I tend not to cry as much as I used to. I still have my moments though. I sometimes cry in my sleep and wake up with wet cheeks. Sometimes it all wells up under my eyes but I get a handle on it and it subsides. And sometimes I have those epic biblical cries with the gnashing of teeth and the rending of cloth.


Stellaaa! (Source)

But I really don’t cry all that often anyway. It’s just kinda sad all the time, so there’s not really any point crying. Crying is such a reactive thing and the grief is always there. If I cried every time I felt sad, I’d hardly get anything else done.

The only problem is the car. When I’m driving, I have enforced alone time. An hour’s drive is a whole lot of unwanted thinking time. I’ve tried listening to music, talk-radio and podcasts. Nothing is a big enough distraction. If I’ve got a passenger, I’m fine. But if I’m on my own, I’ll be crying while driving. Or criving. Having a big old crive.

b (Source)

She should really have that on speaker. (Source)

It can get pretty bad sometimes. Especially when I don’t realise I’m doing it at first. It’s not the big gasping, sobbing sadness that overtakes me. It can just be a steady stream of tears leaking out of the old tear ducts. Like a leaky tap. I remember one drive where I had the windscreen wipers going for a few rounds before I realised that it wasn’t rain that was blurring my vision. It was in fact a completely sunny day.

Maybe this would help? (Source)

Maybe this would help? (Source)

If I really want to torture myself, I put on the CD of music we played at his funeral. That’s a kicker. It’s actually some really beautiful music. The kind of stuff I would listen to ordinarily. But there are still a couple of tracks I skip every time. There’s one in particular that I can remember him singing along to, and I can’t help but hear him singing whenever I play that track. It should be something that makes me smile. I’m sure I’ll get there one day. But it’s still a torture track at the moment.

Playing it on repeat was probably a mistake. (Source)

Playing it on repeat was probably a mistake. (Source)

I read recently that different kinds of tears look different under a microscope. The photographs are the most beautiful artworks. Check out a post about it here. So ‘tears from laughing so hard you cry’ look entirely different to ‘tears from cutting onions’. They’re almost like snowflakes. I’d love to see a series of each kind of tear to see how much variation there is. Whether ‘tears of elation at a liminal moment’ look the same every time. And whether that’s the same for every person. Here’s what tears of grief look like.

g (Source)

Shiny. (Source)

It’s strangely comforting to think that my tears of grief look so beautiful magnified under a microscope. Perhaps I’ll try to think about that next time I’m criving. To be perfectly honest, I crive far less often that I used to. But it still happens often enough to warrant a term of its own. Feel free to use it.

I like to think of Rob McKenna as I drive. He’s a minor character is Douglas Adams’ ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’. He’s an ordinary lorry driver who can never get out of the rain. It’s raining on him every moment of his life. He knows that sunny skies exist because he can see them in the distance but, by the time he drives there, it’s raining there too. He even begins to catalogue different types of rain, like ‘breezy droplets’, ‘dirty blatter’ and ‘light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery’. He absolutely hates the rain and is always sad and cranky. But the chapter ends in the most gorgeous way: “And as he drove on, the rainclouds dragged down the sky after him, for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were misterable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.”

Why does it always rain on me? (Source)

Why does it always rain on me? (Source)

Isn’t that glorious? So I think of the Rain God who doesn’t know he’s a Rain God. And the clouds wanting to water him. And I wonder that perhaps I’m not some kind of Grief Goddess. Like Nienna of the Valar. Obscure Tolkien reference, anyone? Though I always thought ‘Lady of Mercy’ was a big of a raw deal when all the other gods and godddesses has such sweet powers. Maybe I should catalogue the tears. Or imagine the tears under a microscope. Or maybe I should just start taking the bus. I don’t have any answers for this one. As always, it’s just going to take time.

Time? Or perhaps some sweet Lichtenstein inspired makeup. (Source)

Or perhaps just some sweet Lichtenstein inspired makeup. (Source)

[Featured image source]


The Winter I Chose Happiness

The thing about happiness is that it feels abnormal.

I was out with a friend recently and before I even realised quite what I was saying, the words slipped out of me. I said, quite naturally, “I feel happ-” before I suddenly clapped a hand over my mouth.

Did I say 'happy'? I meant 'I'm feeling crappy'. (Source)

Did I say ‘happy’? I meant ‘I’m feeling crappy’. (Source)

I managed to recover my composure before my friend even realised what I’d said. It didn’t seem to resonate with them as being anything out of the ordinary. But it shocked me to the core. Happy? What is this ‘happy’ of which you speak? I haven’t felt happy since my brother died. And may never again. Certainly not until the grief fades and I recover my sanity. That could takes years yet. It must have been some mistake. I must have been in Pretendland too long and was just feeling a bit calm … or vague maybe?

But the very next day, I found myself blurting out, “To be honest, I actually feel happy.” My friend smiled, “That’s great!” I shook my head, “No. Not so much.”

I thought maybe the feeling was specific to that weekend. To being out with friends. To straying too long in fairyland with spritely, lively people who don’t share my problems. I figured that getting home, settling back into the drudgery, would return me to the comforting normality of grief and depression.

But I stayed happy. It bled into my week like indelible ink across paper. It soaked into my hands and for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off. It wasn’t just me that saw it. I met up with a few friends and family members who, all independently of each other, commented that I looked happy. Or at least looked different. Even my psychologist remarked that he hadn’t seen me laughing and smiling so much in all the time he’s known me. Scary when even your psych notices. I thought I was going there to vent all the sads. Who laughs their way through their psych session? Crazy people like me, clearly.

b (Source)

Oh god get it off! Get it off! What gets happiness off? Turps? Methylated spirits? (Source)

It’s strange that I should have such an aversion to feeling happy. I mean, it’s just an emotion. Completely natural. But after more than a year and a half of being perpetually depressed, down to the depths of despair … happiness just doesn’t seem like a very natural feeling. It feels fake, forced and like a betrayal. Is it betraying my brother to feel happy? I’m really not into the whole “your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad” as I tend to respond with “yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead. But he doesn’t have a say in the matter. And he certainly isn’t here to tell me to feel otherwise.” But truly, is it even okay to feel happy now? Is it too soon?

