Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. The five stages of grief, as proclaimed by a psychiatrist in the ‘60s.
I’ve always felt it weird to describe grief in stages. Grieving doesn’t seem a step-by-step process. There’s no pause between each phase, no smooth transitions, no way of knowing when you’ll make it through one and move onto the next. To me, grief is a snowball of a thousand emotions rolled into one. A snowball that can be thrown at you when you least expect it; tragedy the perpetrator and you the helpless victim with nowhere to hide.
“Sophie I need you” the words stabbed me through my phone screen. I knew what had happened before I’d even pressed call, before my sister’s unrecognisable voice answered, before the words “heartbeat… stopped” pierced through the receiver.
I’ve been hit by a snowball once before. I’d not long moved out of home and was living in an apartment with a few friends. In need of something to fill my heart and my spare time, I decided to rescue the runt of a litter of Maltese x Shih Tzu pups. As any 18-year-old animal lover would, I made this tiny fluff ball my everything. Fast forward ten months and my everything was brutally torn apart in front of my eyes, by a bigger dog with a busted fence.
Numb and nonsensical.
When a snowball first hits, the iciness can numb you for a while. You become frozen in time, unaware of your surroundings, making decisions but not thinking, shedding emotion but not feeling.
On the journey home to my sister, I had too much time to think. My mind went into overdrive and started flicking through all sorts of arbitrary topics. Coal mining. My first relationship. How leaves change colour in spring. I tried to drown my thoughts in music but my iPhone didn’t have enough decibels.
When you’re a long way from the source of tragedy, helplessness becomes more than just a feeling. It becomes a reality, and that reality feels like an eternity. Sleeping and eating turn into past tense verbs while any activities you’d planned for the future disappear from mind. You’re flying on autopilot, too scared to switch to manual for fear of losing control of the gears.
The second I arrived home was when the sting of the snowball set in. Disbelief, denial and despair melted over me as I opened my arms and let my sister fall into them.
A mess of confusion.
Once the brunt of a tragic event has passed, you’re left to sift through the chaos of thoughts inside your mind. Rethinking past beliefs – does everything really happen for a reason? If so, what was this one?
Wondering what everyone around you is thinking. You know they know because when you pass them on the street they give you that renowned look of pity. Or they briefly touch your arm and murmur “I’m sorry for your loss”. Who knew you could loathe a group of words so much?
Wondering how you’re supposed to be acting. When’s it acceptable to smile again? You kind of wanted to laugh at that joke, it was the type of joke you used to laugh at. Would your friends judge you for showing signs of happiness too soon? You’d probably cry not long after anyway.
Relating this tragedy to a past tragedy. Remembering the pain and trying to recall how you got through it… Have you gotten through it?
“Time heals all wounds” – the go-to idiom recited to people who’ve been struck by a snowball. We pass this phrase around so often that we don’t realise how damaging it can be.
Yes, time helps wane the memory, but so does a heavy dose of liquor. Becoming reliant on either is not healthy. And setting a time limit on your suffering or an ETA on the return of your happiness only leads to disappointment, when it’s five years on and the pain is still just as real.
Unfortunately, grief doesn’t come with an instruction manual. There’s no “tragedy for dummies” handbook. No how-to-guide for composing yourself in public when a flashback decides to crush you. And there’s certainly no right or wrong way to grieve.
All you can do is hope that the impact of this snowball will eventually be softened by love, allowing you to feel some sort of normality, and maybe even true happiness, once again.