• Kasia Borowczak

Conversation with Gustaw from Poland

Kasia - 5 months have passed since your father passed away and I can imagine these 5 months have not been exactly the same for you. How has your grief and its perception changed over time?

Gustaw - Grief is a concept that appears to me only from the perspective of others who perceive what I am going through. I have never identified myself in the grieving process before, I know I am in it, I know its stages, but I cannot look at it as a process because I am probably too early into it. In the first months, I played the role of my father who took care of everyone and as a consequence, I wanted to do as much as possible for my mother and sister, getting involved in a lot of activities that I had not done before. After a few months, I felt that I needed to rest because I was very overwhelmed by the fact that I was going through a loss myself and on top of that I was looking after many organizational matters and emotions of people close to me. What is difficult for me in this grieving process, if we look at it like this, is to visit my family home, where my mother lives and where nothing has changed since my father died. These visits make everything come alive. I also remember well the first days after my father's death. The breakfasts, lunches, and dinners my mom and I were having at home, and the constant crying. Now, with my mother, we are in such a strange dance with each other. Each of us suffers, but we are doing our best to hide this suffering and not to transfer it to one another.

Kasia - You are protecting yourself in a way and you don't want to add more suffering to the existing one.

Gustaw - Probably yes. So, the days and months after my father’s death are very grim and difficult. They seem to be devoid of colors, the colors of everything that was important in my life so far. For me, my father's death has also brought up questions relating to our lives. I wonder what all this is for and why we should always do our best, when in the end we will all turn to dust.

Kasia - As you said when we talked last week, the atheist perspective doesn't bring any comfort either.

Gustaw - For me, there is nothing else there and this is probably the biggest shock left after my father's death. The question arises why I am in this world. I was looking for the answer in books and articles, I was trying to find a source I could rely on, but it is not easy at all. And due to the fact that I did not find any satisfactory answer and even how to find it, I started asking my friends what was important to them and how they would spend their lives if they did not have to go to work. I was contemplating on their answers, but some of my friends remained silent.

Kasia - So it looks like we don't think about it too often.

Gustaw - Or it is just too difficult to find the answer, which showed me a bit that I am not alone in facing this issue, and that my father's death only made it more visible.

Kasia - The loss of a loved one is not only about the death event, but about the elements and situations that this death awakens. It is not easy, during such a difficult period, to face thoughts and reflections about the meaning of our life.

Gustaw - It's true. I have noticed that these thoughts dominate in this period after my father's death. It's like that also because he died at a very unusual age, from a statistical perspective, because he was 59 years old. He passed away still having plans and a will to live, which makes me think how much time I have got.

Kasia - Last time when we talked, you mentioned that it is difficult for you to talk about your loss. I wonder what made it so difficult? Is talking to others too difficult for you or have you been discouraged by inadequate support attempts?

Gustaw - Both, you know? On the one hand, it's hard for me to talk about it because I feel misunderstood. But on the other hand, I often see that many people, because they have never experienced it, do not understand what I am going through. And I don't blame them, I just see that this conversation is unattainable for them because they still have parents and maybe even feel that they can lose them, but for now they push the thought away and look at it differently. I remember well when one of my friend’s parents died and how she experienced it. I did not understand it well then, because I was in such a place that I did not know what it meant to lose a parent. In conversations with people who are religious or have different views on life and death, I also come across emotions that somehow contradict what I feel and think. In my case, it is more about nihilism, and sometimes I even see optimism in such conversations. I remember that someone said to me: 'But look, you should be happy because your father had a good life'.

Kasia - Hearing such words at the beginning of your grief period probably brings more pain than comfort.

Gustaw - Yes, though, I didn't feel hurt but it was very contradictory to me because I felt the importance of what my father had lost by thinking about how good his life was. The only conversations in which I felt more empathy, peace and understanding about what was happening to me were with people who also lost their parents. We talked about how each of us was dealing with it, and on which stages we were at that moment because a different time after our parents’ death has passed for each of us. In other conversations, I feel a bit like if I got hurt by a barbed wire. I didn't seem to hurt myself badly, but there is something causing an unpleasant scratch. I think this is mainly due to the lack of this experience.

Kasia - I think so. When you speak to people who have not experienced a loss, you know that having a conversation with them won't be an experience you can really cry over together, knowing that the other person has a deep understanding of what you may be struggling with and what you are going through.

Gustaw - My father’s death is still very recent and alive for me. When someone raises this topic, it gets quite difficult because I am still experiencing a lot of emotions. A few times I felt that the question ‘How are you doing?’ was so courteous, a bit superficial, and I sensed the sender's attempt to escape and avoid this subject despite asking the question. On the one hand, someone pulls out the cork, which is blocked by a lot of difficult feelings, but on the other hand, they are not ready for whatever comes out of it. So I think it would be better if people, who don't want to face the difficult emotions the person who is in grief is experiencing, didn’t ask such questions, because it's more hurtful than a sincere intention to accept whatever is said. It is possible that without having experienced the death of a loved one, it is difficult to understand what harm can be done.

