I had a conversation with an acquaintance the other day which went something like this:
Them: “You look miserable today, what’s the matter?”
Me: “Jessica’s dead.”
Them: “Oh, is that all?”
Me: “Yes, that’s all.”
That’s all. Just a trivial thing really. Living with the suffocating weight of grief. Enduring life rather than enjoying it. Having to wake up every morning of my life without Jessica. The rest of my life stretching before me – all those days yet to live; each of them to be lived without Jessica in them. I mean, it’s been a year now. You’d have thought I’d have adjusted to this normality.
Of course, she didn’t mean to trivialise Jessica’s death. She meant “is there something else that’s upset you today?” Her words were clumsy, but they weren’t meant to be hurtful. I knew that. And to be honest, I could forgive her for thinking that most of the time everything is okay. Because that’s what she usually sees.
This is the mask I wear.
Most of the time you see me. Out and about. Smiling. Laughing. Being “normal” – whatever that means. You might ask me how I am. I’ll probably say I’m ok – or surviving – my stock answers. We might talk about Jessica. I’ll chat about her; always glad of an opportunity to talk about her. You’ll look sympathetic. I’ll shrug and say, “it’s tough.” You’ll appreciate that it’s tough, that life without my child is hard. Maybe you’ll say that you admire my strength, how well I cope, my positivity.
This is the mask I wear.
I rarely take the mask off in public. You might see it slip every now and then, but I’ll still be doing my best to hide behind it as much as I can. You might wonder why I feel the need to hide behind it. This is why:
Grief is uncomfortable. Strong emotions are uncomfortable. They’re uncomfortable for you to see and I can assure you that they’re even more uncomfortable for me to endure. If I remove the mask; if I let it slip, I know I will make you uncomfortable and awkward. I will be acutely aware of your discomfort. I do not want to have to manage your discomfort on top of my own pain. So, I hide my pain to protect both of us.
I sugarcoat my grief to make it palatable.
You see what I want you to see. Someone strong; someone who tries hard to stay positive whilst dealing with unimaginable pain. Both of us are more comfortable that way.
Behind the mask is ugly and raw.
I bumped into another acquaintance recently. I’d needed to get out of the house – the four walls were closing in on me; suffocating me. Grief was overwhelming me. She saw me, half-hidden in the corner of a coffee shop, looking down at the table so that no-one would notice that I was silently crying into my latte. She didn’t realise until she’d said “hello” and I’d looked up.
“Hello.” I forced a smile through the tears.
She looked sympathetic. “Bad day?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She nodded, accepting my need for space. “I’m sorry. I hope your day gets better.”
I appreciated her sympathy and concern. But the mask was slipping and so hard to hold in place. I didn’t want to talk. I knew if I started to talk, the floodgates would open.
Behind the mask is ugly and raw. So ugly and raw.
Behind the mask, I’m crying so hard that my body physically hurts from crying. Feeling like I’ve been broken into a million pieces and wondering how on earth those pieces can ever come back together. Screaming until my throat hurts and I have no voice left. Behind the mask is pain. Unimaginable, unbearable pain.
Behind the mask is anger. So much anger. Anger at the world for continuing to turn; at God for taking my child from me. Anger at all the happy faces I see on my social media; all those happy, complete families. Envy – all-consuming envy. Why can’t that be me? Why them and not us?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want anyone else to be living with the pain I live with. I just wish that I could be part of your world again.
Because behind the mask is exile and loneliness. I go to baby groups; do normal everyday things, but often it feels as though I am watching daily life through glass. Part of it, but not part of it. Separated by this huge chasm that is child loss.
Behind the mask is a chasm of sadness. So much sadness. Always there. Each day, I cross the chasm on a flimsy bridge. Every now and then, I fall off the bridge into the chasm of sadness. Sometimes the depth of it terrifies me. I am scared that I will just keep falling. But something holds me up and pulls me back on the bridge.
There are many days when I hide behind my mask. There are days when the mask feels heavy and hard to hide behind. When I shut myself away from the world and let the mask drop. When I allow myself to feel the pain and the anger because that is what I need to do.
I wear the mask to hide my pain from others; but I also wear it to try and hide from the pain myself. Trying to push away the pain and the rawness and the ugliness of grief.
And sometimes I look in the mirror and see the mask and see someone who is strong and positive and able to keep going. Sometimes I see the mask and it helps me to believe that I can be that person too. Sometimes the mask gives me the strength to smile and laugh and be the mummy that Jessica would want me to be.