We're often lost for words and actions when faced with others' grieftrokilinochchi

My mum has always said that a phone call early in the morning never brings good news.

However, when she rang me at 8.40am on the Tuesday of Week 1, I thought she was calling for a catch-up before work. I didn’t expect her to tell me my grandfather, her father, had died earlier that morning.

My reaction was one of grief and shock: grief for the loss of such an important figure in my life, shock because I had seen him only two weeks previously, spending the whole day with him and my grandma, drinking wine and vodka and eating a three-course meal. And shock because I never really expected him to die, the taciturn yet caring Polish patriarch who had survived so much, who had soldiered on as a refugee and built himself a successful life in England. I had never imagined that I would lose him when I had so much of my life to share, and when I wanted to find out so much more about his.

My friends offered to talk, to bring me tea, to give me a hug. My DoS offered to email the necessary supervisors, to explain my situation. I got texts and emails throughout the next couple of days, just checking up on me. I couldn’t have asked for more.

“What do you say to someone who has just lost the vital essence of their life? What do you do when all they can do is sit, clutching a cat, because it’s the only tangible piece left of the life that has just shattered around them?”

And it was understandable when my friends and college started to forget what had happened. Something that in my world felt so important just didn’t feature so highly in theirs. It’s not that they didn’t care, but they became careless. One friend, on seeing me leave for the funeral, yelled ‘Have fun!’ My most important supervisor didn’t receive an email from my DoS excusing me from the first essay. I was faced with having to blurt out the reason for my un-submitted work out of the blue. It seemed like after the primary shock, people didn’t know what to do when the wound had closed but was still throbbing with pain.

I can understand it. Because I feel the same when faced with the grief of my grandma.

My grief as a grandchild is, obviously, huge. However, the grief of my grandma is on an entirely different scale. She lost the most important piece of her life, a piece that she first met when she was 16, a piece that was her last physical link to her home country, a piece that she met on a refugee lorry on her way to England after the war, and then turned up a few years later in a Polish club in London, and a piece that her mother had got annoyed at because he spent every subsequent evening at their house, wooing her daughter.

What do you say to someone who has just lost the vital essence of their life? What do you do when all they can do is sit, clutching a cat, because it’s the only tangible piece left of the life that has just shattered around them? And, what do you do when that person has dementia and keeps repeating the same words of grief, the same phrases of agonising sadness?

On that Tuesday, I drove straight up to my grandma’s house. My family and I kept her company, making cups of tea and coffee. We were there to listen. We listened to the repeated talk of how her life had just changed, hearing the same phrases until I could repeat them word for word. And every time they made me cry even harder.

We used to joke at my grandma’s repetitions, counting the number of times on each visit she asked me whether I had a boyfriend, or how tall I was, or if I knew what I wanted to do after graduation. My answers to these would lead her into the same circular stories, stories of her childhood and life which I loved to listen to over and over.

There’s nothing funny, however, about listening to the outpourings of grief. We were there for her, we provided support and we proved to be good cat catchers for when the cat tried to escape. The rest of the family coped, upset but active, sorting out the bureaucracy and staying with my grandma for two weeks before the funeral.

I couldn’t. I still can’t. It upsets me so much to see her drifting across this sea of life with no anchor left to hold her. I don’t know what to say or how to react. On the day of the funeral we had to tell her five times that the day had arrived, that we were going to church, that it was time to say goodbye. And five times I had to see her face crumble, trying to keep herself composed.

I can’t work out what to do, what to say. I want to help her, to make her pain go away. But I know there is no chance of that happening, that it will only lessen eventually with the passing of time. So I sit next to her chair, stroking the cat and holding her hand, crying with her: crying at her stories, crying at her memories, again and again, over and over. And crying for my own lack of understanding