For as long as I can recall when asked to discuss family or asked to draw a picture of my family at school, my response was always met with awkward intrigue. I would draw my sister, and two glamorous women, one white, the other mixed-race and watch the cogs of the polite middle-class mind try and work it all out. Where’s the dad? What colour is the dad? Which ones the mum? A lesbian couple?
As a society when thinking of a ‘conventional’ family, more often than not we still visualise a mum, dad and a few kids. This standardisation has always seemed strange to me. My sister and I were raised by my mum and my nan. Nan was 47 when my older sister was born and she stepped in from day one to help raise us, moving only a few doors down from mum which enabled us to live between the two houses.
Nan played an unusual but vital role. She was a number of important people rolled into one. Not only technically a grandparent but a parent, and as I got older a great friend too-not to mention our 4th emergency service in any crisis. June last year, after an evening spent with mum, nan died of a sudden heart attack.
We don’t talk about death enough in this country, which is strange considering it is one of our only guarantees. You are never prepared for a sudden death but our general societal silence around the topic is irresponsible and intensifies the panic. I was lucky, nan was often making death-related, kick-the-bucket jokes despite her young age and health. On reflection, it was probably her way of subtly preparing her three ignorant chicks for life’s inevitable and emphasising laughter’s imperative role in providing relief in the most difficult of times.
The shove into a totally abnormal new reality without the person who represented stability in your life is not only deeply painful but very odd. The consequential isolation induced by grief was worsened by the cultural awkwardness and lack of understanding of non-conventional family units, coming from both strangers and friends.
Julia Samuel writes ‘death is the last great taboo; and the consequence of death, grief, is profoundly misunderstood.’ She notes that research demonstrates how ‘unresolved grief is at the root of 15 percent of psychiatric referrals.’(Grief Works, Introduction Xii, Xiii). Indeed, whilst it is already acknowledged that the West has an awkward and often emotionally- repressed approach to death and grieving, my grief felt unvalidated because my family unit didn’t fit the cultural narrative of grieve-ability.
When people discovered nan had died, it was clear they struggled to recognise the enormity of our loss; it felt as though her title of nan rather than dad meant culturally it was far less tragic. Whilst it seems natural for us to want to console through our own experiences of bereavement, individuals would often jump to discuss their own late grandparents which more often than not, were a removed elderly figure that would send a cheque at Christmas -not the engine of their family nor a parental figure.
It is difficult to find data on this. But from my own anecdotal experience as mixed-race, growing up in a working class family in a predominately white middle class area; it seems as though working class and ethnic minority families in the UK are more likely to have heavier involvement with their grandparents or perhaps a less stereotypical family unit.
Whilst I wasn’t looking for self-indulged sympathy nor an outpouring of despair (which would have been equally as uncomfortable as the confusion), I felt the lack of understanding of nan’s role and thus my family, ultimately equated to a vast misunderstanding of myself. I often felt frustrated that I almost had to justify her role explicitly in order to justify my grief.
I am a freelance artist, I didn’t have to go straight back into an office after she passed away. My sister however was in full-time employment and ‘naturally’ wasn’t offered as generous a compassionate leave as someone who had lost a parent; despite that being exactly what she was.
Grief can be incredibly lonely. Grieving in a society that does not enable much space for grief is difficult enough. The generalised perception of ‘nuclear families’ certainly leads to a void in understanding, even from well-intentioned people. In my experience, the one-dimensional narrative exacerbates the isolation of grief and leaves you feeling on the periphery of accepted cultural norms. As my wonderful nan forewarned me; death is a given, one day we will all ‘pop our clogs.’ Humans and families are complex and as a society, we need a more nuanced and inclusive perception of family, whatever form that may take. As well as a far more open and honest approach to death in order to support one another.