The Case of the Stiff Upper Lip

by carriegracey

A wise chap once asked me ‘has anyone crossed the road yet?’ I shook my head in confusion. That question stayed in the subliminal until that exact occurrence happened one day. Not too long after we had cremated the flesh and bones of my father. My hero, my greatest friend, the love that no man of mine could compare to, my greatest challenger, my biggest cheerleader, the one who cried when I was in pain and the one who laughed when I was happy, my unconditional love, my light in the dark, and sometimes, the darkness to my light. Nevertheless, unhealthily, I lived for his pleasure and praise – because I adored him. I was the ultimate in Daddy-girl material and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The man who was my substitute to a brother and sister and my greatest teacher to date – had gone. Caput. Yes – a neighbour crossed to the other side of the road, because they just didn’t know what to say to me. Grief can be a lonely trial, and made worse so by those around you. Not many know how to grieve, never mind how to react to it in others.

Building your solace in those that are yet to experience the gut wrenching, belly crying, curtain tearing pain of grief, need not apply. This is the only circumstance where I definitely sense a story of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The ones who have lost, and the ones who are yet to. Some are wise to not even imagine, and some are foolish enough to compare it to a break up, or redundancy, the death of a dog, or most possibly, they have no patience to bother a comparison at all. Why should you? It’s not your problem.

Being there without judgement is the ultimate in the best friend award category. Perhaps you don’t cross the road; perhaps you do listen to the one who has finally encountered the eye-opening visual of mortality. After all, we think little about death, until it strikes at our heart and has stolen us of the hero, the best friend, the child, the soul mate, the life partner, the be all and end all of our mundane existence. They made your life entertaining, and now the laws of nature (or perhaps not) have thieved us of that joy – apparently I should reserve my expression in the more palatable medium of song, or interpretive dance?  In this instance, crying is a winners game and you’re going to have to lump it, whether you like it or not.

You find comfort in the hundreds of flowers, the letters, the repetition of your beloved’s name in cathedrals, but it doesn’t bring them back. It’s soothing though and makes the hours pass by at a more bearable pace. Even cards from people I hadn’t heard from for years. The love spewed out and I washed myself in it each day whilst I switched onto autopilot.

I will never forget the ones that came forward; I will always remember too, the ones that walked away.

You take the murderer to court, but it doesn’t bring them back. You light candles and pray for a miracle, but even God doesn’t always repeat his ‘rise from the dead’ party trick. This is our life. This is the most accurate statistic to date. We all die and leave a wake of mourners behind us.

This is a personal one and one not to be meddled with by the onlookers’ opinions. But somehow, in some twisted way, the ones who have never encountered such loss are the ones with the loudest, bloody opinion.

‘This’ll be her ‘thing’ now, – she’ll keep going on about the loss of her dad’ said one friend, the same friend who found it irritating that I was hanging out with ‘the dead dad’s club’ (girls who had also lost their father at younger ages than I – I know, such heart warming sentiments should be put into rhythmic prose surely? Oh wait, they did). I’d have appreciated it more from Philip Larkin perhaps.

I didn’t expect sympathy from many, but I did my friends. Surely I have a voice on that one? Scratch that off the record, because even strangers could show compassion. Particular ones. The ones who had gone through it, often in much worse case scenarios.

As I’d lie in the dark at nights – the same room my father suddenly died in, I would receive phone calls from friends about how others were reacting to my grief. After 6 weeks it was expected I’d have ‘got over it’ or at least ‘shut-up’. Not many, but a couple. I was functioning, I was working, my body did as it was told, I just talked about Dad sometimes. As I write this 8 years on, you can see the issue still highlights itself.

I forgave those who had such a narrow minded, angry stance on life to not just focus on their own projections – they knew not what they did.  I promised myself I’d never be so heartless. The ambivalence of what was going on inside compared to the pettiness around me, became toxic. I was trapped in a horrid demand of ‘must keep busy’ syndrome and not to bring it all up. Please note, this only pauses the feeling and suffocates any process needed for a stable flourishment.

They care not for your pain. These same ambulance chasers who were crying in the same funeral of which you’re thinking ‘my DAD is in that coffin?’ were in no delay to change from tears to criticism in such a swift pace.

The younger you suffer loss, the more robbed you feel and I think 23 years was pretty good going. Many have never known their father or mother, or indeed the laws of nature back-turned, and they’ve lost a child. Something I couldn’t begin to create an opinion of, I only hear that it’s seen as one of the most painful things to experience in human existence.  Many marriages don’t survive it.

There were many, that despite how hard they’ve had it compared to me, shared nothing but an abundance of love that forced me to flop into their arms and thank them for their grace. We’d wipe both sets of tears on our jumpers and thank the universe that there was someone else on the planet willing to talk about the dreaded G word.

Britain’s take on the stiff upper lip leaves many of us who are used to expression and freedom of speech, out in the cold. There is no room at the inn, unless it comes sound proofed. The hostility we can face does nothing but marinate my mind in perpetual boredom.

There are therapists to go to should you so wish it, but most of us wouldn’t need to, if the pompous righteous could just shut up for a minute and let us have a good old boo.

