Doing grief on your own

I thought I’d had enough unexpected events for now, but the unexpected is always to be expected. On Monday, a dear colleague and friend died suddenly of a heart attack while at work. He was 48 and has left behind a wife and 2 teenage sons.

First of all, 48 is far too young. It never sounded particularly young to me when I was on the young side of 40 but now those days are long gone and 48 is on the young side of me. And it’s just not right that someone should go so young.

In truth, to look at him you would describe him as “a heart attack waiting to happen”, and I suspect he feared? expected? he would go that way. He had been very active and fit in his younger days, continued to eat as he had then but discontinued the level of activity, and had probably got away with his vegetable-impoverished diet when he was younger only because he was young and fit.

I got a phone call at work telling me the news. My first reaction was to put my head in my hands and weep. My second reaction was to go find my friends and be with them. As it was close to the end of the day when we heard, we decided to go for a drink together. It felt right to gather, and for once the phrase “be there for one another” meant something to me. We didn’t do much apart from talk, but we were simply present with each other, drawing whatever it was we needed from the group.

News of his death came as a huge shock to everyone. In one of the eulogies, the speaker likened the impact of the news to the experience a few years back when a powerful earthquake shook the city and people responded in bewilderment, shock and disbelief.

I felt all that, but when I got home I was surprised to realise that what I was also feeling was loneliness. It’s something I rarely feel.

Five years ago at the time of the lethal Christchurch earthquake, I had been visiting a friend when the quake struck, and I have never been as afraid that I was going to die as I was that day. I’ve experienced thousands of earthquakes in my lifetime, some big, most small, but that was exceptionally violent and powerful.

I was staying not far out of town, and drove there some hours after the quake and spent the night on my own. I felt more lonely that night than I ever have before or since. All night, I was yearning for someone to tell me everything was going to be alright.

This, I realised, is the challenge of doing grief (or trauma of any kind) on your own: there isn’t anyone there to tell you it’s all going to be okay. You have to tell it to yourself, and frankly, it’s a stretch to believe yourself during times of great distress.

At first, I was surprised that my impulse had been to seek out my friends when shock, grief and loss struck again. Now, having reflected on it, I’m less surprised, and glad I did. Some things aren’t that easy to cope with when you’re on your own, and comfort sometimes comes best in the shape of friends.