Mental Health May

White Feathers: Dealing with grief

by Jules Stapleton Barnes

I’ve thought, read and heard a lot about grief. When somebody you love dies, it either becomes the focus of your conversations, or the thing that people most want to avoid. Strangely, either way you’re left knowing that, when death happens, we’re all thinking about it.

There were friends and family who didn’t call for months after my dad died. I understand why now, and feel ok about it. A note to those who find it hard to call, grief connects us I’m afraid, whether it pushes you away or pulls you closer.

So whether it was the big elephant in the room or the precious bird in our shaking hands, grief, when it came (as it comes to us all) decided to stay.

My dad was 62 when his body was overtaken and stopped working. Along with close family, I stood by his side and watched it change shape as his heart slowed and his frame became unrecognisable.

“Good riddance”, I said, “to these changes”. If you won’t leave his body alone, then his body must stop being such an accommodating host. Grief had already begun to help me detach my love for my dad with the vessel that carried him. I don’t think I ever equated the weakness in his body with a demise of his character or his soul.

I felt a sense of relief when it happened, to know my dad (who, in spirit at least was familiar) had found a way of breaking free and creating a safe distance.

I actually don’t imagine cancer cells as monsters, or as an evil force. Just intrusive, tenacious matter or stuff. It’s not helpful to me to imagine my Dad fighting cancer.

Because he died. And my dad was a fit, intelligent, capable, strong hearted soul. I don’t believe he was beaten, quite the opposite. He was a sensible, thoughtful and scientific man who didn’t demonise his disease but looked upon it as the facts of the end of his life. He didn’t like it, he didn’t want it to happen, but he never once told me ‘he would beat it’. I don’t believe he ever thought he was in a competition.

Instead, I think he felt angry that he didn’t have more time. That his life became about illness and suffering, and not about good puns, pond maintenance or the art of building a perfect miniature Italian fishing boat. He spent a lifetime loving the use of his body, its skills, where it carried him and what his hands and feet could do with time and care. So in his death, in the demise of this fantastic body, I think we were left with all his pent-up energy, his panic and the pressure of all the love and emotions he’d otherwise have shared over decades to come.

Where does all that energy and emotion go when the heart stops?

I’ve thought a lot about energy since he died. I remember staring at his empty shoes in the garage in the week after, studying the footprints that indented the worn rubber soles, that once marched around the garden, muddy and mowing lawns, cutting hedges and building that beautiful pond. Those inanimate shoes had received his energy and changed to accommodate it. I felt that energy too, every time I was with him and I am forever changed because of it.

Three years on, I think what I feel most strongly now is that grief is full of energy. It is full of big emotional waves of love, loss, anger, sadness, laughter, emptiness and fullness, all at the same time. It’s overwhelming and at its most powerful, left me feeling exhausted.

Time has helped hugely, but you can’t rush that of course. In time I have come to embrace the energy of grief and what it compels me to do and feel. My relationship with most family members has strengthened, developed and deepened into ties that are more meaningful than ever before. Coming together with people who share the same love for Dad, is like feeling him gifting us energy and positivity time and again.

The most wonderful thing about that, is that I don’t believe it will ever stop.

When I think of Dad, the depth of sadness and joy I feel, creates this huge surge of feeling that needs to be shared somehow, passed on and gifted back into to the world.

The transference of energy has played a huge part in my relationship with grief. And more specifically how I cope when the darkness and finality of grief hovers over me. I look for my dad’s energy in the world around me and am overwhelmed every time I find it. I find him in the speed and elegance of the birds of prey he loved, I find him in the ever-flowing energy of rivers and surf that cool my feet and I remember his gentle balanced nature every time I see a white feather.

They’re everywhere too, like daily calling cards, gentle reminders and taps on the shoulder.

I chuckle at how clichéd that sounds now, but it reminds me that everything that lived, that lives still and exists in this world, is moving and changed by the world around it. Branches bow to the wind, feathers fall, opinions and behaviour adjust, hard stones smooth under the waves and we scatter bodies back to the earth to become something new.

Not being able to see, smell and interact in familiar ways, is heart-breaking. So I know that this powerful grief is not simple and sometimes just painful. I still watch how grief has lowered the bar for the potential of my mum’s happiness, how it makes everyday life for her just ever so slightly dimmer. She was his partner, his lover and equal and her loss is different to mine. I hope in time she finds the strength to direct all that energy into a new kind of happiness. I want to lift the bar for her, but know it’s really only something you can do for yourself.

For me, it takes bravery to listen, feel and respond to Dad in new ways now, and I’mnot always brave enough. But when I am, I realise I can make use of all that he gave to the world around me and channel it into amazing new thoughts and deeds, that keep his memory alive.

And as for his energy, like the grief that formed the day he was diagnosed, it never really left.

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