Grief Train

My experience of grief has always resembled an all-stations train—a hop-on, hop-off service, well-timed in its arrival to the appropriate station, each one representing an emotional response. A rite-of-passage if you will, in the journey of coming to terms with loss.

In February 2020, I was again on-board the Grief Train, although this time the journey was different—it was an express service.

The train whirred past all the usual stations—each one a blur of streaking black letters against the white light of the stations place sign, and it seemed as though the train’s cabin stretched interminably before me. Lights flickered and buzzed, leaving me disoriented and achingly numb. 

I had begun to wonder if there would be an end point to the journey.

***

Audrey was my grandma—my father’s mother. My sisters and I called her and my grandfather, Frank, by their first names. ‘It makes us sound so old’, they’d say.

I was thirteen when I watched her die.

Something had kept me in the room that day. I remember patting a cool cloth softly over her forehead; she smelt like talcum powder—musky and sweet. It felt like only moments had passed before the last drops of life leaked out of her eyes. It was the 9th of September 2006, the same day Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray.

My limbs felt a little less held together by my body that day—like they were floating, and without preamble, my eyes would intermittently pour.

I knew she was dead; I’d seen it happen, listened to everyone tell me she was at peace now. In heaven I suppose. But Audrey wasn’t Catholic. Was there even a place for her now?

As time went on, memories would spark at a moment’s notice. I’d picture her on the blue, corduroy couch in the sunroom, listening to crime novels, the afternoon sun fanning down on her. The cosmetics aisle would conjure the memory of her perched in front of her vanity, patting her face with pressed powder foundation and layering her neck with an assortment of beads.

In those moments, I knew we were never too far apart.

***

I received my first pass for the Grief Train when I was eight years old. It was the morning my father stepped outside of our family home leaving behind the sense that he would never step back through that door again. That ticket had no expiration date.

I became well acquainted with the wet weather at Station Sadness, played countless games of memory at Station Retrospect, filled the bin at Station Confusion with discarded flowcharts and roadmaps. Station Anger was a recurring stop.

***

In January 2020, my grandfather Bill—my mum’s dad—on the word of my mum who was there at the time, stood next to my grandma, Caroline, who had earlier that morning taken her last breath. Bill began to inspect her body—her legs, her arms, brushing his fingers over her face. Leaning his head against hers, he whispered what sounded like, ‘I’ll be seeing you soon, Carrie’.

The next morning, I received a call from my sister. My grandfather—ninety-one years old, with no apparent life-threatening health conditions—had, in true no-nonsense William fashion, joined his wife in heaven.

Is it truly possible for someone’s heart to break?

I’ve heard people say about their grief, that it felt as though their heart was breaking. The notion has always struck me as purely romantic—a way to make sense of the connection between love and loss—physiologically incorrect. Impossible even.

But I’ve learned that there is a link between grief and how it manifests in the body, and its similarities to the experience of trauma, in that it is experienced from the bottom-up—first in the body, moving, only once the body has processed it, to the mind (Gleeson 2020).

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the doctors called it. ‘A side effect of grief’, my mum had said, a heart attack. The National Heart Foundation of New Zealand (2021) says that the heart muscles become physically ‘stunned’, causing them to seize. People can survive it only if their body can tolerate the grief physically first. From the bottom-up.

I had learned, through experience, the importance of getting off at each station in the process of enduring grief. It had never occurred to me that someone might not survive it at all.

***

A few months later, I was on the express service, with no end in sight. Dry-eyed and growing concerned about the memories becoming fuzzy or locked up completely, I sought the help of Beyond Blue. 

Find ways to ‘honour your loss’, they recommended.

And so, I began to write:

Roses

Perm

Citrus Fruit

Family Gatherings

Badminton

Bull Rush

Card Games – 500, Yuka, Snap

Lolly Jar

Pumpkin Scones

Old Spice Cologne

Morning Tea

Patio

Photo Albums…

When I had finished, I packed what I could into my overnight bag and jumped on the next Grief Train. I stopped at Sadness, bringing with me a rose from my grandma’s beloved garden. I cried as the sweet scent of its petals filled the air and reminisced about the waxy ringlets of my grandma’s perm under my fingertips. My next stop was Regret. I sat there for some time, mourning the loss of the bone-deep contentment I knew I would only ever feel sitting with my grandparents in their yard, relaxing to the butcherbirds’ flute. At Loneliness I shared a container of pumpkin scones—and my grandma’s secret ingredient—with the other people there. Finally, at Retrospect I sorted through my many memories, finding enough of my grandfather to conjure the spicy, luxurious scent of his aftershave—leaving, only once I’d bottled it up to take with me on my journey home.

References:

Gleeson L (12 October 2020) ‘How Grief Manifests in the Body’, Shapes of Grief, accessed 14 March 2021.

Heart Foundation (2021) Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, The Heart Foundation of New Zealand, accessed 14 March 2021.

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