Grief is a difficult thing. Not just because it is, in itself, a difficult emotion to feel, but because of the collective cultural anxieties around how we’re supposed to feel it.
What does it mean to grieve correctly? How long should we do it for? Grieve for too long and you’re being dramatic, not long enough and you’re callous.
It’s the kind of thing we shouldn’t have to think about when we’re at our lowest point, and thankfully many of us will find ourselves surrounded by support more often than judgment. But we live in an era of constant surveillance and thoughtless commentary, so unfortunately there are always going to be people out there to criticise our grief, like some grim Paul Hollywood who specialises in sadness instead of sponge cakes.
Good Morning Britain host Kate Garraway found herself in exactly that position this week, as she returned to television following her husband Derek Draper’s funeral, drawing snide remarks from the usual suspects on social media who say that her return to work is “too soon”.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much Garraway has suffered over the past few years. Not only did her husband die, but he was ill for a long time, spending 13 months in hospital after contracting Covid-19 in March 2020. The virus left him with extensive organ damage, and he required daily care right up until his death in January.
To problem with “too soon” is that when it comes to death, everything is too soon. We aren’t really built to comprehend our own exit from this world, and we’re even less equipped to understand the deaths of those we love. According to reports, she has been trolled on social media for returning to work and being seen “laughing”.
“I got a bit of flack on social media for laughing, as though that would imply I didn’t care,” she told viewers this morning. “But when you laughing, you’re laughing because you want the joy that person brought to continue.
“And you know that people watching at home have got troubles in their life, and you want to share that joy with them. So it’s a licence to laugh and to cry and to be all things.”
There’s no right way to deal with any part of the grieving process – Kate would have been just as correct to never go in to work again as she would have been to go straight from the funeral. It’s her choice, and we should respect it.
I remember when my grandad died back in 2015, I was right at the beginning of my PhD, and was booked to speak at my first big international conference in Warsaw on the day of the funeral. After some back-and-forth with family, I decided to go ahead with the trip and, as it turned out, ended up presenting my paper (“Documents Were Written by the Masters: Susan Howe and the Material Text”) right at the point the eulogies were read.
That probably seems insensitive, but I’ve never really been a big funeral guy – I don’t know what I would have got from the ceremony that I didn’t already get from the knowledge that my grandad wasn’t going to be around anymore. My family, on the other hand, are all Irish Catholic, and the funeral was a moment of closure for them in a way that it wouldn’t have been for me.
I did attend my nanna’s funeral, though, a few years earlier when I was in university. I remember I brought my girlfriend along to the wake, and she was scandalised by how drunk we all ended up getting. It was hard to explain to her that the terrible music, the dancing, the off-colour jokes, and even the fights between my uncles, were all a part of the grieving process, and would probably happen at my own funeral (with my blessing).
I live in Northern Ireland now, where people sit with the body for a few days before the funeral. That’s something I can’t get my head around – the idea of being in the same room as a corpse seems way more morbid than skipping your grandad’s funeral for a women’s studies conference – but it brings them their own kind of peace. I wouldn’t be one for it myself, but like I said, it isn’t about me, or you, or anybody else who doesn’t have to deal with loss.
We’ll all find ourselves in Kate Garraway’s position eventually, albeit to varying degrees. If you’re of a mind to judge her, maybe pause and wonder what you’d do to cope if it was your husband, or grandad, or nanna, or anybody else. And then disregard whatever “appropriate” scenario you come up with, and realise that when the time comes, you’ll grieve in your own way, too.