Blossoming from Grief: the Disorderly Journey of Bereavement
© Illustration by INJECTION - Charlie Sandles
An interview with Emmelie Dryburgh, about her experiences with bereavement, depression and her journey through the death of her father.
"Grief isn’t a linear process". Whether from the loss of a loved one, or the deterioration of friends, family or an acquaintance, grief is a powerful emotion able to manipulate perceptions and your hold on life. In an interview with Em, we discussed the realities of grief and her experience of losing her dad at a young age.
© Courtesy of Emmelie Dryburgh
Could you tell us what inspired you to write this poem?
The inspiration behind my poem was to explore the notion of grief and to express what grief is truly like. I wanted to represent grief as a physical object- which is what the lily represents- and through this, I hope to provide a more tactile representation of grief as an emotion. The layout is intentional and aims to portray grief as it is- non-linear. In some places, the words are crowded, whilst in other parts of the poem, the words are very spaced out, and this was done to represent the different waves of emotions. The italicised words portray a different tone of voice and therefore represent the thoughts circulating your mind; these thoughts are chased by the non-italicised words (the lily), and here I wanted to emphasise how it is normal for people to want to run away from their emotions, but ultimately it is better to confront them. At the end of the poem, the message encourages the reader to embrace their "lily" (which can be any form for the reader, be it grief or demons and so on), and seeks to inspire them to blossom from the events that have happened. I deliberately didn't include standard punctuation in the poem because I want people to read it in their own way- it is representational of how everyone will experience grief in a different way.
When you mention that it is counter-intuitive for people to run away from the lily, is that something that you think is applicable to all people suffering from bereavement issues?
I feel that it reflects my experience- I have no idea about others' journey with grief, and therefore this poem represents my interpretation of events. When it first happens, it's truly terrifying, and it's painful to look at because there is that rawness, and so the natural thing to do is run away from what scares you. You cannot run away from it forever, though, hoping it will disappear on its own. Instead, you have to have that courage to confront it. Once you do confront it, you're able to blossom and grow as a person.
Could you share with us your journey with grief?
In early December 2018, suddenly and unexpectedly, my dad passed away. At the time, I was at university in Manchester, and when I received the news, I had to pack up my things and return home. My parents were not together and hadn't been for quite some time, but their separation was natural and we- my sister, Sophie, and I- were not at all disadvantaged by their parting. As a result of our parents being divorced, Sophie and I were my dad's next of kin, and so we were responsible for all the admin of a death. I think that a lot of people don't know that there are so many things that are required to be sorted when a person dies, like the coroners, doctors and funeral arrangements first and foremost, but also you have to deal with all of the stuff that the person has left behind. Sophie and I were, therefore, suddenly piled with all this responsibility, and at the time, Sophie was a couple of months pregnant, which worried me a lot as I knew that the events happening around her were extremely stressful, and I was anxious for the safety of the baby. Being 19 at the time, I soon became aware of how quickly I had to change from an immature, naïve university student to an adult in a day's space.
The funeral planning in the lead up to Christmas, and the intensity of the admin of my dad's death, meant that I didn't have time to fully appreciate what had happened and explore my emotions. University started again shortly after my dad's funeral in the New Year, so I had to adjust to normal life again as if nothing had happened. Life just kept carrying on, and in the summer, Soph had Archie, so it felt like I didn't even get a chance to reflect. In September 2019, the university had obviously started again, and things started to settle down around me; I began to experience those same gut-wrenching emotions of grief. It was scary because the delayed grief stopped me in my tracks, and I can remember thinking to myself, 'I don't have my dad anymore. What the fuck am I supposed to do now?'. Although I had people surrounding me, I felt so alone, and I found it difficult to confront my feelings because I wasn't at home where there were daily reminders of him that would have encouraged me to acknowledge the loss.
There were a lot of self-destructive behaviours that followed, especially with the university- I found myself neglecting my work and priorities because I was finally accepting the loss of my dad. All of it became too much, and I found myself slowly falling into this deep, depressive hole.
