was losing a crucial link to Mom’s side of the family. Jacqui urged me not to lose sight of the real reason I felt so miserable, even as my brain did its level best to transpose my grief onto other things. She also reminded me that anger is a normal part of the grieving process, one I had to work through in order to reach acceptance.

That week I had dinner with my friend Jess. Jess is my no-bullshit friend, of which everyone needs at least one. Perceptive, fiery and straight-talking, she can always be relied on to tell me the truth. She also makes me laugh so hard the back of my neck hurts, which she says I should get checked out as it “sounds like some kind of defect.” Jess has been with me through many ups and downs, but that week I was the tensest she’d ever seen me. She said my stepmom had been right to insist on me having some time away, because if I had stayed in Nottingham it was clear I would have snapped.

I must admit, at the time I was embarrassed by my own reaction. Going to pieces the way I did was, I felt, a spectacular display of weakness. Taking a week off to get my head straight is not something I thought I would ever have to do. I considered myself to be above such things. Breaks were for lesser mortals, or so I thought. I know now that this was utter crap. Grief affects all of us in different ways. If time away was what I needed in order to re-centre, then that is perfectly reasonable. I only wish I had done it sooner.

As well as dealing with the loss of Nan, there was also the added pressure of finding a job. I had already left it very late. Most people started applying after Christmas, with some landing their first teaching jobs as early as February. One of the teachers at my placement school repeatedly stressed the importance of applying early, as come the end of March, most of the good jobs would be gone. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel much like job-hunting in March. Or April. It was May before I submitted my first applications. In yet another example of terrible timing, my first interview was on the first Monday after my week off. I didn’t get the job. As my Dad rightly pointed out, I was not in the right frame of mind at that point, therefore it wasn’t going to happen.

In early May, news broke that Princess Charlotte had been born. My first instinct was to ring Nan and ask her thoughts on the matter. She was a huge fan of Kate Middleton (Oooh, I think she’s lovely, darling) and would have been thrilled by the news. That moment sticks out in my memory as one of the most singularly painful of that period: realising that I couldn’t ring her because she was no longer there.

In the weeks following my breakdown I had real difficulty sleeping and didn’t have much of an appetite. My friend Alice, who was amazingly supportive throughout the whole thing, told me that if it carried on she would take me to the doctor herself.

My tutor meanwhile suggested that I might benefit from grief counselling. The university offered a counselling service, although she did say it was likely to be fully booked at that time of year due to it being exam season. It was somewhat frustrating, knowing the service was there but my chances of being able to access to it were slim. In the end I downloaded a self-help guide on coping with bereavement from their website, although I never actually read it.

As the year wore on, the amount of time and effort I put into my assignments declined. That isn’t to say I just rattled them off, but they weren’t meticulously written and researched like my pieces usually are. I knew there was no danger of me failing the course, unless I did something truly dreadful at the last minute. I therefore put in enough effort to get me through, but no more than that. My final assignment came back with the comment, “I wonder if you ran out of steam,” written on it. Wonder? You know I did. I still got my Distinction at the end of it, proving that even under difficult circumstances I am capable of buckling down and getting the results I want.

Little by little I began to mend. Recovery is such a gradual process; it can be helped or hindered by a whole range of factors. The time of year, the weather, your surroundings-they all play a part. In early June I landed a job at a lovely school in Oxfordshire. By that point I was feeling much more positive. June seems to have a restorative effect on me. It doesn’t matter how awful the previous few months have been, the warm days and short nights of early summer will always make me feel better.

For me, the hardest part was not accepting Nan’s death, but adjusting to life without her in it. Since she passed away, I have been acutely aware of feeling more alone in the world, like there is one less person to fight my corner. It was beyond strange, having to remind myself that she was no longer there at the end of the phone. I was so used to ringing her whenever I felt like it, often for no particular reason. I was sometimes tempted in the weeks after her death to dial her number just to listen to the phone ring. To do so would have been both painful and counter-productive, so I am glad I managed to resist.

Even now I have to constantly remind myself that she is no longer with me. That I don’t need to buy her a Christmas present or give her “three rings” to let her know I’m safe. That I am no longer obliged to buy fridge magnets wherever I go to add to her collection. Every time the bus goes by my parents’ old house, I half expect her to get off it, to see her trundling down the path with her pull-along trolley. Whenever I pass through Wednesfield I expect to catch a glimpse of her-a slightly stooped figure in a full-length anorak, with multiple handbags and a gunmetal perm.

