Cathy Rentzenbrink was told “time heals”. The reality of grief, though, proved very different

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Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act Of Love and A Manual For Heartache, pens an essay for Jameela on the unpredictability of grief and the impact early loss had on her life. 

I was 17 when my brother, Matty, was knocked over by a car on a lonely dark road about a mile from where we lived in Yorkshire.

He was 13 months younger than me, and nine inches taller, and I adored him. He was clever, charming and funny. Often, he infuriated me but he was never boring and could always make me laugh, even when I was trying to stay cross with him when he failed to do his fair share of the parentally ordained domestic chores. 

Up until that night, life was happy, though I didn’t know it, preoccupied as I was with boyfriends and exams. I only fully realised the extent of my good fortune when it was taken away.

Lying on my bed a few days after the accident, I looked around at my possessions and failed to recognise them. It was as though it all belonged to someone else, like I was lying on some other girl’s bed.

I sensed then, new as I was to this world of grief and pain, that I had been irrevocably changed by the grenade that had exploded into our lives. My old innocent self had floated off somewhere in the confusion of being in the ambulance with Matty, or waiting for him to come out of surgery, or sitting by his bed in intensive care praying that the machines monitoring his heartbeat would continue to bleep.  

Matty didn’t die that night but he never regained consciousness and we had to endure eight cruel years before we could have a funeral and fully grieve for him.

I did a lot of ugly crying over those years and afterwards. Grief is not elegant or well-mannered, and I was often unable to control the way my distress burst out of me. I was a pariah, split off from my friends who were still worrying about boyfriends and exams, while I felt like someone had taken an axe to my heart.  

Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t pull through, that my heart might just give up and refuse to continue pumping blood around my beleaguered body. But I am still here.

These days I think that perhaps that is my function. Most of what my writing does is say, “I have endured this most terrible pain and I have survived. I have found ways to make life meaningful and have learned how to weave some joy in with the pain.”

Cathy lost her brother Matty when they were teenagers
Cathy lost her brother Matty when they were teenagers

It wasn’t always so. Wellmeaning people told me that time would heal, so I waited for the magic to happen and was full of bitter rage when no amount of hours, days, months and years could make me feel better.

Now I know that time is only as good as what you do with it, and that there is no point pining for our lost, innocent selves or our stolen, undamaged life. There is no reset button with grief, no way to restore factory settings. The trick – and this took me years to learn – is in being able to see that there is a life to be lived, even if it is not the one we expected to have. 

I’ve learnt that it is not so much that the heart heals, but that we can grow the flesh around the wound, so that the broken part takes up less space and is comforted and nourished by being surrounded by a larger, functioning whole.

Back when I was 17, I dreaded being bored. Now I don’t mind it so much. Once you’ve known the terror of watching your favourite person die a long and horrible death, a bit of boredom is almost attractive.

So many of the people who write to me after reading my books tell me about the grenade that has exploded into their own life and then say, “I wish I’d known how happy I was before.” It is difficult to be grateful for the absence of pain but I do try to live every day with the knowledge of how precious it would be, if it ended up being the last, normal one before life took a brutal twist.

The modern world is so exhausting, there is so much to worry about, but I don’t want to become so transfixed with global events, so caught up in the injustice and suffering that I see on my phone screen, that I forget to look around me and appreciate the beauty and kindness in my family and friends and in the vast majority of human beings.

If sorrow lurks – and it does, because everyone dies, and the only way not to expose yourself to grief is to avoid love – I don’t want to have been ungrateful for this present moment, for the often banal and trivial pleasures of the day to day. What my experience has ultimately taught me is that life itself is a precious and fragile privilege. We must never take it for granted. 

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Photography: Sarah Brick

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Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink is an author, self-confessed bookworm, books editor at The Bookseller and director of Quick Reads. She tweets here @CathyReadsBooks and blogs here. Her memoir The Last Act of Love about the heartbreaking death of her brother is out now from @picadorbooks

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