A Year in Reflection | 2021 | On Grief and Good Days

Home » A Year in Reflection | 2021 | On Grief and Good Days

2021 has been a difficult year. For me, it has been harder than 2020 was. 2021 has been full of grief. My grief has been of the standard variety, albeit a type of grief that those who don’t bond strongly with animals will never understand. In February Ed and I said goodbye to our beautiful cat Minou. She was the most wonderful friend to us both and to this day, ten months later, I still think of her every single day and miss her dearly. I will never get over the loss of Minou, and I will always miss her, but I have learned to live with the grief and it no longer brings tears. Just last night I dreamed that Minou came back to visit us, which I know is impossible but made sense in dreamland.

Then there’s the complex grief known as dementia grief, which is a form of anticipatory grief. This is a slow burn grief lived out over many years, but which has become ever more present in my life this year and which has floored me on more than one occasion. Dementia grief hurts because the person is still alive, still with you, but they’re not. You say “goodbye” over and over again, putting facets of your relationship with the person to rest as cognitive decline progresses, and each time it brings forth a wave of emotion. As with animal grief, it is a type of grief that those who haven’t been through it might struggle to understand, though I have been lucky to have a small number of people around me who have been encouraging and supportive and recognise just how difficult it is. My family on Ed’s side are no strangers to dementia, so I’ve found a sense of solidarity there too.

I am also grieving for the way I thought life in my thirties would be. I feel like I am twenty years older than I am as most people go through this in their fifties not their thirties, and my emotions range from sadness to fear to anger to bitterness to resentment, mostly settling on guilt. Guilt that I am not enough, was not enough, will never be able to do enough. It’s a heady mix. Coupled with this is the feeling that I am under a gagging order, that I can’t speak about it, that speaking about it is disloyal or unethical or just improper. The stiff upper lip culture I was raised with has me under lock and key, made more complicated by the most challenging symptom of dementia: denial and lack of insight. “There’s nothing wrong with me, I don’t want to talk about it, I just want things to be normal.”

2021 was the year that my mother ceased to recognise me as her daughter. On good days, she knows who I am by name, but I am her sister, or her mother, or some lady that the family knows. Strangely enough, that didn’t faze me as I saw it coming and prepared myself. The moments that catch me out are mundane and everyday; when I instinctively reach for her hand when crossing a road, for the first time in thirty years, or am leaning over the bathtub, washing her hair for her, and reassuring her as I would a young child that it’s nearly over and we’ll get warm and dry soon. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the role reversal of looking after your parents when they grow old, but I certainly didn’t expect to be in this position as young as I am. Mum had me at just shy of forty and became ill young – in hindsight the earliest signs were there from her late fifties or early sixties – and so here we are.

But enough about the grief. The 2020s are going to be full of it, because this is my life at the moment and there’s no turning away. Yet I don’t want to look back on my thirties and just remember the grief. I don’t want to just remember the bad things, the lows, the 3am Duck Duck Go and academic research paper archive searches, and the existential terror that comes with witnessing your maternal grandmother and then your mother slowly step into the dark over the course of twenty years and wondering if you are third in line to the throne. Note: dementia is only hereditary in a very small number of instances. Having a close relative with dementia raises your personal risk, but from something like 2% to 3%. Lifestyle – eating well, exercising, using your brain and maintaining social links – are thought to help mitigate and reduce risk. At 3am my brain tells me that three follows two just like two follows one, but the data is too scant and besides, the correlation might be lifestyle – lack of exercise, poor sleep from shift pattern work – and co-morbidities – untreated mental ill health – rather than genetics.

“Genetics are not destiny” and “the future is not yet written” are mantras I repeat to myself when my mind takes me to the darkest corners.

And so, to the highlights. I don’t mean “shit sandwich” highlights or the silver linings of dark clouds. I mean genuinely lovely things, happy moments, and memorable experiences that made 2021 a good year, in spite of everything that’s happened personally and politically.

This year was the year that I finally pushed through my fear of failure, and my fear of what other people think of me, and started publishing videos on YouTube regularly. I still struggle to try to explain to others what it is I am doing, or the point of it all. To those who have only ever had conventional salaried “proper jobs”, a creative career and creative aspirations are anathema. Regardless, I have steadily put out videos and I am ending the year feeling quietly optimistic about my trajectory on YouTube. It’s a slow burn, but I have confidence in myself and my abilities. If I just keep at it, I know that eventually I will get my channels – documentaries & tutorials | quiet vlogs & ASMR – to a position where they are earning me part of my income, so that I am less reliant on events. Given that we’ve just had restrictions reintroduced to combat the Omicron variant, events remain unreliable.

In the spring and summer Ed and I established a lovely peaceful ritual of going up to Sutton Park in the evenings, he for a run and me for a photo walk. Golden hour in the park, under the ancient oaks, is always magical. I really enjoyed spending time near the ponies and by the lakes, and look forward to picking up the pieces of this ritual once daylight returns in March. We often coupled our visits to the park with a meal at Pitalicious in Sutton Coldfield, which is one of our favourite places to eat in the city. It’s a Lebanese restaurant known for falafel wraps and Lebanese street food. The food is delicious, the staff are really friendly, and the decor is really lovely there too. Most people get a takeaway delivered by courier, so it’s usually quiet for dining in.

In August whilst hiking in the Brecon Beacons, Ed and I came across a band of wild mountain ponies. It was the first time we’d seen so many horses in the mountains in Wales, it was breathtaking having them cross paths with us.

In October we spent a lovely couple of days camping down in Cornwall. It was the first time we’d been away on holiday in two years, and watching the ocean crash against the cliffs was so relaxing. Two days away felt like a week. I’m so glad we could make it happen.

I read War and Peace from cover to cover, and I never thought I’d say that! I actually enjoyed it, too.

I picked up a houseplant habit last year, and this year the hobby has brought me so much happiness. Sitting and tending to my plants, drinking my tea whilst stroking leaves each morning, is really soothing. I am so proud of myself for finally working out how to keep houseplants alive. In years to come I will be able to look at each of my plants and remember the difficult times they helped me ride out.

Next week Ed and I are welcoming a new family member into our lives, a thirteen week old chocolate point Siamese kitten. The excitement of watching him grow (through regular photos the GCCF registered breeder shares), choosing a name for him, preparing our home for him, and talking about him endlessly has given us both a kind of childlike joy we had long forgotten. We cannot wait to meet him, to bring him home with us, and to start this new chapter in our lives together. We will always love and miss Minou, but we feel ready to open our hearts again.

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