I disagree with the concept that grief is a linear experience. As though you get through a stage of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then a long stint in depression, and then find yourself at the sweet endpoint of acceptance. In fact someone even said, in all seriousness, with no hint of irony, “So which stage of grief are you up to?” Seriously? Do you think that I just tick them off the list on my way back to sanity? Gosh that would be a hell of a lot easier than actually living with grief. At least you’d know where you were up to and how long you potentially had to go.

b (Source)

“Your ignorant question is taking me back to my anger stage!!!” (Source)

So I can’t just say that I’m finally up to the shiny acceptance stage just because I’ve been feeling a bit clearer. I mean, my head’s restored some clarity. I can think a little clearer. I still haven’t recovered the memories and the dreams are still as bad. In fact, the night terrors got so bad I woke up one night screaming and then the next night choking. But the tiny space I’ve managed to clear in my mind is wonderful. I can go and sit in the corner and look out upon the clutter with some hope that I can chip away at it over time. Make that tiny space bigger. Liveable. So I’m not hiding there, but actually living there. In an immaculate mind.

b (Source)

My mind is a mess! (Source)

But the thing is, I have no idea how long the happiness will last. It’s been fairly consistent lately. And not dependent on external factors. I have had some of the worst panic attacks since the event in the last few weeks. One of my most recent ones lasted for about 3 or 4 hours, after which I became virtually catatonic. And yet I sort of bounced back to a happy state once it was finally over. It seems that my base line has lifted just a little. I still get just as despairing and wretched. But maybe now I’m not entirely inconsolable. But who knows? This could be the eye of the storm. I’m trying really hard to believe that I’m healing. But like I said, it’s not linear. And it’s been really hard to tell anyone that I’m feeling a bit better because I don’t want people to just assume that I’m cured and not take any subsequent depression seriously.

b (Source)

“But I thought you said that you were cured. You can’t just keep playing the grief card to get attention, you know.” (Source)

It’s been really lovely being able to default to a kind of contentedness. But I think my doubts have been eating away at it a little. I’ve been resisting it, shrugging it off, playing it down. And I think if I kept this up, eventually I could whittle it down to nothing. And retreat to the safety of grief. I know grief. It knows me. We don’t like each other. We loathe each other. But we’ve tolerated each other for so long now that I don’t really know how to be anything else. It would be so easy to carry the grief around forever. Become one of those bitter people that others look at and whisper, “Why are they like that? What happened to them?”

And so I find that happiness is a choice. My base mood might have lifted, but it’s a daily choice to keep it there. Not to let it slip back down. I’m not going to be happy everyday. I probably won’t be happy most days. But the days that it seeps back in, I need to embrace it. It’s the last day of winter as I write this. And it will be the first day of spring when I post this. It may be completely arbitrary but it seems rather poetic that a change of seasons should represent a definitive change in self. Grief isn’t a linear journey. But maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe I can leave winter behind and move into spring. Growth. Rebirth. The frost melts from around my heart and I find it’s replaced with blossoms. Much like the honey-smelling white blossoms that used to adorn our old plum tree.

I’ve been listening to “The Winter I Chose Happiness” by Clare Bowditch as I write. The album ends with her singing, “are you ready yet / are you ready yet / to be happy?” And I can honestly say yes. Yes I am. I choose happiness.

[Featured Image Source]

“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do”

The thing I hear most from people is “let me know is there’s anything I can do.” This is such a lovely thing to say. Many people have said this to me, even as recently as last week. And it truly is a caring, generous sentiment. The only trouble is that we tend to say this to people who aren’t in a place where they’re capable of answering. When my brother first died, I was unable to eat or look after myself physically. Much less delegate tasks or make specific requests. And so the responsibility of asking for help is on the person that’s suffering. In fact, I was reading one article that said that not only is it difficult to work out what you need, but it’s hard to remember who offered help and to work out who would be the right person to help with that particular task.

I still find it hard to ask for help now. But I’m realising that so many of us want to help but have no idea what would be helpful. And so I started to wonder whether, instead of wanting to know if there’s anything you can do … to just do something of your own volition. Or to just find a thing that needs doing and do it. So here’s me saying , “Yes there are anythings you can do. These are things. See things now. Do things do.”


I think that absolutely above all else, listening is the most helpful thing. A lot of my friends have taken me out for a hot beverage and asked, “how you are you really?” It’s been rather a pleasure when we’ve got passed all the “fine thanks, and you” pleasantries and  they’ve been genuinely interested to hear how I’m coping. And some of the most significant experiences were when people asked follow-up questions. I didn’t just vent and then they swiftly changed the subject onto happier things. They listened. They responded with further questions. And then they listened some more. And they didn’t try to summarise what I’d said and contextualize it as being a stage in a linear grieving process, as though abject despair can be repackaged as “just something you’re going through, but it’ll get better soon”. Instead they agreed that things were just really bad. One of my closest friends said several times: “That’s really shit, lady.” It totally is.

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

Sad Panda is sad. (Source)

I think what deters proper listening is not wanting to mention the war. I had another friend who took me out for hot beverages and was very adamant that they wouldn’t bring up “the whole grief thing” so as to provide me with a nice happy outing where I didn’t have to think about it for a while. I can totally understand that people would want to avoid “mentioning the war” so as to not upset me, not make it worse for me. But it just doesn’t work like that. I always think about it. Constantly. And NOT talking about it, actively avoiding it, is harder. Not mentioning the war makes it worse.