You discuss this notion of delayed grief and how your emotions resurfaced up to nearly a year on- how would you describe your initial thoughts and emotions of your dad passing?
It's weird and difficult to describe. I would say that before, when my dad was alive; there was this feeling of being complete. Then when my dad passed, the wholeness disappeared, and I felt that there was this obvious imbalance- as if they were both standing behind me before, and then my dad had disappeared from the picture when he passed. It feels like he's missing, and I know that the reality is that the hole will not ever be filled. It will remain empty. I'll describe it in terms of a metaphor- if you have a jigsaw puzzle and that puzzle is yourself, you grow up having parts of your puzzle put together to make you the person you are today. When my dad died, it felt as if someone had taken that part of my puzzle away, so the puzzle can no longer be completed and doesn't fit the same way together as it did before.
How would you describe your journey with grief- is there an obvious segmentation that occurred, or was it not as linear as that?
There's a theory of the five stages of grief. Although I can't remember the stages off the top of my head, there's the clear suggestion that you experience this emotion, then this emotion and so forth until eventually you're just done. The reality is that it's not like that at all- whilst you do experience all of those emotions, and you can experience them all at the same time or at different times, they become very jumbled. For example, one day, you may feel really angry, and the next, you will come to accept it, but it's easy for the following day to bring on those feelings of anger again. It's not linear!
It's really interesting for you to describe that experience because many people blindly believe that the five stages of grief are how bereavement occurs, but the reality is that it isn't at all. Do you think that your journey has been made more difficult as a result of your age?
People don't expect it at this age at all. I can remember when the Vicar came round, and he emphasised how strange it was visiting Soph, 24 and I, 19, to discuss the passing of our dad. He mentioned that he was later visiting two people in a similar position, who were in their 70s! It was the same reaction when I had bereavement counselling- the woman mentioned that I was a unique case because of my age, and I think that this was, and still is, the universal attitude to my case. Everyone grows up expecting their parents to live to old age, and for them to watch their children grow up and have grandchildren and so on, but there are examples, like mine, of people who lose their parents at a young age and it's easy to forget that that possibility is always there. I look back on the past few years and realise how naïve I was and how I didn't expect life to change so quickly, or even that it could! Although a devastating experience, I truly believe that I wouldn't be where I am today or have made the decisions that I have if it hadn't have happened; I was forced to grow up quite quickly, which made 'growing up' the most important priority.
You mentioned that you had counselling- how and when did this come about? Did you reach out for help, or was it something that was offered to you?
During the first lockdown, I was still at university, and as I mentioned earlier, I felt very alone because I found it hard to open up to the people around me about what had happened and what I was going through. As a result, I found myself having really destructive and depressing thoughts, and I had started to lose interest in the things I loved- which made university really hard. I can't pinpoint a significant moment, but I can remember thinking to myself, 'I can't do this anymore- I can't continue wasting my time and living in a state of unhappiness', and so I was inspired to do something to stop those feelings. I contacted my GP and explained how I was feeling and was subsequently diagnosed with depression as a result of bereavement.
Before this, I referred myself to a counselling service in Gloucestershire, and in my experience, it was really shit. I felt like it was really patronising, and their approach made me feel as if I was an idiot. I don't think they understood how to help me, and after my initial assessment, they referred me to CBT counselling, which turned out to be a complete waste of time- even the lady conducting my session said that she felt that it wasn't the right course of action for me. Don't get me wrong, CBT can be beneficial for so many people, but for me, my depression came from grief, and CBT aims to change your behaviours and mindset, which wasn't what I needed to do. I needed to accept my feelings of grief and acknowledge what had happened, rather than trying to change the way that I felt.
