The difference between grief and mourning…

May 2021

‘The language of grief is spoken in silence, often through tears and insurmountable pain but it is also spoken in great love. For every tear wept and every ounce of pain felt, love is felt tenfold’.

– Jessi Snapp

Grief is not the same as mourning. Mourning is a shorter period with lots of outward symbols and rituals that warn others of our broken hearts. Grief is the burden of loss, sorrow, missing and pain that is left behind after everyone else goes home. Grief is lonely.

Melanie de Simone

There is so much about grief I didn’t know until sudden death tore our family apart. Even after thirty months I’m still finding it all something of a mystery.

I’m regularly surprised (not in a good way) by the unexpected and completely debilitating emotions that continue to catch me off guard. Waves of sadness that still literally take my breath away and make me feel sick, deep inside the pit of my stomach. Tears that sit just below the surface and inappropriately fall without warning (making people feel awkward and uncomfortable). I’m shocked by my inability to navigate life with the ease that once felt so natural and often find the only way to preserve my sanity is to hide away (easily done in lockdown!). I’m frustrated by how much grief has changed me and how anxiety has become my new norm. Initially I assumed the old me would return once the agonising pain subsided but…

it didn’t…

and I didn’t.

I’ve discovered that mourning is very different to grieving. Mourning is the overwhelming tsunami of shock and gut wrenching desolation that hits immediately following the death of a loved one. It’s a socially accepted period of time when friends and family rally around, providing practical and emotional support to help us cope with the devastating emptiness. In some cultures people wear black clothes or an armband as an outward declaration that they are ‘in mourning’.

Despite being inexplicably horrific, it’s also a time when we’re strangely cushioned by numbness and denial – a time when friends make allowances for our weird behaviour. They ease the agony with beautiful acts of kindness – empathetic hearts trying to beat in tune with ours. Every loving gesture – no matter how small – a precious silver lining.

Grieving is the forever bit that comes next!

I look back on those dark days with total disbelief – so many whys and unanswerable questions. I find it hard to believe that we actually survived – that our whole family somehow found the strength to stand up and speak in front of 500 people at Ben’s funeral – that we even managed to organise a funeral!! I can only assume it was a combination of adrenaline, strength from God, the support of good friends (a shot or two of whiskey!) plus a dogged determination to do everything we could for Ben! It felt like it was our final act of love. We wanted the world to know how awesome he was.

But I don’t think I could do it now!! Grief is exhausting. It leaves you feeling weak and pathetic. It strips away resilience and saps confidence!

I remember walking around Tesco’s in a daze a couple of weeks after our world fell apart. I was buying yellow flowers to hand out at Ben’s funeral and wanted to scream to everyone that my son had just died. I was so angry and hurt that no one seemed to notice my pain. No one came up to me and asked if I was ok. I was frustrated that I looked so normal (that I still look normal) – that broken hearts are invisible. To everyone else I was just another face in the crowd.

It’s true what they say…

Melanie de Simone describes it well – she says grieving is the time after – the time when everyone goes home and you have to try and keep living. The time when life goes back to normal for everyone but you.

The end of normal for us was signalled by a simple phone call! That one moment changed everything.

Ben was twenty five when his beautiful heart abruptly stopped beating. He may have been an adult but he was still my darling child. The youngest of our four. He was strong, vibrant, handsome, healthy and happy – a beautiful human being with everything to live for.

The gap left in our family is like an open wound. We each grieve in our own way but the pain is like a nagging toothache. Always there. Devastating and disorienting! Every family event screams that he’s missing and however much we try to preempt and prepare – his absence just feels wrong. We often gather round his patch of ground in the meadow and talk about him – it’s surreal!! How can this have happened? Echoes of beautiful memories taunt us – an uncomfortable alliance of happiness and sadness. There are simply no words to describe how much we miss him – he was so adored; so completely and utterly loved.

He still is!

Ben’s birthday – April 2021

I know now that the death of a child sparks a life sentence of relentless grieving – it’s an agony that doesn’t have an end point. It just goes on and on and on…

Death is a date in the calendar, but grief is the calendar.