There’s an episode of Fawlty Towers where some German guests have arrived at the hotel and Basil, after receiving a serious concussion, is trying desperately hard not to mention WWII. But the more he adamantly tries not to mention it, the more it slips out in completely inappropriate ways. Until the woman in pink is sobbing loudly into her plate.

I think people get a bit “Don’t mention the dead brother. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright.” Well let me just totally fix a misconception here. DO mention the war. Do ask me how I am really. It’s ok to ask me questions about what happened. And it’s totally ok to mention my brother. I love hearing stories about him. In the time between his death and the funeral, the only time I came out of Catatonia was when someone found a video of my brother dancing like a complete fool. It was lovely to see him in glorious 3D again. I try so hard to keep him in my head. I try to animate the photos I have of him. I try to bring the memories back. So telling me things you remember about him, your memories … that’s what actually jumpstarts my brain. He may be gone from the world, but he still lives in my head.

bird brain

I hope he likes living in these birdhouses I found. (Source)

Care Packages

In the first few weeks when I needed round the clock babysitting, I stayed with some friends of mine. They asked me what they could get me. They were going up the road to buy some things. I said that I had absolutely no idea what I needed. They responded that they were just going to buy some random things and they didn’t want to get the wrong random things … so I may as well put in a request. “Uhh… iced tea…” I stammered out, “and a jigsaw puzzle…?”. “Done,” they replied. And so they returned within the hour with many litre bottles of iced tea in every flavour and a really beautiful jigsaw puzzle of a sunset reflected over a woody lake. They said that they panicked as they didn’t know what kind of tea I liked. Luckily I like EVERY KIND. I lived on that goddamn iced tea for the best part of a month. And I chipped away at the jigsaw daily, imagining that every piece I found a home for represented a tiny piece of me that I could somehow put back together.

iced tea

“One of your best everything, very yes please.” (Source)

Care packages are such an old fashioned thing in my mind. The old cliche of the hosuewives turning up on the doorstep with armfulls of tupperweared (tupperworn?) casseroles or baskets of muffins. But they have been invaluable. A friend of my mum’s sent her a whole box of wine. What a fabulous friend. And a colleague of my dad sent him a massive box of groceries and fancy pastries. Sometimes the food that people would bring over for me would be the only food I ate all week. When you’re barely able to dress yourself, making meals out of raw ingredients is a Herculean task. I had to ask my partner to explain to me how to make a sandwich because two crackers and a jar of jam just weren’t going together in a logical way. “Honey,” I pleaded, “Why won’t it sandwich? Why does everything hate me?”

I’ve also had two different friends mail me tea. In the mail. I don’t really get excited about anything anymore. I hear that’s common with depression. But seeing a huge package from T2 turn up on my doorstep is pretty damn exciting. There was one day in particular, quite recently in fact, where things were particularly bad. Some days things are bad, other days things are worse. I don’t know why an orange cube of loose leaf tea pulls me out of that state. It seems like such a simple thing. But the gesture of choosing one, buying and mailing it to my address just means the absolute world to me. Plus T2 keeps bringing out new feature teas. That whole banana range? And now the chocolate range? When will it end? Won’t somebody think of the children?


Orange (packaging) is the new black. (Source)

Days Out

I had some friends contact me who wanted to take me out for a high tea. This was no ordinary high tea. They’d booked a hairdresser and makeup artist to do proper vintage styles. We had 50s-inspired dresses, pearls and little lace gloves. We went into the city, dressed to the nines, and had a glamorous high tea at a posh hotel. And there was champagne on arrival, scones, the whole thing. It was a really incredible day out. It would have been a nice day even if I hadn’t had been grieving. But when I was suffering from frequent panic attacks and agoraphobia, it was a really gentle and generous way of coaxing me out of the house for an afternoon.

high tea

It’s harder to sit around the house and watch entire seasons of tv shows when I’m looking as good as this. (Source)

The same friends also came over to my place one day with a whole stack of baked goods and a picnic blanket. And we sat in the local park and talked about all the big things while the hot sun drifted down through the gum leaves. That was rather pleasant. One friend had brought along her young daughter who was entirely too young to understand why I was upset. At that age I would have been terrified of a noticeably distressed adult. But she came over to me, of her own volition, and gave me a huge hug. Threw her tiny arms around me. It really meant a lot to me.

Friends with children have been a haven to me. It’s something of a small relief to sit around chatting with a friend while a kids movie plays in the background and their miniature offspring entertain themselves, oblivious to the complexities of my world. My mum and I talk about having heartbeats in the house. There’s solace in being alone, but feeling completely alone can lead to panic. So it’s nice to just have someone or something that has a heartbeat in the same house as you, even if they’re in a different room. And so children are nice. Animals are nice. Or in the words of Pratchett’s Death, “Cats. Cats are nice.”

Kitty hug

“Ok hoomin, but dis is last hug.” (Source)

Free Things

Can’t afford to take your friend out for a spa day or throw a box of wine at them? Free things are just as meaningful as non-free things. Perhaps even moreso. A few friends wrote me letters. Getting mail, actual handwritten letter with stamps on the envelopes, is a thing of joy. You don’t even have to write about things if you want to avoid mentioning the war. Just shove some shiny pictures you cut out of magazines that you stole from the doctor’s waiting room into an envelope and splurge on a postage stamp. I love mail. Mail. Love.

g (Source)

Handwritten letters tied up with string. These are a few of my favourite things. (Source)

I also had friends and relatives who would just post funny cat pictures, links to knitting patterns or memes of my favourite shows to my Facebook wall. I think it’s just that basic human contact that counts, you know. It almost doesn’t matter which medium you contact me through or exactly how your communicate. It’s just reaching out at all. So call me. Check on me. Let me know you’re still out there.

