7 December 2021

Breathworks Head of Marketing & Communications Emma Tian Williamson shares her story for Grief Awareness Week.

We will all experience grief at some point in our lives. Losing someone you deeply love is not something you can ever prepare for, however in my experience, I’ve learnt that there are things that can help you navigate the waves with a little more ease.  

In this past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant we have all experienced some form of grief. Whether we lost someone we love, our livelihood, our past way of life, or the loss of human connection. We all experience grief differently, but through my own journey, I’ve found other peoples’ stories of loss helpful and reassuring to hear. So, I’m telling mine here with the hope that it might resonate with others out there. 

My Mum passed away in August 2020, aged 68. Her bone marrow cancer diagnosis came as a shock. In our minds, she was almost invincible. Her mind was as strong as her body, and in my memory, I had never known her to complain about her health, take sick leave or go to the doctor. She depleted quickly and passed away four months after her diagnosis. 

My Mum and I on holiday in Germany, 2019

I found that the most difficult period wasn’t the time around her diagnosis, the months caring for her, or the weeks after her death and funeral. The dark cloud of grief descended once the adrenaline slowed down, people stopped visiting and flowers stopped coming. Going through grief while being isolated in lockdown was an extra challenge. I spent a lot of time on my own (not usual for my extroverted self) which meant there were times where I felt desperately isolated and lonely. But it also meant I had time and space to fully process this big loss, and tune into what I was going through - this new me.

Here is some of what I've learnt along the way:

Find your positive light

The deepest, darkest moments of grief can feel like crippling depression. You lose your excitement for life, your appetite, your desire to see people or to do the things that you usually enjoy. In those moments, the most tempting thing to do is curl under the duvet, to block out the world. Sometimes this is exactly what you need (numbing is our way of protecting ourselves) but doing this for too long can take you on a downward spiral that is harder to climb out of.

When I sensed this happening, I found it helpful to call on the things that I knew lifted me up, things that gave me joy and energy. They were usually very little things like going for a walk, speaking to a friend or doing some gentle yoga. Having them written down somewhere was a really useful reminder, and on dark days I would remind myself to check off just one - even if it was just for a short amount of time. Sometimes I would write a gratitude journal before sleep, picking out five positive things that had happened that day. The happy moments would always be there and they would help me to zoom out of a negative lens so I could see the bigger picture.

Become familiar with your grief waves

Psychologists describe the grief process as one that comes in waves. At the beginning, the waves that come crashing down on you are all-encompassing. But with time, they lessen and come in smaller bouts with longer intervals in-between. You start to become aware of your own waves, learning how to surf them to stay above water, and when to expect the next break.

Getting to know my own rhythm and pattern was a useful way to navigate through the days that felt most difficult. I would track my grief cycle in a journal, which helped me understand that it was a process. I could see that the lows would rarely ever last more than seven days and I started to become more aware of the signs so I could prepare myself for what I might need in that time. Most importantly, what this assured me of is that they would subside, and I would be ok.

Learn to be with discomfort

At first, whenever a grief wave reared its head, I felt panicked, desperate for it to not happen. Not now I would think. I wanted to push it away, deny that it was happening. But my experience was that the longer I ran from it, the more intensely it would come down on me when it eventually would. A therapist described it to me as a pressure valve, one that will continue to build unless you find a way to safely release it.

Facing the grief was scary. I had never experienced such overwhelming emotion, the visceral kind that takes over and leaves you feeling like an empty shell. Learning how to sit with difficult emotions has been one of the most important things I’ve ever learnt. And when you have done it once, you have the courage to know that you can do it again.

Vidyamala gave me a piece of advice on retreat that will always stick with me. She said grief and love are two sides of a same coin; our intensity of emotion and sadness represents the amount of love that we have for that person. We can think of our expression of grief as a sacred thing, as an expression of our love. Bringing this to mind allowed me to come a bit closer to the sadness and pain, without being afraid of it.

Take time to sit with your grief

I start to notice that a grief wave is coming when small things tip me over, like anything remotely sad on TV (I never knew Ru Paul’s Drag Race to be such a tear-jerker) or seeing mothers and daughters together in the street. My Mum appears in my dreams more, sometimes I wake with that sinking realisation that she’s no longer alive. There is a tightness in my chest and throat, and I notice that I want to distract myself with anything and everything around me.

When I notice these signs, I recognise that there is a form of resistance happening and I try to bring some softness around it (because as they say, what you resist persists). I find time to be alone and sit with whatever is there. I make a quiet, cosy space where I know I won’t be disturbed, place both of my hands over my heart and close my eyes. Sometimes it brings vivid memories of my Mum (where she feels so close), and sometimes there is no thought process - the tears just come. Focusing on my breathing is helpful here. If I start to feel overwhelmed or panicked, I breathe in and out of my mouth (making exaggerated long breaths), or I focus on the warm feeling of my hands on my chest. Sitting through this discomfort and allowing myself to feel the breadth of wherever is there turns the experience from scary to comforting. I’m finally able to fully be there for myself.

Sadness and happiness can coexist

In the difficult period leading up to losing my Mum and the weeks after, I was surprised that it wasn’t all dark and depressing. I felt like my heart was broken, yet full of so much love. I felt so alone, yet so supported. There were moments where I cried then laughed, then cried again.

My Mum no longer physically being here showed me how much space she took up in our lives and hearts, and that was beautiful.

Losing my Mum also widened my heart and empathy to other people’s experiences and difficulty. Everyone who you come across – friends, strangers, people in the street – has experienced loss and is dealing with it in the best way that they can.

I heard an analogy once that grief is unexpressed love that has nowhere to go. I have a sense that slowly with time, mine is finding its way forward again.

 

Poem by Rumi

Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror

up to where you are bravely working.

 

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,

here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

 

Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes.

If it were always a fist or always stretched open,

you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.

 

Resources for grief

The Good Grief Trust: the organisation behind National Grief Awareness week. Here you will find information, advice and encouraging stories from others.

Day & Evening Support Lines

  • Sudden Bereavement Helpline: For immediate support, 10am and 4pm, Monday to Friday - 0800 2600 400.
  • National Bereavement Partnership Helpline: For emotional support, 7am and 10pm - 0800 448 0800.
  • Cruse: Nationwide bereavement support - 0808 808 1677.
  • Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland: Mon – Fri, 9am-8pm and Sat / Sun, 1-4pm - 0808 802 6161.
  • Child Bereavement UK: Helpline, 9 - 5pm - 0800 02 88840.
  • Grief Talk: Monday to Friday 9am - 9pm - 0808 802 0111.

Podcasts / books

  • Grief Cast - a podcast that examines the human experience of grief and death, but with comedians (so it’s cheerier than it sounds).
  • Overcoming Grief by Sue Morris – practical and easy to digest book with reassuring and helpful strategies to guide you through your grief.
  • Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel - grief psychotherapist who has spent twenty-five years working with the bereaved and understanding the full repercussions of loss. This book has deeply moving case studies based on real people’s stories of loss.