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There's No Gold Medal For Coping With Grief

12/04/2017 4:38 PM AEST | Updated 13/04/2017 10:56 AM AEST
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People who volunteer for children's charities are wonderful, but my friend, Mrs S, is remarkable. I'm not going to identify her because she has enough crap to deal with without worrying about the internet.

Mrs S began her involvement with a children's charity when her son became ill, more than a decade ago. It's now been around two years since her beautiful son passed away, having his funeral at Adelaide Zoo. Since that time, Mrs S has remained a committed volunteer. So there she was yesterday, at the venue where she said her final goodbye to her son, actively supporting Variety at their Easter picnic, to brighten the lives of sick, disadvantaged, and special needs children. That was more important to her than her own pain. Mrs S doesn't know it, but she is bravery personified.

I'm not going to call her 'resilient'. I think that word puts an unreasonable pressure on grieving people to present themselves as if nothing has changed. The death of my child? Water off a duck's back. Because I'm resilient. I'm the same person I was before.

Instead, I'll say she has grown. For most people, grief makes you grow as a person, because it takes you so far out of your comfort zone, you have to to adapt.

Mrs S was always next-level. She was a statuesque swimsuit model, and (still is) funny as hell. And she rivals me in the non-stop-talking stakes -- a trait that has proven useful in her grief process. She talks to parents of ill children about the difficult topic of paediatric palliative care. It's important to her to use her experience to be of service to others.

Mrs S says that this is her responsibility, her duty, to help other families who are enduring what she went through. But that is absolutely not to say that anyone else in her situation, who, by simply not doing what she is doing, is handling their grief badly.

We've had long chats about how some people, who have never lost anyone integral to their existence, expect grief to have a deadline, or for the griever to 'take comfort' from 'silver linings'. And if you don't adhere to those expectations, you have failed. But there are actually no markers for 'successful grieving' -- there are no grieving gold medals -- and it's certainly not for anyone else to judge.

Death is heartbreaking, and unfair, and the best thing anyone can do is allow people to say that, because it's true. It's not attention-seeking. It's not weakness, nor whinging. It's acknowledging the truth of a situation -- one of the hardest things in life to do.

Having said that, while the silence around grief is the most isolating part for some, for others, it's a relief. There are no rules. There's no deadline. The five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- are not a timeline.

No one is obliged to find a silver lining, or believe "everything happens for a reason" or take comfort in the fact that "he died doing what he loved". If it helps make sense of things, that's great, but if not, no one needs to justify why not.

On the surface, the cliché "at least it was quick", did help me when my father died suddenly in a car accident. He didn't suffer for long; I'm grateful for that. And so what instead plays in my mind on repeat is what he saw, felt and thought in the few seconds before the other car slammed into his car, and he smashed into a building. What my last words were to him, when I had seen him six weeks before. Watching my mother sob at his office door, the room silently waiting for his return. Ultimately, the fact that he died almost instantly is not as much comfort to me as one might expect. I'll never be okay with not knowing what really happened, and not saying goodbye.

But I am okay with not being okay. I accept that as part of the truth of what happened. It's almost four years on, and I've learned a lot of lessons -- I have grown -- but I'm never going to say "He's dead. Shit happens." And I don't have to.

Neither does Mrs S. We never anticipated, all those years ago, singing Dirty Dancing songs in front of the Year 7 classrooms, that life would take us where it has. That while I was the so-called academic achiever, she would teach me more about life, grief, and bravery than any other friend. And so she does deserve a gold medal -- not for grieving 'well', but for friendship.

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