Leaning Out

A friend sent me this article about ‘ring theory’ which basically suggests that when someone is in a crisis of any kind, they are in the centre circle. If you can imagine concentric circles around the centre, then everyone else in their life fits into rings around them. So the person who is suffering is in the centre. Their partner or immediate family is in the next ring out. Their close friends further out than that. Then even further is perhaps extended family, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbourhood gossips, lackeys, flunkies, minions, exes. Or whatever. Look at the picture. The picture explains.

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

Now I am the Lord of the Rings! (Source)

The whole point of this is that people in inner rings can lean outwardly for support. But you can’t lean on the people in smaller rings than you for support. So people in my extended family shouldn’t really be leaning on people in my immediate family for support. They need to lean outwards to their own support networks. And likewise, you need to offer comfort inwards. So if you are on, say, the fifth circle out … it’s unreasonable to be calling up someone on the third circle in and dumping all your fears and worries on them. They might not be the person most affected by the tragedy, but they still need comfort. And they’re probably being a pretty big support for the people further inward than themselves already. It’s a useful theory I think. Does it work for you? I’d be interested to hear what you all think of it.

And another thing … if you’re still interested in the ‘what not to do’ side of things, the best article I’ve read so far has been this Cracked article called ‘The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React To Tragedy’. And believe me, I have heard all five of these responses many times over in the last 18 months. Including the “If I had been there, this wouldn’t have happened’. Seriously. People have said that to me.

In Conclusion

Maybe just check on the people in your life who are going through things. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re really going. Buy them flowers. Or steal a few sprigs of lavender from a neighbour’s garden. Write them a letter or just hand them a post-it note saying ‘U OK?’ Never underestimate the power of turning up with cupcakes. It doesn’t really matter what you do in the end, just do something. I’m loathe to say something as trite as ‘it’s the thought that counts’. The action still counts. But I guess it doesn’t matter how grand or small the action is so long as there’s thought behind it.

Also I now want lavender cupcakes. Ending post here. Need to bake!

[Featured image source]

The Leaderboard

The leaderboard began as a joke. It then became a morbid competition. But ultimately it’s a way of coping with some of the truly awful things that people say to us.

I remember standing around my mother’s kitchen drinking huge mugs of tea: my mother, my sister-in-law and myself. This was only in the first few days after he’d died (her son, her partner, my brother). There had been a lot of phone calls to inform people of his death. Endless phone calls. Each one distinctly traumatic. Not a single person reacted to the news in quite the same way. We all got very good at framing the story and I can tell it now without any emotional involvement. But it never gets easier dealing with people’s reactions. They’re always unique. They always ask different questions. They always need different details or different reassurances. It’s draining. There’s got to be an easier way. I mean, do people still use singing telegrams?


“Hello my baby, hello my honey, your childhood friend is dead.” (Source)

I spent a few hours pacing up and down my mother’s front lawn until I wore a track into the grass. All the while, I called just about everyone in my phone from A-Z. It seemed slightly callous ringing people in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance or immediacy. But they all needed to be told. And I wanted them to hear it from me. So starting with ‘A’ made just as much sense as anything else.


“Hello? Amy Adams? I have bad news… Also do you have Zachary Quinto’s number?” (Source)

I guess, statistically speaking, after that many phone calls you’re bound to get a few unusual reactions. But there were some that were unpredictably unfeeling. One of my friends told me that they were saddened by the news and in the next breath said, “Oh did I tell you, I’m planning a trip to Europe!” Someone else remarked, “Funnily enough, this is the second bit of bad news I’ve heard today!” And another friend stammered out in monotone, “There’s nothing I can possibly say to that, so maybe I’d be best just not saying anything. Goodbye.”

And so we met back in the kitchen with our respective teas, our mobile phone screens fogged over with tears, and shared some of the worse responses. At some stage incredulity turned into exasperated laughter, until one of us said to the other “I think you’re winning!” And so the leader board was born: an imaginary scoreboard that kept a running tally of who had had the worst thing said to them.

b (Source)

“Hooray! I’m winning at the game of having friends who lack empathy! Woo-hoo!” (Source)

I found it easy to forgive some of the more inappropriate responses that I’d heard in the first few days. I had to remind myself that people were hearing the news for the first time and were clearly in shock. So when they needed me to stay on the line to console them until they stopped crying (rather than them asking me how I was coping), I tried to remember than none of us had really done this before and we were hardly going to be good at it. But it’s the outrageously insensitive things that people have said to me in the months since that I find harder to forgive. Would you like examples? Would you like examples organised into categories?


“I know exactly what you’re going through. When my cat died, I was so traumatised. I even had to take a few days off work.”

“That is such a coincidence. My next-door neighbour’s dog actually died last week.”

“I hope you sleep well. If you get lonely during the night, just remember my dog is watching over you. [She then points to urn of dog’s cremated ashes on the mantelpiece.]”

b (Source)

Yeah well, my brother left paw prints on my heart too. (Source)


“It was a really bad year last year, as you know. Yours was worse. Oh no, actually mine was just as bad.”

“Sorry I can’t come to the funeral, but I went to one last year and I’m just a bit over it”

“You have no idea what grief is like. When I lost my [distant relative], I was inconsolable. I never got over it. And that was 15 years ago. You have no idea what that’s like.”

b (Source)

Or when I saw one of my relatives and, before I’d even walked through the front door, was told, “Don’t upset my daughter. She’s working on her homework.” (Source)

Making It Personal

“[Notices a photograph of my brother on the wall] “I hate that kind of photography.”

Friend: “Your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
Me: “Yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead.”