At first, I felt really deflated because my experience with that organisation had left me feeling as if my feelings weren't justified and that I wasn't being taken seriously. I feel like people my age find it really difficult to seek counselling because there are two brackets- children/ teenagers and adults, and it seems that some services put you into the former category and proceed to be really patronising. I was discharged from them, and I felt as if I had wasted a couple of months waiting for them to eventually just tell me that what they could offer wouldn't help me at all. After this, I decided to get in contact with Cruse, which was the best decision I have ever made. I was on the waiting list for around six months and finally started my counselling in November 2020. The lady I spoke with was so lovely, and it was really helpful for me to have a place each week where I could talk about my grief, acknowledging and aiming to work through it.
How did you find out about Cruse?
My GP was the one who recommended it to me at first, but I didn't initially look into it because I had the other organisation's consultation prepared. When I finally referred to Cruse, I had just moved into a new house for university, and it was a couple of days before my 21st birthday. I had told myself, 'before you turn 21 and become an adult, you're leaving all of this emotion behind in your teenage years, and you're entering adulthood as a strong woman!'. Cruse was great- they were really understanding, and they are trained volunteers who have mostly experienced some sort of bereavement in their lifetime, so they have the first-hand experience of how you are feeling. They are predominantly there to listen but also offer advice if and when appropriate.
Do you think that you had preconceptions of counselling before you received it, irrespective of the experience you had with the organisation in Gloucestershire?
I was fucking terrified, to put it lightly, ha! I was really scared to go to the doctors about it [depression], and I also was terrified to tell anyone else about it. I told my sister, but I didn't tell any other family or friends because I didn't think people would really understand its extent. I didn't tell my mum, and she ended up finding out by going through my post at home- she didn't mention it until a couple of weeks later in a passing comment- so typical of my mum!
I think I was afraid because it isn't talked about that much at all, and I was scared that I would look crazy and, worst of all, weak. I was really scared of crying and showing this emotion because I'm not really an open person anyway, but I believe that I have now grown- I mean, I am here doing this interview, after all!
Do you think your relationships with friends or family have changed as a result of your experience? Did you find yourself confiding in anyone?
My friends were amazing- they all showed their support in different ways; some would buy meaningful gifts or leave chocolates on my doorstep, whilst others would sit in the car with me, crying together for hours in the dark. I definitely feel that this experience made us closer as a friendship group, and it made me realise how loved I am and ultimately how that support is always there even if you don't feel it. I also became aware that everyone else has a lot of shit that they're going through as well, which really grounded me.
Do you have any advice for anyone going through this at the moment on reflecting on your experience?
The most important message I could tell anyone would be that you shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge how you're feeling- don't avoid it because that is the worst thing you can do to yourself. People will often say that it will get better as time goes on, but that is such bad advice, in my opinion. The loss and pain that you've experienced will never go away. You just grow around it. There is an analogy of a ball, box and button- the ball and button sit inside the box, and the button represents your emotions, whilst the ball represents your grief. At first, the ball is massive due to the loss you have experienced, and because it is so big, it is constantly pressing against the button, making you feel the paralysing emotions. As you grow, however, the ball becomes smaller as you learn to accept your loss, but the ball will continue to move around the box and hit the button- when it does, the pain is exactly as it first was when you experienced your loss. It is a really good analogy because it describes this idea that you can grow and learn to accept your loss, but when your emotions come flooding back, they are just as intense as they were the first time it happened. You don't ever get 'over' it. You just grow around it.
Were there any hobbies that you engaged with through your journey?
Crafts, the arts, music- anything creative! I joined the pantomime society at my university as a creative outlet. I started to play the guitar again because my dad loved music, and I started to learn when I was younger- now it reminds me of him whilst also giving me an outlet for my emotions. Music is also a great way to express emotions that can't be put into words, and I can remember from an early age how influential music had been on my life… hearing David Bowie that my dad would be playing. Poetry has also served as a great form of therapy to me, as you can see from my poem!
There are many resources available for those who are grieving, such as Let's Talk About Loss, Cruse and Grief Encounter, as well as more information that can provide a clearer overview of grief and bereavement: Mind and Young Minds. It is okay to feel scared and vulnerable, but people are willing to listen and support your journey when you're ready.