'It was a blinding realisation of my own mortality'

As I write this column, my grandmother has been dead for 10 days. When I wake up every morning since, I feel the need to remind myself of this fact.

It’s not that I haven’t experienced loss before. My uncle, Michael, died when he was just 30 years of age but that grief was different, a queasy mix of nausea and fear.

It was a blinding realisation of my own mortality, an understanding that I could be taken before my time, as could my parents.

A sudden knowing that I wasn’t safe, and that I never had been. My grandmother’s death isn’t traumatising.

She was 85, it was inevitable that time would take her from us too. I was sad when my other grandparents passed, had remembered them with great love and respect, but I could, in the end, accept this was the natural order of life.

Adult children bury their elderly parents and not the other way around. Yet, even with this knowledge, I am grieving for Granny Murphy.

The loss of her feels like a heaviness, a tightness in my chest, an ache beneath my ribs.

As much as I try and rationalise it — she was getting older, you should have expected this, you should have been prepared, it’s far worse for other people, stop being such a baby — I cannot help feeling illogically shocked and abandoned, somehow; she should have lived forever just because I needed her.

She is gone, I tell myself, and then the tears come.

Anything will set me off these days, even the thoughtful cards and letters from friends, the text messages saying I’m sorry for your loss and you know they mean it.

On the way home from the hospital the morning after she died, I take a shortcut past Brinny, and I almost turn right to go Over Home, but no, it’s not Over Home anymore. It’s just a house now. (Why, I ask myself, why didn’t you turn right every time you drove this way?)

There is a drawer pulled open when they are cleaning out the farmhouse, and in it is every article I’ve ever written, every interview I gave, random clippings from magazines because they mentioned my name, no matter how briefly, the Asking For It programme from the night of the play’s premiere in the Everyman, and I am bent double with the pain. “She was so proud of you,” my mother tells me, “she was proud of all her grandchildren.”

In Clonakilty, I go into the spare bedroom to find a pair of her shoes and her coat there, left there from her last visit.

I pick up the coat and I imagine it on her, thinking about how thin she had gotten by the end, how sharp her bones felt as I hugged her goodbye. I have to fly to Berlin for a literary festival two days after the funeral and there are Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars for sale in the airport shop, her favourite, and I cry quietly for the entire flight. I visit an art gallery while I’m there to distract myself and there is a sculpture of a pair of hands, gnarled and stained with age spots.

Instantly, I am transported to her bedside. 2am, the gentle snores of the other patients and the insistent beeping of the machines, and she is clutching at my fingers, instinctively, and I thought, my grandmother must have done the same when she was born, reaching out to grab her own mother’s hand, to anchor her to this new world she found herself in.

Then I remembered that same hand holding mine as we crossed the street or combing my hair after bath time, my tangled knots of curly hair never causing her the same frustration as it did my parents.

You will never hold Granny’s hand again, a voice says, deep inside me, and I stand in front of this beautiful artwork and I cry again.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last couple of weeks trying to explain my sadness.

I know she was old, I will rush to say when I can see someone’s eyes glaze over when they hear the words ‘grandmother’, but she was like my mother and she was my childhood, and I have lost one of the most important people in my life, do you understand now?

I’m not sure why we have to do this. Why do we have to quantify grief in this way? What age was the deceased? How close were you to them? How tragic were the circumstances of death?

We ask and then decide if someone else’s sorrow is ‘worthy’ enough to warrant our sympathy or if we can shrug it off.

Maybe it’s because our culture isn’t overly comfortable with unhappiness, we want to jolly others out of it as quickly as we can. Stay busy. Stay distracted. Whatever you do, don’t sit still and allow the feelings to come.

Many of us are uneasy with the fact that grief is, as Simone George said in her wonderful TED talk, “a raging river. And you have to get in”.

We are impatient, we want instant results, we want to feel better now, and we want our friends and colleagues who are grieving to ‘get on with things’ so that we don’t have to acknowledge that their pain causes us to feel awkward.

We don’t have the patience to accept that grief is a process, that it takes its own time, and it can’t be healed overnight. The only way through grief is, well, through it.

We don’t have the patience to accept that grief is a process, that it takes its own time. The only way through grief is, well, through it.

Louise says

READ: On Life After Death by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. This examines thousands of cases of near-death experiences and reveals the afterlife as a “return to wholeness of spirit”. It is both hopeful and comforting.

WATCH: Overshadowed on the RTÉ player. This is one of the most authentic representations of anorexia I’ve ever seen. A must-watch if anyone in your life is suffering with an eating disorder

Louise O'Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking for It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks.

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