Grief

I have more experience of grief than most people in my age group. I do not believe this makes me an authority on the subject. I simply wish to share my learning on the matter because I think that grief is so poorly handled and understood that it is actually quite the problem. This post was inspired by an article about Martyn’s Law. I have to start out with my opinion on this story, and this is a genuinely, strongly held conviction of mine:

Never pass laws named after dead people, and especially never pass laws named after dead children

Now, to be clear here, I wish not to trivialise anyone’s loss. Bereavement is hell and the loss of a child is something I would not wish on anyone. The issue is thus; that a grieving person feels entitled, and nobody wishes to say ‘no’ to the demands of that person. The problem is that someone recently bereaved is precisely the last person who ought to be advising anybody about anything, let alone laws that will be almost impossible to repeal. Inevitably Martyn’s Law, which is going to turn accessing a concert venue into the same, pointlessly miserable process as boarding an aeroplane, is the result of a campaign by a bereaved mother.

Martyn’s Law is a bad law, but even if it were a good one the motives for passing it are toxic. It is the manifestation of ego, of selfishness masquerading as dignity. Just as the flowers that are left at a car crash site are not eternal, so it ought to be with all acts of commemoration. Life goes on, and passing laws that memorialise the dead do nothing other than vex the lives of others and stop the bereaved from looking inwardly and dealing with their loss. It becomes a trophy of indulgent behaviour, a focal point for bad reasons to avoid confronting the agony of death and tragic loss.

My mother passed in sudden, tragic circumstances around a decade and a half ago. This was an episode in my life which became the subject of a successful lawsuit and a fitness to practice hearing against her GP. If you really want to know death first hand then getting a call at around 2pm to say that your mum is sick, only for her to be dead by 9pm will do the trick. I do not wish to indulge my grief, that is private. What is teachable is how differently people react. It may surprise you to learn that, where my father and sister went after the doctor with a vicious and vengeful fervour, hoping to have him convicted of negligence, dismissed and potentially imprisoned, I felt no such bitter, savage emotions. I absolutely believe(d) both then and now that it was right to hold him accountable for his actions, and I understand the anger of someone who has been wronged but I do not feel angry about him and I did not wish to destroy him. Why? Because I do not believe that my bereavement, grief and loss entitle me to anything. Not a damned thing.

The doctor got it wrong. It is as simple as that. He was censured and we received a settlement. Am I furious? No. By god I wish he had come to see my mum when she was first taken ill. The conclusion was that the delay in consulting her symptoms cost her life. I am not bitter, however. He did not mean to harm her, he just made the wrong call. The problem is that such calls have consequences that are out of all proportion relative to the size of the error. He made a mistake. That is all. His ruination would mean that fewer people would practice medicine and those who do would be a little more scared to make brave diagnostic calls and prescribing decisions. Call me crazy if you like but if I am potentially fatally ill then I want a doctor with the balls to make the call, not a timid mouse who fears the lawsuit he or she might face. It sucks that my mum paid the price and I lost her when she was only fifty four years of ago but it’s going to happen sometimes, and the dumbest thing you could do to a superb physician who has bettered thousands of lives would be to ruin him purely as an act of indulgence. What would be the point of retribution? Do I think he sleeps soundly despite his error? Maybe. I hope he does, not just for his patients’ sake but also because the pain I feel at the loss of a life that should have had thirty or so more years in length is mine to bear. Subcontracting it to him in order to make him feel as bad is pointless. Life will bring him his own loss and grief. I have no business insisting that he suffer mine also. He already cost a patient her life and I do not for a second believe that he ever wanted to practice medicine for reasons that were ignoble. All that aside, how weak it is to demand that others also suffer purely so they know your misery. How do I enrich the world if I behave in such a way?

My father, in his grief, has succumbed to anger and bitterness. It has twisted his soul and destroyed his family and his old age. Of course, losing the retirement of which you dreamed is horrible and I understand, but what are we to do with that? I remember after mum passed, he would rage at anyone and everyone. He once spotted a parking space when going to the supermarket and when another person parked in it – my dad was nowhere near it – he followed the driver and assaulted him. His justification began with ‘after what I have been through’. He believed that his loss entitled him to something from the world, and he is now so bitter, twisted and malevolently narcissistic that I do not believe that he can be helped. The GP error cost him his retirement with his wife, but his bitterness has cost him far more, and which is more, he did it to himself. He has allowed grief and bitterness to twist and gnarl his spirit to the limit where what good there was is long gone. Now he rages bitterly at a world that owes him nothing.

For a man to handle grief well, and by that I do not mean it will be easy, he must decouple his ego from his loss. Death is a fact of life. It happens to all, some more than others, but it is something to be assimilated and handled with dignity. It is hard to pick up one’s cross at the best of times, even more so when bereaved, but there is a wrong way to do it. The right way is deeply personal and thus difficult to describe as it varies from person to person. The wrong way is simple. Indulge your ego and entitlement in your grief. That is how to grieve badly. Do so and you will never heal. Go ahead and allow existential rage to consume you. You might feel good temporarily but in the end it is still you who is consumed.

The truth is that when grieving you must forgive yourself. All of the missed opportunities and wasted years are gone. When my time comes I will not be angry at my children for the time they did not spend with me. What would upset me most is the notion that they might stand at my grave and weep for the loss of that which will be gone forever. So forgive yourself. Chances are your lost loved one already has and if they haven’t then they are not worthy of your consideration.

My father grieves like a clenched fist. If he softened and opened up then there is so much still to take from the world and so much life can give to him, but as long as he is clenched like that fist all he can do is cling to what he has – bitterness, hatred, resentment and anger.

My final thoughts are these: we all deserve the time to grieve when we endure loss. We deserve compassion, empathy and understanding and the truth is that if you use that loss to gain something you do not merit, such as a law that will impact others negatively, or you simply believe that the world owes you a favour, then, quite simply, you are a predator. Grief is the camouflage for your predatorial nature. Worst of all, in the end you will only destroy yourself. It is hard to forgive your enemies, perceived or otherwise, and it is hard to let go of pain and anger when nobody would blame you for feeling that way. Even harder still is to summon the courage to look in the mirror and accept that the world does not owe you anything for what you lost. A better way would be to think that you owe it to the world to fill the gap left by whomever has left it and for whom your grieve. What can you do to ensure that their loss will produce something of value? My mum is dead. It is unjust, unfair and unfinished, but she is dead. It serves no good purpose for me to inflict that upon the world. However, what I can do is use the memory of the pain to soothe that of another, to empathise and show compassion to someone else. This is surely a better way.