I cunningly learnt tactics to disguise my real tears by the use of the news headlines, the job promotions of friends and timid break ups in minor relationships, as my moment to get it all out. Why are you crying so hard Carrie? ‘Oh well I broke up with xxx’ ‘Yes but it was a 4 months relationship?’ ‘I know AWFUL isn’t it??’ *Cue cry*. I’d exit stage right to the toilet and wink to myself in the mirror, thinking, ‘I think they bought that one, I should be in the fucking West End.’

Yes, I wear my aorta on my sleeve, I mean you’re reading this after all, but I don’t know many times where keeping private helped anything other than their own dignity. How real is dignity in death anyway? A stoic silence may help keep judgements at bay, but we talk about bereavement, because there’s no Haynes Manual out there to fix the problem. I searched for answers in conversations, tools on how to let go. In response to such pain, comes not a derailing of emotions, but a healthy awareness that made me a more understanding version of who I was 8 years ago.

I didn’t hide under the wing of grief, nor do I make that my identity. This is not about me anymore; this is about how we judge others who express their emotions, in whatever way they choose to.

My appearance on The Big Silence caused mixed reaction. Letters thanked me for my bravery on showing how grief can be so deep rooted if we don’t allow ourselves the freedom to feel what we need to. Others, including a family member, decided it was appropriate to tell me grief was selfish. I overheard them later talk to a partygoer on how it must be a private thing and not to parade it to a nation.  I don’t remember the brass band that accompanied me on that 8-day retreat, but silence makes you hallucinate after a while, so I wouldn’t have put it passed me. Hell, I probably sang my woes to the tune of ‘Oom pa pa, oom pa pa, that’s how it goes!’

They were bang-on though, grief can be selfish, we can wallow and be of no use to anyone. But if you twist the situation to see what gain can be from pain, then you have a different output, your grief mellows into that of campaigning, doing right, getting out of yourself, saving others from the same formulaic destruction and in some cases, correcting the cause of justice.

Realisations can come out of this; we note how resilient humans can be to emotional roller coasters. We filter out the friends who were clearly not friends before this incident, as we learn to stand on our own as individuals. We see the world in its true vibrant colours because before all of this, we lived in a fluffy cloud, where I believed everyone would be around indefinitely. Death brings us back to earth and reminds us to live for every day; this may be our last moment or the last for someone else.

Never again could I leave a respected loved one on an argument. The only one I had with my father (ironically about how badly he was taking care of himself) left us in silence for a few weeks. The phone call I received from my parents home phone number was, I hoped, an apology or his usual terrible attempt of a Jamaican accent whilst he pretended to real off some hideous medical condition in lurid detail and then burst into his asthmatic laugh like he did, to say ‘it’s me, it’s me – I’m only kidding’; I didn’t expect a stranger calling from my parents phone, to say my mother was being interviewed by the police and my father had died that afternoon.

I never got a chance to say how in love with him I was, how much he rocked my world and how all was forgiven, we were just caught up in a moment, a moment that I deeply, deeply regret.

Some people even judged my grief into relation of our argument. ‘But they fell out anyway?’

I kid you not. The charm from these people leaves me breathless. Truly.

Sometimes you have to cease friendships with these people. I’d rather eat Gillian McKeith’s knicker-cured herbs, than watch the damage they cause to me and others.

I’d break every limb in my body, go through all the hurdles in life I could possibly imagine, for one more hour with him – but I’m no martyr, I’m no victim. I was just a daughter, coming to grips with him never walking me down the aisle, never holding the tiny hands of any children I may give birth to, aswell as grasping to the reality that your mother now shares her retirement with just me and the cat.

All this whilst in simultaneous timing I had to listen to the ones that believed they were righteous in their opinions telling me to batten down the hatchet.

Yet righteousness was never their friend.

Our decision on how we grieve is not for unsolicited, public opinion.

It’s also not a moment to use as a token addition to some TV review critic who can’t help but lower the level of a personal attack, because someone talked about themselves on Sky1. I mean, how dare someone cry in the fear of a potential genetic disease that killed their own mother? What preposterous behaviour. Lock it up, keep it to yourself and let thousands of others sit in their own isolation of fear and bewilderment, whilst they watch countless renditions of Countryfile. Much better.

Besides, John Craven wouldn’t have taught me how to check my tits.

I digress.

I don’t shiver at the thought of people talking about a parent or child they lost so many years ago. I find comfort in it. They clearly loved them. They had the ability to express that however they wanted to when they were alive, why must that change when they are dead? They were prevalent – death doesn’t change that. It is a separation of bodies, not emotions and though we must move forward, we should be allowed to keep them in our hearts, in thought and in our renditions of stories.

As a girlfriend once told me, one who lost her own boyfriend tragically, ‘I cry for him now, because I’d want that. If you don’t cry at my funeral Carrie and make a huge debacle on the matter, by all means, jump into my grave if you can wade your way through my rent-a-crowd mourners. Because somehow, it’ll be the final moment that I knew you loved me in my life, as you will do in my death’.