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Coping with grief: 14 women explain what loss has taught them about life and love

To mark National Grief Awareness Week 2021, we asked women to reveal the positive lessons they’ve learned about love and life from grieving. Here’s what they had to say.

Grief isn’t a feeling that can be summed up easily. Completely unique to the individual, grieving is a dizzying and confounding experience. It’s full of devastating lows and soul-sapping sadness. You can feel numb and all-consumed with emotion at once.

It’s a pain that never really leaves us. Nearly a decade on, there are days when I feel just as intensely devastated by my mum’s death as I did while I held her hand by her hospice bed. But, no matter whether you’ve lost someone you love weeks ago or 20 years ago, there are always glimmers of hope to be found among the pain, agony and confusion of it all.

When I was clearing out my family home not long after my mum died, I remember being amazed by the sheer kindness people showed me; how neighbours and even strangers would give up their time to help me. It taught me to always have faith in humanity. Ten years on, I can look back at my struggles and marvel at my ability to cope. It showed me that we are all stronger in a crisis than we could ever believe.

To mark this year’s National Grief Awareness Week, we asked women what positive lessons about love and life they have learned through the pain of grief. These are their stories. 

“It’s a privilege to grow older”

“I lost my dad four years ago to a fatal cardiac arrest two days after Christmas. He was only 54, and losing a parent so young has taught me what a privilege growing older is. When not everyone has the chance to, you realise how important it is not to take anything for granted.”

Hannah Layford, Newcastle  

“You realise how precious everyone is”

“My son Freddie was a real character. He was cheeky and kept me on my toes. On 7 December 2014, he was involved in a road traffic accident and died on impact. He was 13 months old. 

It was a tragic time and it’s taught me a lot. It made me realise the fragility of life and how precious everyone is. You also realise the resilience of the human race. Still, now, I think: ‘How did my world not end on that day?’ And even when it feels like your world has ended, your heart keeps beating, your lungs keep breathing and you carry on. 

I’ve also learned joy and grief can coexist. This week is the anniversary of Freddie’s death and we do a ‘doughnut day each year’. The last thing Freddie ate was a little mini doughnut. When I came home a few days after he died, there was a half-eaten mini doughnut on his highchair. So we ask people to post pictures of themselves eating doughnuts on that day to do something positive on a really tragic day.” 

Charlotte Jolliffe, Rugby, founder of charity Freddies Wish

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“We need to express our grief”

“Losing my mum to leukaemia when I was nine taught me a lot about grief. I wasn’t supported in processing my childhood grief, so I held it in. I’ve now learned that unprocessed grief starts leaking into every part of our lives. I come from a South Asian background and my journey with grief has taught me that we really need to start finding a vocabulary to express it and to support others with expressing theirs. Grief is nothing to be ashamed of or something to hide; we’re human.” 

Maya Kalaria, London, author of Half Woman Half Grief

“I never go to sleep on an argument”

“Experiencing grief as a teenager forces you to grow up almost overnight. For me, because my dad died in a car accident, I never go to sleep on an argument or ever hold a grudge because you don’t know what might happen tomorrow. I learned the value of life and to live in the moment as much as possible. Although it’s been difficult, to learn this at such a young age has benefitted me massively in my 20s – I appreciate my loved ones more than you can imagine and never take a day for granted.” 

Bláthnaid Chennell, Cardiff  

Friends huddled together looking out into the distance

“Grief doesn’t stop it just reshapes itself”

“Grief is intense. I found out my dad had died when I was on my hen do. Yes, really. The butler in the buff had just left and I was quite a few proseccos down. Weirdly, hearing the news then meant I was surrounded by all the people I loved in one place. I had so much support and love that night; it made me realise how important it is to ask for help and let yourself lean on others. 

I got married after my dad had died and cried as soon as I put on my wedding dress. I was in love but realised quickly that the relationship wasn’t making me happy and that ended in our divorce. I think I would have come to the same decision eventually but with the loss of my dad, and the realisation that life is short, I got there quicker. Grief doesn’t stop it just reshapes itself.”

Samantha Baines, London, host of The Divorce Social podcast

“I learned to trust myself” 

“My partner passed away when I was five weeks pregnant. I learned I was pregnant when he was in a coma. My child is now three years old and I’ve learned to trust myself and show up with courage when the going gets tough. I remember when I was in the operation room waiting for my turn to have a C-section. I was scared, I wanted to run, and yet I stayed and courageously gave birth with all the fears and pain I had.” 

Sri Purna Widari, Balil, Indonesia 

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“I’ve stopped feeling guilty for moving on” 

“It’s coming up to a decade since the death of a close friend to suicide. What I’ve learned in that time is that it does become easier to live without them. It’s no longer days between thoughts of them, but weeks and months. At first, any sign that I was forgetting him (such as regaining my appetite or no longer howling myself to sleep) equated to me not grieving properly or not loving him enough. But now, with the clarity of hindsight, I’ve stopped feeling guilty for moving on. 

In the pub a few years ago – six years older than he would ever be – my friend and I tried to place him in our lives as though he never left. Neither of us cried. In fact, it was a nice exercise – forging out a space for him, dissecting what clothes he would wear, what haircut he would sport. I wish I had known it in that terrible time just after he died, that there was a way to live with my grief. That I would drink with it at the pub one day in the future.” 

Alanna Duffield, London  

“Strength, patience and healing” 

“My losses have taught me all about strength, patience and healing. That includes the loss of my babies and my grandfather. It has taught me that bitterness only creates more pain and life does not stop. Grief teaches me the art of gratitude and self-care. That asking for help is OK. We all heal in our own time. That our days are a rollercoaster of emotions.” 

Ceese Kaur, Birmingham

“Forgive and let go”

“In 2007, my cousin, who I was very close to, was killed. This grief has taught me to forgive and to let go of things I can’t control.” 

Laura Gomez, London

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“You won’t ‘get over it’, but you can come to a more positive place.”

“You can come to a more positive place” 

“The main thing I’ve learned about grief is that you don’t ‘get over it’. The loss becomes part of you and you slowly move forward knowing that something has changed and shifted in the tapestry of your own life and that of your loved ones. 

The other thing about grief is to acknowledge when it isn’t getting better or becoming more ‘settled’ and seek help. Being stuck in grief is debilitating. You won’t ‘get over it’; however, you can come to a more positive place and sometimes we need help to get there.” 

Fiona Scott, Wiltshire 

“Accept help and talk to people”

“My mum had terminal cancer and passed away this year. I’ve suffered from lifelong mental illness and I’m autistic. I used to be very closed off. I’d always pretend I was fine, and I wouldn’t accept help from people. I’ve learned how important it is to accept help and talk to people. 

It was a really rough few months and I got through it because I had people around me to support me, but also because I was capable of accepting their support.” 

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, Manchester  

“I’m thankful for my friends”

“My mother was a public figure in India. She was the editor of the second-largest Bengali newspaper in the country. Her death came right before Covid and it was a big event, so it was hard to grieve privately. 

I’m an only child and if you don’t have a sibling it can make grief very lonely because you feel like a part of you is gone forever. That’s why grief has taught me to be extremely thankful for my friends. It’s so important to surround yourself with loved ones that you can treasure those thoughts and memories with.” 

Rupanjana Dutta, London

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