I have recurring dreams about her. In each one she is still there in the flat, surrounded by all her things. I can touch her and talk to her, but she isn’t alive. When I point this out she always replies with, “Oooh, I know that, darling, but I’m still here.” My brother has almost identical dreams, which is both strange and yet not strange at all.

Recently I dreamt that I covered every last inch of wall space in her flat with writing: memories scrawled in multicoloured ink. There were so many that they overlapped, letters crisscrossing and bisecting each other. When there was no more space I stood back and looked at what I’d done, and was struck by just how beautiful it was. I took that dream as a sign that I needed to finish writing this piece. Just last week I dreamt that we were talking, and I told her I’d written a piece about her. In my dream she was thrilled, which I hope is how she would feel if she were here and could read it for herself.

Josh and I talk about her all the time. We never tire of telling certain stories, often the most ridiculous ones. Like the time we stayed at the flat, and Josh managed to knock all the unused toilet rolls down the loo. Well, if you will stack them on top of the cistern, Grandma. Rather than tell her what he’d done he decided, for some insane reason, to throw them out the window. Nan lived on the ground floor, so naturally she found the soggy, ruined toilet rolls in the garden. She questioned both of us, and when Josh denied all knowledge she apparently said, “Don’t worry, I know it’s Lauren.” It bloody was not me. But Josh was the boy, so he got away with it, angelic little cherub that he was.

There was a moment last year when I could have sworn I heard her voice. I was in the kitchen doing the washing-up, and the news was on the TV in the other room. All of a sudden I heard what sounded like my Nan’s voice say my name. It was so close, like she was standing right behind me. The rational explanation is that I misheard something on the TV and my brain merely filled in the gaps. Ultimately, I know that is what happened. And yet there will forever be a small part of me that wonders if maybe I did hear her. It’s minuscule, but it’s there.

There are hundreds of things I miss about her. The way she would always say, “Chin up,” whenever something bad had happened. The way she added the words “at once” to her commands when she was annoyed. The way she indulged all my hobbies and interests without question or judgement, no matter how strange or nerdy. The amusing way her head bobbed when she walked quickly. Her strange obsession with D-list celebrities like Katie Price and Kerry Katona. I could go on for days.

Even more numerous than the things I miss are the things that remind me of her. Random, everyday things that were of no consequence before. Whenever I see blossom trees in bloom it reminds me of when I was little, and she would help me collect the fallen petals so I could make them into “perfume.” The smell of cigarette smoke will forever remind me of her. While I don’t like the smell itself, I do find that there is a comforting note in there somewhere now that she is gone. Every time I go past a certain pub on the estate where I grew up, I am reminded of the taste of cherry drops. When I was little she would pick me up from my parents’ house and we would walk back to the flat together. We always called in at a newsagent’s opposite the pub in question, and she would buy me a pack of cherry drops, which I ate as soon as we got outside. Hence, the Mill House tastes like cherry drops.

I have a great many belongings that remind me of her. Some she bought for me, mainly clothes and accessories, as well as a few jigsaws. Others belonged to her and were passed on to me when she died. There were several things I really hoped I would get, not because of their monetary value, which was nil, but because they mean a lot to me. Chief among them was a wooden toy cradle with red and green hangings that I used to play with as a child. I also have her jewellery boxes and some of her ornaments, as well as the photographs from when we were younger. Hundreds of them. My christening gown also found its way into my possession, as did some of the clothes she knitted for us as babies.

When I passed my GCSEs she gave me £100 and instructed me to buy myself some rings, as she knew that was the one item of jewellery I didn’t have. The two I chose are stunning, and whenever I wear them I am reminded of her infinite kindness and generosity. So many objects, all of them imbued with her memory.

The truth is I always thought she would be around for longer. She clearly did too, but it wasn’t to be. It saddens me that she will never meet my boyfriend, that she won’t be at my wedding or get to meet her great-grandchildren. Nowadays she is scattered around Mom’s headstone. It seemed like the best place for her. The only place, really. Dad says the two of them are probably up there right now, bickering away on a cloud. The image always makes me smile. It looks right, somehow. I’m sure Nan would agree.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.