“You’ve always been such a kind, gentle person. But maybe this is what you needed to harden up a bit. You know, for your own good?”

b (Source)

“It’s ok, sweetie. Your sibling died for the good of your character.” (Source)

This Morning

Friend: “You cut your hair?”
Me: “You read my blog?”
Friend: “It came up in my fb feed. Is that your blog? Cool… I’ll have to check it out some time.”
Me: “It’s about grief. Not the lightest of reads. And yes, cut my hair.”
Friend: “Hmmm maybe I’ll give it a pass. I’m more of a happy kinda guy.”
b (Source)

Pictured: a happy kinda guy. (Source)

So it looks like I’m back at the top of the leaderboard as of this morning.

The leaderboard is just a coping mechanism. It’s a way of adapting unjustifiable ignorance, cruel indifference or thinly-veiled insults into delightful black humour. It’s been the foundation of centuries of literature and theatre. And now, when met with injury and injustice, instead of bursting into tears or being jolted back into shock I think to myself, “I can’t wait to tell people about this!” So by all means, say awful things to me. Get yourself quoted on my blog. Gain internet fame. Keep me on top of the leaderboard. I’m not really winning at life at the moment and I’ve got to win at something.

[Featured image source]


Essential Me

I am not the same person that I used to be. And that’s something I’ve been struggling to accept. I might be the same on the outside, but ‘essential me’ has irrevocably changed.

My bff and I invented the term ‘essential me’ when trying to explain how invigorated we felt after spending time together talking very openly or when engaging in creative activities that made us feel connected to our artistic selves. So your ‘essential you’ is the purest part of you. If you got rid of all the baggage, the professional persona, the variations of you that you adopt for different social circumstances … if you boil yourself down to the most essential characteristics form your identity and psyche … that is ‘essential you’. The you that you see in the mirror. The you that you come home to at the end of the day.


“Oh look, there I am! Probably should clean this mirror.” (Source)

My ‘essential me’ is the goddess, the writer, the napkin poet. I can sometimes feel disconnected from who I really am when I’m at work or around people to whom I have to present a slight variation of myself: the me that’s a bit more formal, conservative, rational or responsible. But when I’m doing the things I love: writing, reading, playing piano, singing, drinking tea, crafting … it’s then that I feel most in touch with ‘essential me’. Or when I’m spending time with friends who really let me be myself.

Essential me (source)

Essential me (Source)

But when my brother died, a part of me died too. A phone call. Two words. The avenue of ambulances. Devastation. Shock. How could I ever describe that moment to you? The moment I will relive for the rest of my life. The moment that split my whole life into two separate timelines: the time when he was alive and the time now he is dead. I can easily tell you in person all about how he died without being emotionally affected by it. But I’ll never be able to tell you about finding out and the first few hours afterwards. Watch ‘The Body’ episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or click this five second moment in ‘Pay It Forward’. Or just look at this picture:


“Looks like it’s just you and me now, panda.” (Source)

And while I mourn the loss of him, I find myself mourning the person that I used to be. It’s apparently a common thing with grief. One grief pamphlet tells me that a typical worry is “acting out of character and being different to the way we usually are”. Which is nice and all … but there’s a bit of an expectation that things will go back to normal eventually. And I just don’t think that’s the case. I can never go back to being normal because ‘normal’ was when my brother was alive. It is profoundly abnormal that he’s dead. And just as there are two timelines, there are now two me’s. The ‘before me’ that was happy. And the ‘now me’ that will never be happy in quite the same way again.

Maybe part of me hasn’t died, exactly. Maybe it’s just that my essential me has shifted. I feel like I’m mourning a loss of self, but maybe it’s just a change in self. I used to consider myself to be empathetic, caring, idealistic and sanguine at my core; now find that these qualities have limits. I am far more sceptical and pragmatic, and my empathy does not tolerate frivolity. I can empathise with those who have suffered, but not with those who are merely inconvenienced. I might be just as amiable and kindly as ever, but I am far less joyful. The colours of the world have faded slightly and I understand the inevitability and finality of death. I am disillusioned. The essential me that I once saw in the mirror is fractured and unfamiliar.

And it’s not just me. Some of my friends have noticed that I’ve changed. One or two have mentioned that it’s now difficult to be around me. One friend even called me up to tell me that she liked the person that I used to be and she doesn’t like how bitter and depressed I’ve become. And she would really like me to go back to being the friend that I once was to her because that person was much more enjoyable to be around. While I can understand that she misses me and wants me to recover, what she actually said sounded very selfish and much more about her. Perhaps asking me how I’m coping would have been a better strategy. She will never understand that the devastation and ruin of grief will be with me for the rest of my life. My life has changed forever. The death of my brother will never stop being sad, unfair and utterly senseless. How could anyone expect me to shrug this tragedy off and go back to being blithe and carefree? I know that I will recover, that things will get easier with time. But it is either ignorant or insensitive to expect me to be happy-go-lucky so soon after this tragedy.

I know that Pretendland me is much easier to be around. It is quite nice to go out into the world and have hot beverages with friends. To sit in the winter sunshine and feel it’s shy warmth. To wander down to the beach and stare absentmindedly at the deep horizon. To hear what’s going on in your life and enjoy my stay on your islands. I’m getting better and better at being in Pretendland. Only not everyone knows that that’s what’s happening. That they’re only seeing what I’m like when I’m in Pretendland and not what I’m like once I leave their company. It’s like in the novel, ‘The Silver Chair’…


No, wait, that’s not it. (Source)

I mean the book by C. S. Lewis. Part of the Narnia series. Not the Australian band. Although, fun fact: they did name themselves after the book.


There we go. (Source)

In The Silver Chair, our heroes find themselves alone with a knight who is under an enchantment. He explains to them that every night there comes an hour when his mind is most horribly changed. He becomes furious and wild, and in his fit would destroy all that he could reach. Fortunately he is bound by hand and foot to a silver chair so that he can not harm anyone. And each night, after the fit passes, he awakes with no memory of it. He is a rather upbeat, irreverent character and our heroes are afraid of the dark, violent person he’ll change into under the enchantment.