– John Pavlovitz

When I describe living with grief I’m describing living without Ben. I still can’t fully believe he’s gone – that he’s never coming home again – and don’t even want to contemplate a future without him. The constant battle between acceptance and denial is something you can never really understand unless it’s happened to you. It’s almost impossible to describe because words don’t do it justice. I think of all he should be doing now and the pain is unbearable. It’s like having a knot in your stomach that never goes away. It’s living every minute with that unsettled feeling of unrest because something’s very wrong. It’s exhausting and heavy and lonely. In fact as time moves on, it seems to get lonelier because society expects us to move on – which is both unsettling and unrealistic. We try to hide our pain but it inevitably manages to infiltrate our living. Some might say we’re stuck in grief.

We probably are.

I long to just close my eyes and drift into oblivion – to be transported to a place of peace, of rest, of total uncompromised joy. A place without sadness.

That must be what Heaven is like!

But I’m not there yet and life goes on – the clock keeps ticking. We have no choice but to keep going – praying that God will give us a new infusion of strength every single day! I’m so thankful for our incredible living family and don’t want to spoil that by being miserable and ungrateful. Yet sometimes the sadness is just overwhelming! I try to pick myself up and tell myself to be strong but grief is debilitating! I don’t choose to be sad – it just happens!

So I will keep living because Ben would want me to – trying to recapture purpose and enjoy each precious moment because I know now how fragile and unpredictable life is.

Facebook connects me to grieving mums all over the world. There is a strange comfort in sharing pain – a virtual connection of mutual togetherness! At the same time my newsfeed brings up pictures of young friends (similar ages to Ben) celebrating and giving thanks for their beautiful new babies. They describe how their precious little ones have brought a depth of joy and happiness into their world that they didn’t even know existed.

The stark comparison of life and death is a poignant reminder that we live together, side by side, in a world of opposites. One person’s joy is another’s pain! Those grieving the loss of a child have also known and celebrated that same blissful joy.

Since Ben’s death I’ve read loads of books and listened to podcasts about grief – mostly the loss of a child. Delving into the experiences of others has really helped to put my feelings into perspective. It’s such a relief when emotions are validated – to discover I’m not the only person going crazy!

One thing I’ve discovered is that for most of us the first year is unbearably horrific, but surprisingly the second is even worse!! Getting through those torturous firsts actually provided a focus! Few books seem to go beyond the second year which always leaves me wondering how they’re coping now! I’m into my third year and nothing has really changed – if anything it’s getting harder as memories with Ben are slipping further and further into the past and the thought of living without him for the rest of our lives is sheer agony.

Parents whose children died years ago reach out to hold the hands of those just starting on this heartbreak journey. They tell us that the pain never goes but that it does slowly become more manageable.

And I’m so thankful for the little cluster of faithful friends who continue to patiently walk with us – making allowances for our unpredictable and messy emotions; unconditionally accepting the odd people we have become. Their greatest gift is that they talk about Ben – they speak his name with ease! So simple yet so powerful and means the world to us.

Gradually, with their help I can feel my broken heart softening. I’m trying to let my love for Ben become more dominant than any agonised feelings of loss but that involves reconfiguring and redesigning the workings of my heart. I haven’t managed to do that yet! My maternal instincts are still like raw nerve endings that flinch with spasms of shooting pain every time I remember he’s gone forever.

I miss him so much.

Healing doesn’t come easily or naturally because our children aren’t meant to die before us. It’s a long drawn out process full of ups and downs – good days and bad days. I’ll never know the happiness I once knew so all I can do is keep plodding on – savouring the awesome beauty that still exists in my life whilst keeping Ben’s beautiful love wrapped tightly around my heart. I can’t change the past and I’m trying hard to not let it define my future but it has changed me – changed us!. And if grieving lasts a lifetime then so be it – because grief is simply love!

I often wonder if the pain will ever really ease because I now know the plain and simple truth – the more you love the more you grieve 💛

This love – it is our love. It survives where they are not. It is the love that occupies the space in our hearts and in our lives where they once were.

This love saves a sacred space for them. It exists only because they lived. It remains even though they left. It is neither theory nor fiction – it is an incredible, powerful truth.

The love of a bereaved mother is an implausible, fierce, interminable love that defies all odds

⁃ Jessi Snapp of Luminous Light Studio