REAL LIFE: After 20 years of heartache, these are the lessons I’ve learnt from grief

Once upon a time, I had a happy childhood and expected that things would get even better as I grew up. Instead, my heart was broken when my brother Matty was knocked over by a car on a dark night a mile from where we lived in Yorkshire. I was 17 and he was 16.

He lived on in a vegetative state and it was another eight years and a complicated legal process before he finally properly left this life, before we could have a funeral and try to mourn the loss of him.

Perhaps heartbreak is what happens on impact, and heartache is what we are left with

After that I did what people often do when they’re in pain: I created chaos for myself and others. As the years passed I tried to get over my sorrow, to get on with life. Good things happened – I sobered up, learned to enjoy work, made friends, got married and had a child – but I always had a feeling of being stuck, I couldn’t get past what had happened. My heart would always ache.

Perhaps heartbreak is what happens on impact, and heartache is what we are left with as time passes, when we are able to look around but are still shrouded in sadness. The following is what I now feel would have been useful for me to know.

GRENADES AND GUILLOTINES

Grenades come in all shapes and sizes. It might be something that violently steals the life of a loved one, or a diagnosis – the lump is no longer benign. It could be a discovery: your partner loves someone else or has been lying to you.

That grenade moment separates the old life from the new and there will forever be a divide. The blade of a guillotine has come down. Life as we knew it has become detached, truncated. What lies on the other side is both unknowable and unthinkable.

When my grenade struck, the well-meaning grown-ups around me peddled the line that time is a great healer. And so I waited to feel better, for life to return to normal. It never did.

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. There is a world on the other side of the guillotine. It’s not the one you know, but a new version of you is there waiting for you.

Cathy with her brother Matty in 1980

WHAT TO DO WHEN THE WORST HAPPENS

Life is not fair. Sometimes there is no meaning to what happens to us or those we love. Don’t ask, ‘Why me?’ but rather, ‘Why not me?’ It’s cruel. It hurts so much. The pain is beyond anything you could ever have imagined.

I couldn’t bear to feel the pain of losing my brother and was drunk for a decade. Then I stopped getting quite so drunk and poured my energy into my work. And work, unlike alcohol, is not a bad way of refusing to sit with the pain. Finally, I have stopped running away or drowning out my feelings and have allowed myself to become acquainted with the darker emotions of sadness, anger, fear and shame. And with time, I have felt better.

Matty’s last school photos, 1990
Matty’s last school photos, 1990
Matty’s last school photos, 1990

The important thing to remember is that being upset over a loss is not an illness; it is part of being human. I used to be angry with grief and saw it as a design flaw. I couldn’t grasp the sheer scale of the mourning, couldn’t see a purpose in a million tears.

I now have a new respect for grief and for myself as a traveller in it. I used to be frightened of loving people because I thought I wouldn’t survive losing them, but now I see that making friends with grief, accepting it as part of being human, will liberate me to love even more, and that love is always worth it.

I AM ONE IN FOUR

According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people will suffer a mental illness this year. That’s a huge number of people. It means that every one of us is closely connected to someone who struggles with their own mind. I think that’s a reassuring thing to know. You are not alone.

In some cases, loss and trauma can impact on our mental health. For me, they have always been linked. I had my first incident of depression when I was 19 and I’ve been in and out of it ever since, with side helpings of anxiety and forays into panic attacks and psychosomatic illnesses.

For me, depression is a dark, sludgy cocktail of lethargy, despair and futility. Other people talk of black dogs, but mine is all weather and weight. I’m surrounded by fog, mist, gloom and clouds. I lie about how I am feeling and always have done. Long before I experienced depression I was preoccupied with feeling normal. This emotional dishonesty sky-rocketed when Matty was knocked over and it seemed obscene in the face of his great tragedy to complain about how difficult anything was for me.

It seemed obscene in the face of Matty’s death to complain about my depression

I can still get stuck in this rut of believing that any distress I feel is ungrateful and indulgent. I deal myself a huge portion of self-loathing for my inability to simply be happy. I imagine the challenges faced by other mothers of small boys, what it must be like to be a refugee trying to take your children to safety, and I hate myself for not being able to appreciate my relatively fortunate situation more.