After a nice meal together, our heroes stay late into the day with the Knight. And eventually our heroes experience his frenzy first hand. The enchantment takes hold and the Knight goes pale, sweats and writhes in his bonds. He groans, “The heavy, tangled, cold, clammy web of evil magic … how many years is it?… Have I lived ten years, or a thousand years, in the pit? … Quick! I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. I should be a man again. but every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone. … It is at this hour that I am in my right mind: it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.”


“Oh, you have hearts of stone,” said the Knight. “Believe me, you look upon a wretch who has suffered almost more than any mortal heart can bear.” (Source)

There is so much that resonates with me here. I think I am that jovial, upbeat Knight that is quite pleasant to have a meal with. And I don’t think people truly understand how dark I get in the later hours unless they see it firsthand. The thing I love most about this scene is that the Knight spends his whole time trying to explain that he is perfectly normal, but he falls under an enchantment that turns him violent and insane. And yet once the enchantment takes hold, he is trying to convince them that all that niceness and happiness was the spell and only NOW is truly himself. It reminds me of old fantasy or sci fi stories where you have two clones standing side by side both saying, “I’m the REAL one!” … “No, I’M the real one!”

Pretendland is like that. I tell people that while I’m ok while we’re out in the world, later on the enchantment will take hold and I’ll be all crazy again. But it’s actually the other way around. Pretendland is the surreal, crazy place. And the time when I’m back home, tied to my own silver chair, that’s the real me. It is at this hour that I am in my right mind (albeit crying or catatonic): it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.


I might need a crash course in knot-tying. (Source)

So many me’s. The now me. The before me. Essential me. Pretendland me. Silver Chair me. No wonder I feel fractured and unfamiliar. How am I to make sense of all this? I think I’ve been in denial for a long time that I’ve changed. There’s a misconception that it takes a long time to finally come to accept that someone’s died. That came very quickly for me. I heard the words, I saw the ambulances, we had the funeral. It’s a bit hard to argue with all that. Would be nice to think it’s all been some cruel, elaborate reality show. But even my subconscious knows. He turns up in my dreams quite often: in full 3D technicolor with surround sound. But even in my dreams I’m not relieved to see him. I know he’s dead. Neither of us have any explanation as to how he’s there. And each time I find myself having to sit him down and explain to him that he’s dead and that he needs to go. Fun times, right? No wonder I need to escape to Pretendland.

I accepted his death very quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cope with the knowledge. And it’s certainly not easy to accept that I’ve changed. I really resent the consequences of his death. The effects it’s had on my family. The ensuing symptoms: practical, emotional, psychological, physical. And I resent that I’m a different person. I liked who I was. I would like to continue being that essential me. But I’m different. I’m not the blithe, serene green goddess in that picture at the start. But maybe I’m still just as green, and still just as much a goddess. Less Aphrodite/Athena, and more Hera perhaps? You can still be a goddess and have a dark side, right? We’ll just call it ‘wisdom’ or ‘solemnity’. I’ve just traded my levity for gravity. I think as long as I don’t end up being The Lady of the Green Kirtle (Narnia fans, you with me?) then I think I’ll be ok. Better than ok. And, at the end of the day, I’ll still be me. Essentially.


You can totally trust a woman with a mandolin and magic incense. She won’t turn out to be evil. (Source)

The Grief Islands

Welcome to the beautiful Grief Islands where your stay is long and unpredictable!

I’ve been leaving the house more and doing social things with other humans. I believe this is a really healthy thing to do. The trouble with being social is that people assume I’ve made a successful journey back to the Mainland of Sanity. They tell me that I’m doing really well or that it’s good to see me happy. And it’s really hard to explain to them that I still live full time in the Grief Islands. Being social is just a quick trip to Pretendland and, as soon as they leave, I’ll be heading back over to the Republic of Reality.


Pretendland is the most desirable place to be. While here, you basically pretend that nothing bad has happened and you can socialise, drink tea and be merry. The light is brighter here, the colours saturated and everything seems to be similar to how it was before he died. You can even pretend that you are that person you used to be: happy, carefree, content.


All of the colours! (Source)

You can get a lot done while you’re in Pretendland. While here I like to knit socks, drink tea, play some piano, walk along the beach, sing along to music … basically do all the things that I would usually enjoy. It is possible to stay here for long periods of time. You just have to keep lining up the social activities. Much like those people that continually travel the globe season to season, living out an endless summer. I’ve actually attempted that: one most ambitious Saturday, I enjoyed breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper with six different friends (one at a time) in six different locations. That was supremely fabulous. And it’s just as fabulous with one person: recently I spent a whole day with a friend making pancakes, crafting, talking and listening to musicals. We sat in her living room while the sun poured through the windows, refracted through a hanging crystal and formed little rainbows throughout the room. And it was a really nice day. I could have stayed in that day for a whole week.


Even my ‘English Toffee and Peppermint’ tea had a rainbow.

One of the positives of Pretendland is that you can talk openly about the grief without being affected by it. You can ask me absolutely anything about how he died, how it affects me and how I cope with it. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to it at all. The huge downside is that I feel no emotional connection to anything whatsoever. I don’t truly enjoy the fun activities. I don’t feel the heat of the warm sun. The colours are false. It’s not exactly that I’m faking it when I’m around people. It’s just that being this numb is the only way I can function. It would be easy to see me in Pretendland and think that I’m coping really well. But that’s only because you never see me on any of the other islands. Of all the islands, it’s the nice one to visit. But that’s kinda all it is: ‘nice’. It’s not happy. It’s not really any of the feels. It would be easier to just stay in Pretendland and never have to deal with what’s happened. But I can’t live an endless summer. I have to leave sooner or later. And if I try to stay for too long, I run the risk of slipping into Dissocia.

