CW: Death. Illustration by Loveday Pride.
My articles are always for everyone to read and enjoy. However, I would like to dedicate this week’s article specifically to all those who have lost someone close to them, who are grieving for whatever reason… With grief and loss comes that one day that fills you with dread that you see ominously waiting for you like a blacked-out day in a calendar: the worst kind of anniversary. For me that time is the day I’m writing this article. But there is one book that I found particularly helpful in consoling me – Josie Silver’s The Two Lives of Lydia Bird.
This book is classed as a romance, but I dispute this. To consider The Two Lives of Lydia Bird as nothing more than a romance book is reductive, especially given that the plot focuses on the eponymous heroine’s grieving process and coping with her fiancé’s unexpected death in a car crash. Whenever Lydia takes a sleeping pill before bed, she dreams of her life with her fiancé as it would have been happening in real time had he not died. That is, in her sleeping-pill induced dreams, she celebrates her wedding, her honeymoon, and other interactions with her dead fiancé. And so, she finds herself conflicted between living in the past and living in the present.
I’ve read a fair few books about death and grieving, but I’ve never come across one that managed to put into words all my turbulent emotions and contradictory feelings in such a clear and concise way. In other words, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird was a novel in which I saw my own grieving self, from 12 years old right up until the present day; it tallied with my personal experience of death. It was the book I wish my younger self had access to as reassurance that the turmoil I felt inside of me was normal.
Some sentences from the book were particularly hard-hitting. I remember the feeling of complete disorientation in recognising and interacting with a dead person in my dreams. The initial hope you have in the first groggy moments after you wake up, only to feel the breath being crushed from you as you realise what, deep down, you knew all along. I remember how it would, and still does, throw my whole day off kilter because I don’t trust my eyes or anything I see. The only thing I’m sure of is the pain that suffocates me. I know the feeling of avoiding sleep and dreams because ‘waking up and remembering that [they’re] dead all over again is too cruel, too harrowing. The price of dreaming about [them] is higher than I could ever hope to pay; it’s a higher price than anyone should ever have to pay’.
Then there’s the guilt you feel when you start enjoying life again. Like you’re doing the person a disservice by smiling or laughing too soon after their passing, like you’re dishonouring them. When you slowly begin to remember the version of yourself that didn’t permanently feel utterly devastated hasn’t completely disappeared. Lydia captures that feeling too:
There is a lightness to my mood that I want to cling to like a raft on a dark ocean, a reminder of the carefree and unencumbered girl I was before.
‘Time heals all wounds’ is a mantra I’ve heard too many times. It presumes that you will somehow be fully healed from your trauma if only you give yourself the time you need. Time certainly helps, but as both I and Lydia Bird experienced, I don’t believe that one can ever fully be healed. Death is a phenomenon where someone is ripped away from life abruptly and without warning. I think of it as falling over on hard asphalt and having a deep, ugly, infected gash on your knee. It hurts like hell for a long time but slowly, after many months, it starts to close. But just as the scab is forming, you bend your knee too much, the scab splits, and you start bleeding all over again. And even though this time it’s not as infected and doesn’t feel as traumatic as the initial wound, it hurts no less than the first time, it just hurts in a different way.
Over the years, the scab on your knee will inevitably split open several times, far too many times to count, and each time it will hurt, and each time it hurts, and you bleed it is valid. Then you’re caught off guard because it seems to have healed completely and all you’re left with is a scar that in some lights seems invisible, but in others is strikingly noticeable. But the new skin is tender and so sometimes, if you’re feeling tired or vulnerable and you trip again, the scar might sting, and your knee might hurt again. Losing someone and processing their disappearance is an eternal and continually evolving thing, that no amount of time will ever fully heal.
There isn’t a handy grief blueprint. You don’t get over losing someone you love in six months or two years or twenty, but you do have to find a way to carry on living without feeling as if everything that comes afterwards is second best.
This is of course easier said than done. It is only too tempting to isolate yourself from everyone because you think your grief might burden them, because you can barely cope with yourself so how can you cope with others. Lydia runs away from her support system to escape. I have done the same more times than I’d like to admit. Sometimes you purposefully distance yourself from others because you think you might as well physically isolate yourself to match the mental isolation you feel. But in trying to unburden others, you end up forgetting that they might be hurting too. More likely than not, you have a network that is supporting you in ways you don’t even realise. Sending a message out of the blue to make sure you’re alright, trying to joke more than usual to make you laugh, staying up chatting with you all night so you don’t feel as alone.
Even though grief is an inherently unique and personal experience, remember that in seeing you grieve, others are grieving with you and for you. Appreciate them because they are proving that although you have lost one person, there are plenty of people still in your life that are here for you. Sure, it will never be the same as the dynamic you had with the person you’ve lost, but (as Silver astutely notes) ‘your life is still your life… you’re still here, inconveniently breathing’, so you might as well make the most of it. This is a piece of advice for me as much as to all of you – don’t shut people out when you feel like you’re drowning. The Two Lives of Lydia Bird helped me realise that asking for help and accepting it is braver than facing your demons alone. Josie Silver’s book might just help you realise something too.