To talk or not to talk?

Dorothy, Jane and Len Upton

Me with my grandma Dorothy and grandad Len who died in 2003

Since I started this project, I seem to be surrounded by people who are grieving. I’m not sure if they’re drawn to me or I’m drawn to them, but I’ve been talking about death and how we deal with it quite a lot lately.

A good friend of mine lost his mum at 14 – 22 years ago – and has never really spoken about it until now. Not to anyone. The fact he is about to have his first child seems to have triggered something. He’s carried around this ball of regret and embarrassment for all of his adult life. He didn’t realise she was dying you see. And he can’t remember if anyone told him or if he just ignored it. He didn’t know that the last time he saw her would be the last. But he thinks perhaps he should have known. And done things differently.

He hasn’t spoken to his family about it for fear he will get upset and upset them. His 14-year-old self is living inside of him, carrying this guilt, shouldering it. And it’s only now that he’s starting to listen to the little boy.

He’s blamed his sadness on other things – work stress, mainly – but he never really believed, or let himself believe, that the death of his mother at 14 was the defining event that was making fulfilment impossible. He thought it was a cliché, too obvious, that losing his mum all those years ago could still be affecting him to such an extent. He thought it must be something else. And he was searching for it.


My grandad, Len, on Hope Beach in the Isle of Wight

But when he started talking, it was clear he’d built up small things he’d done back then into mistakes of great magnitude. The regret he felt was impacting on the way he was living his life. That little, naïve, scared, 14-year-old boy who was just trying to find his way had been left in the past with this great, gut-wrenching sadness he didn’t understand.

Similarly with my Auntie. Her dad, my granddad, Arthur, died when she was 21 and a new mum. Noone talked about that either. My Nana, the focus of my writing project, was a closed book on the subject of her dead husband. Decades later, in passing, she told me that Arthur was the love of her life. She shook her head in disbelief as if she still couldn’t quite believe he was gone, and then she carried on watching Inspector Morse. Maybe she was staring straight through the screen and privately remembering the father of her three children; the way he smelt, the way he put his arms around her, the warmth of his body against hers. Or maybe she’d just blocked it out. Put the pain somewhere else and carried on.

Chris, Nana and Mum

Nana (middle) never really spoke of her late husband. Here she is with my mum and my cousin Chris. I think that's my big sister in the funny hat with her back to the camera.

My Auntie carried on too, but with a heavy sadness inside her. She describes it as a permanent lump in her throat. Her dad died in 1965 but she has only really spoken about him in the last five years and even now the memories are almost too much. She cries quite easily if you ask about him and how he died. In a way, she’d rather not ‘rake it all up’. I don’t know; maybe she’s right to keep it under wraps if it just makes her feel bad.

There are theories on grief, of course. Psychologists have done studies. Some of them are pretty much taken as read – the five stages of grief, for example. I find it hard to believe it’s a science though. I was always taught to talk through things. It’s what we do. But I’ve only recently realised that it might not be for everyone.

When I was putting my make-up on for work one day this week, I started to cry. My mum
found me in front of the mirror and asked what was wrong. “People die,” I said, “it’s sad.” I told her I couldn’t really remember being happy since my grandad died in 2003, the first person I loved and lost. “But you’ve got the memories,” she said, “Just remember that.” I do have some amazing memories, she’s right. But it’s knowing that pain, knowing that sense of loss and all it brings with it – fear, guilt, confusion – that’s makes death so sad for me.

Uptons in the Isle of Wight

Me and my family in the Isle of Wight. Nana (middle) and Grandad (right) have both died.

I explained that to Mum, as we stood in our dressing gowns, tear tracks making their way down my concealer covered face. She looked worried for a few seconds, then asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. Which is exactly what Nana would have said. Strangely – or not – it was quite comforting.

Listen to a poem about my granddad on my poems page.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.