Dissocia Island

Dissocia is a close neighbour of Pretendland. It’s essentially the place you end up when you’ve been pretending for a little bit too long. On the outside you’re the happy, carefree, content Pretendland-person everyone likes spending time with. But on the inside you feel completely detached or dissociated from everyone around you. You smile and nod on the outside, but internally you just can’t relate to any of the humans you’re in conversation with. While here I spend much of my time trying to make my facial expressions and vocal tone match the emotion I think is appropriate to the conversation.


It’s so exhausting having to manually switch between all the faces. (Source)

I find that I slip seamlessly from being in Pretendland to being in Dissocia when people start talking about things that seem insignificant compared to the intensity of my grief. It’s not that they talk about trivial things, I actually find that trivial topics can be really safe things to talk about. But it’s when people trivialize death around me. When they say things like “if I had a tattoo like that I’d kill myself” or “what he said was so shocking, like a bullet to the brain” or “why doesn’t she just go slit her wrists”. I can’t deal with that. I get that we use hyperbole in common speech all the time. But some of these just seem so unnecessary when they’re said to me. So thoughtless. So callous. But I get that they slip out. I’m sure I’ve said similar things in my time.

First World Problems

What’s worse is when people start trying to compare my grief to things they’re experienced. Like they understand what I’m going through because their pet died a while ago. I get that people are just trying to find a point of reference. One of the ways we try to relate to one another is by thinking of similar things we’ve experienced ourselves. Grief of any kind is hard. Losing a pet is sad. A relationship breaking up is sad. A celebrity you’ve never met’s death is sad. But these things are not the same as what I’m going through. Not even a little bit close.

Dissocia 2

“Tell me again about how my grief is the same as when you dropped your iphone and cracked the screen. That’s totally the same amount of sads as my brother dying.” (Source)

I’m not saying that you can’t talk about your smart phone. I can even show you mine: it’s so bad that the glass has fallen off and you can see it’s inner-workings. Just don’t compare it to that time when my brother died. Comparisons are never good. Even with people who have been through massive grief and loss, it’s not a competition. Not one that anyone wins anyway. It’s very isolating to feel like you can’t relate to people anymore. I try not to stay here too long. But I find myself here unexpectedly. It’s not an island you set out to visit–but take a wrong turn and you’ll find yourself here again and again.

The Republic of Reality

This is the island of sad, stark reality where my brother is most definitely dead. And I most definitely have to deal with it. This is the place I come back to after I leave Pretendland. It’s the place I find myself in when I wake up in the mornings. It’s the island I sleep on when I go to bed at night. There’s a cold reality to how bad the depression gets. There’s a misconception that grief just boils down to a whole lot of sadness. Like if I could just remember the happy times with my brother rather than dwell on the loss that I’d feel a lot better. Or that grief is a state that I’ll come out of sometime soon and I’ll see the sunshine and things will be ok like they used to be.

Little Cloud

“Just having a bit of a sad, but I’ll be happy again in a minute.” (Source)

It’s not glamorous. It’s not a little cloud. It’s not just sadness. It’s misery, guilt, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, fear, panic. All of the things. It’s a complete loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities. It’s that black feeling. It’s that feeling that something is profoundly wrong and it will never be put right again.

I can’t explain this place to you. If you don’t know it, I don’t want to take you there. I’m happy for you to not understand. I wouldn’t want you to understand. You just have to trust me that it’s dark there and I spend a whole lot of my time there against my will. I don’t choose to be here. But the waters around this island are deep, muddy and treacherous. I’m wading my way out and holding onto all the lifebuoys I can reach (i.e. counselling, support, etc). But I’ll be here for a while yet. When I’m not slipping into Catatonia.

Catatonia Island

Reality is exhausting. Depression is exhausting. Eventually I get so tired of being so goddamn sad that I just zone out completely into something of a catatonic state. I spent the first 3 months after he died in shock on this island. And I still spend days at a time here. On this island you sleep at least 12 hours a night. Wake up after midday and move to the lounge, still in your pyjamas. You watch a whole season of a tv show on your laptop. You live on whatever food you can microwave. For those first 3 months it was just crackers and iced tea. I’m glad I can at least work the microwave again now. Between episodes you can take a break to stare at the wall for a while. Or watch the cat while she looks out the window at the birds. It’s just another version of the numbness. There’s an unsettling pleasantness to just not feeling anything.


“Maybe today I’ll count the ceiling tiles.” (Source)

It’s another bad place to stay. You start to not care about anything. You don’t eat properly. You stop showering. You never leave the house. You stay up so late watching tv that you become almost completely nocturnal. I stayed up so late one night I only just managed to slip into bed 10min before my partner’s alarm went off for work. I really don’t recommend a holiday here. But sometimes it’s the only reprieve from Reality. I just try to keep it to a short stay.

The Mainland of Sanity

I guess this is the place I’m trying to get to. I don’t really know what it looks like or how to get there. But I’m sure it exists for me.

Mainland of Sanity

Something like this? (Source)

The Grief Islands are pretty bleak, each in their own way. But I think the secret is not to try desperately to swim away from them, but to understand why they are so separated. Why am I unable to be sad when I’m out with people? What are the prompts that force me over to Dissocia? At what point do I slip from depression into Catatonia? I know that I can’t run away to Pretendland, but I think that part of sanity is spending more time there in a genuine, emotionally-aware state. And while the Republic of Reality is completely necessary (I shouldn’t just try to just forget that my brother died and live in denial), I need to find a way to deal with reality without staying in my depression. I think once you reunite the islands, you’ll find that the Mainland of Sanity is made up of those separated lands. It’s just that everything is so fractured that you can’t deal with all of the feels at the same time. And you need to be able to escape to the different islands to separate out the moments of denial (Pretendland), detachment (Dissocia), depression (Reality) and despair (Catatonia).