But there is no hierarchy of suffering. The worst thing to say to a depressed person is that they should pull themselves together. It’s not bad advice, it’s just that we don’t know how to do it and it has taken me over 20 years of getting depressed to realise that.

The siblings in 1984
The siblings in 1984

The other day I was doing a jigsaw puzzle with my son and I realised I feel a bit like a jigsaw. Sometimes I’m complete, and sometimes I’m scattered around in pieces. As I kept checking the picture on the front of the box against the pieces we were arranging on the table, I thought about authenticity and false fronts. I twigged that the less authentic I feel, the less connected I am to the image I’m projecting – what’s on the front of the box of me – so the more difficult it becomes to keep myself together, and the more likely it is that I will start breaking up.

I decided to cease making a distinction between my mental and physical health. If I had a broken leg I wouldn’t be berating myself because some people have had theirs amputated. The mind is simply another part of the body. It works hard, deserves our care and we shouldn’t feel ashamed about needing to give it some attention.

If you do all the above, I’d expect you to feel a tiny bit better after a couple of days and significantly better after ten. Mark the date. If you experience two weeks of full-on despair, go to the doctor.

Other than the above, don’t try to change anything. Don’t make any decisions. Your entire world view is bleak at the moment and there is no point in trying to apply logic to life. Keep up with your commitments if you can, but otherwise just hold on.

Future you – future us, I guess – will be glad you didn’t do anything but take care of yourself and wait for the wind to change. Remember, my darling, you are not particularly unusual – you are simply one in four.

*****

There was a final piece to be placed into the jigsaw of my brother and me. Matty died in 1998 and there was a big funeral, but we were never able to face the final stage of picking up his ashes from the undertaker.

Years later, after many slow and cautious conversations, we decided to scatter Matty’s ashes in the sea at Falmouth and then have a small slate plaque placed on my granny’s grave. I wanted him to be free and liked the notion of casting him to the winds, so that he would settle on to the sea that had delivered our father to his first chance meeting with our mother in 1968.

Cathy (left) and Matty with their friend Claire in 1989
Cathy (left) and Matty with their friend Claire in 1989

We watched Matty swirl into the air. It was exhilarating. Again and again I threw. There were bits of ash on my trainers. I saw a little on my fingers and rubbed it on my topaz necklace. It was magical to have liberated him. I felt a physical release. As I stood up, my body felt straighter, the weight across my shoulders had lifted. The world was bright. I could choose to feel Matty whenever I wanted, in the trees or near the sea.

I knew I would remember this as a happy day and wondered if my son would remember it, too. I clambered back over the rocks and offered him my hand.

The mind works hard and we shouldn’t feel ashamed about giving it attention

‘Did you call me Matthew because of your brother, Mummy?’ he asked as we walked hand in hand.

I hadn’t intended to, but as soon as the sonographer told us we were having a boy it just felt right.

‘Yes, darling,’ I replied, ‘because he was a lovely dude and I knew you would be, too.’

Cathy and Matty with their father at Christmas, 1983
  Cathy and Matty with their father at Christmas, 1983

We got back into the car, drove to the Pandora Inn for lunch and then went home to play a card game called Newmarket that Matty and I had loved when we were kids, and that Matt loves now.

It has been a long goodbye. There were a surprising number of decisions to make and I now think we couldn’t have done it any earlier because we wouldn’t have been able to bear the necessary conversations.

Cathy with her son Matthew, who was named after her brother
Cathy with her son Matthew, who was named after her brother

I can’t quite believe now that I used to get so drunk, but I don’t look back with any shame – only a deep, deep sympathy for that poor girl floundering about in all that pain.

‘I know you don’t like the word, but it’s acceptance, isn’t it?’ my mum said. ‘Don’t we have to accept it?’

I looked into the future, where I would stand by Matty’s plaque remembering old jokes before looking up and out over the deep blue Falmouth sea, and said, ‘Yes.’

  • This is an edited extract from A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink, to be published by Picador on 29 June, price £10.