Hope you enjoyed your island tour. Here’s your complimentary kitty.

My Hair

My hair has died. It seems to be a relatively common thing with grief. You might have heard about going grey overnight. While a quick google search can’t offer me definite proof whether that’s medically possible or not, it is most certainly true that people can experience hair loss or change in quality after a sudden shock.

So wait, you’re telling me that Charmed isn’t accurate? (source)

I’ve always had naturally fabulous hair. It was curly when I was a little girl, with kiss curls at the back of my neck. I remember my grandmother brushing my hair for me. She’d part it down the middle and work on one side at a time. Once she was finished the left side and it was silky and smooth, she’d call it the ‘princess side’. Then she’d start on the still-tangled ‘witch side’. My mother used to braid my hair in the evenings after my bath. She wasn’t really a perfectionist, but she would get frustrated if she braided one side significantly lower than the other. I loved it when she’d unravel it and start it over as I had another block of time enjoying the feeling of someone playing with my hair.

Yes this is totally me at four years old and totally not 1930-40s Hollywood actress Myrna Loy. (source)

Yes this is me at four years old and totally not 1930-40s Hollywood actress Myrna Loy. (source)

My hair went relatively straight through primary school and much of high school. When I was about fifteen, I cut my hair really short: it was about eye level at the front and shaved in at the back. It sounds terrible, but it was one of the best cuts I’ve ever had. I was amazed at how curly it went. I’m sure it was more likely that it coincided with puberty (and therefore a change in hormones) than a magical haircut. But I was rather thrilled with my new curls. It’s remained wavy ever since. Even at the longest I’ve ever had it.

About this long. Probably. (source)

About this long. Probably. (source)

It has this lovely wave that shapes my face. People often ask me how I style it or what product I use. But honestly, I just wash it and it dries like this:

Also completely me and not Kate Winslet. (source)

This is also completely me and not Kate Winslet. (source)

And then my brother died. And my hair with him. It hasn’t been falling out at all. In fact, to look at me you can’t even tell. I’ve told close friends about the change in my hair and they genuinely don’t believe me. But underneath, it’s all coarse and spindly like hair that’s been badly bleached. And the shape of it is kinked and frizzy like grey hair.

Something like this. (source)

Something like this, but the whole of my hair. (source)

It’s so kinked in fact that it’s statically charged and attracts lint from everything I wear. It takes me over an hour to brush it out each evening. Knots form around the bits of lint so badly that I have to cut them out. I’m not talking about the ‘knots’ that tangled hair get. I mean proper knots. The kind that earn you badges in girl scouts. You know how you can tie a knot in a single strand of something? Like string? I get that kind a lot. It is impossible to undo a knot in a single strand of hair.

Apparently the sebaceous gland shuts down and stops delivering all those precious oils to the hair. Which produces a similar effect to over-shampooed hair. The hair gets dry and coarse. The scalp suffers. Everything goes horribly wrong. This leads to Seborrhoeic Dermatitis which, judging by my symptoms, I most definitely have. Hilariously fun things like acne along the hairline, dry scalp, general all-purpose pimples on the face and shoulders … oh yeah, and hair loss!

It is completely treatable. The main thing is time. As for the hair, you can try every treatment, leave-in conditioner and serum therapy under the sun but none of it will help. It all comes down to time. I’ll need to cut a good slab of my hair off to take the weight off the roots. And then just wait it out until sebum and vitamin E production start up again and things naturally return to normal.

That should be enough, right? (source)

“Hmm. Actually, can you cut it a bit longer?” (source)

In the meantime, I keep returning to ‘Little Women’. The 1994 film in particular. In one scene in particular, they’ve just had news that their father has been wounded in the war and their mother needs to get to the hospital in a hurry. They don’t have enough money for train fare, so Jo sells her hair for some cash.

Your one beauty. (source)

Meh. I’ve gone shorter. (source)

I just love this unsupportive reaction from her youngest sister, Amy. “Jo, how could you?” she cries. “Your one beauty!” As though that’s all there is to her. Not just a pretty face, indeed. And yet I really relate to this at the moment. I’ve been testing the water by telling people I’m thinking of cutting my hair. And I’m met with this “your one beauty” reaction. I’ve had to dig out old photos of me just prove it’s suited me in the past. And I resent having to explain to people why I need to cut my hair. I should be able to get away with just wanting to cut it on a whim, surely? Part of me thinks, “it’s just hair for goodness sakes!” And yet, I can’t help but feel cheated. Isn’t it enough that my brother’s died? Does my hair have to suffer too? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t also for the PTSD, memory disturbance, depression, anxiety, insomnia, ALL THE THINGS!

One of my favourite scenes in this film is where Beth awakes in the night to hear Jo crying:

Little Women

It may seem petty that of all things, it’s my hair that’s getting me down. Sometimes I have almost this exact conversation with my partner. He’ll say, “Are you sad about your brother?” and I look up through the tears to wail, “My hair…” It’s distressing that your body just falls apart with grief. Dealing with the mental and emotional fallout is hard enough. But having your body disintegrate on you is a constant reminder of how messed up things are. And I hardly need a constant reminder. His permanent absence from our lives is the constant reminder.

[Little Women spoilers ahead. I can’t imagine this being a problem for anyone. If it is, come over. I have three different film versions and all four books. I’ll make you tea. And scones. Or just come over anyway.]

How does Jo cope when Beth dies? I think she cries twice and then writes a book. Hardly realistic. So I guess we have three things in common: crap hair, dead siblings and writing. Maybe there’s a book in me yet.