Kasia - And this creates a kind of crack and a lack of trust in this area in relations with others.

Gustaw - However, I think it is not a result of others’ bad intentions. It is more about our awkwardness around it and the fact that no one taught us how to talk and support people who are grieving.

Kasia - And why is it so difficult to support loved ones, in your case your mother and sister, who are going through the same loss?

Gustaw - I think it's difficult for two reasons. The first reason is that you have your own suffering and you see the suffering of people who are close to you. The second reason is that a loop of self-worrying is being created over this loss. And being in such a loop, two people who lost a loved one, are unable to help themselves, not having someone who can block movement in this loop. And these are the things that hinder that support. Being also with a close person, for example with my mother, we don’t talk only about the pain of our loss, but also about memories from the past and reflection on what I would have liked to do differently. In my case, those conversations certainly awaken a lot of reflection on the time devoted to my family, on whether I tried enough to build a relationship with my father and mother. So it all opens up a lot of side topics.

Kasia - I also have a reflection that we are not necessarily always ready to reflect and analyse what the death of a loved one awakens in us. Unfortunately, it seems to me that if we don't pay too much attention to it, these thoughts will get us sooner or later.

Gustaw - It is interesting what you are saying, because I am not sure if it is so. Perhaps I would like to believe that we are able to get away from it for the sake of feeling better. I wish my loved ones did not have to go through this, and hence my idealistic hope that maybe some people can get away from it.

Kasia - So you are not wishing it to your relatives, and yourself?

Gustaw - I think it is too early to answer that definitively. Would I like to go through this? No, I wouldn't. But would I like to suppress it now? Probably not, because I feel that the reflections that accompany me after my father's death may be groundbreaking for me and the rest of my life. Sometimes I would like to feel less and experience this pain less intensely, but I would not like to completely remove it from my life.

Kasia - In our culture, gradually men are being allowed to feel and show emotions. Do you give yourself such inner permission and acceptance to feel different emotions?

Gustaw - I give myself space for emotions and feelings, but I must admit that there are several years of therapy behind it, which allowed me to do so. As a young man, starting work and working under stressful conditions in a large organization, I did not even allow myself to stress and think how I was feeling. I was not able to release these negative emotions and they were accumulating in my body in various pains and psychosomatic symptoms. Years later, I began to understand that what my body was feeling were the negative emotions I was suppressing. Slowly, step by step, I began to learn to notice them, see what was behind them and manifest them, not for others, but for myself. And that's another thing nobody teaches us. This is slowly changing in society, but most men still live in the paradigm of being an emotional shell, and that comes at a cost. The position taken by men in various social groups, whether at work or at home, stands in opposition to giving space for emotions.

Kasia - The direct cause of your father's death was coronavirus infection. How has your perception of the whole pandemic changed after you and your family were hit by it in the saddest way?

Gustaw - I feel some kind of helplessness. To give you full context, my father was treated for leukemia and infected with the coronavirus in the hospital. He was infected with it in a place where people should find the best safety conditions and hope that this is a place where someone's life can be saved, not lost through some neglect. My helplessness comes from the fact that I am not surprised that it happened, because Poland has, in my opinion, a very poor health service. We also greatly underestimate its employees who perform serious roles and earn less than people in nonsensical positions in corporations. I feel frustration at people who ignore the virus, try to build conspiracy theories or explain that it was planned, because I really felt the effects of this virus. My humility towards what has been happening has also increased. Even though we fly into space, do amazing things as homosapiens and think we rule the planet and its forces, we really cannot control everything. And that's probably what's left of this experience, from what my father experienced to my attempt to imagine the multiplication of how many people died. At the moment, there are probably 50,000 officially confirmed deaths in Poland, in the USA it is half a million. These are huge numbers.

Kasia - And behind these numbers people going through bereavement.

Gustaw - Exactly.

Kasia - Is there anything else you would like to tell me in the context of your father’s death which is crucial but you can't talk about it because nobody asks?

Gustaw - You know, there is one thing. It has to do with my attempt to help treat my father. I started to get involved in organizing things for him when his treatment progress was slow and not very dynamic. What is behind it is my responsibility for what happened. I feel like I could have done more, done things differently and this feeling is still with me. A lot of the people, with whom I brought this up, said that it's not true, that I did what I could, but I can list a few things I could have done better. The consolation that I have received is quite irritating, because in me there is a feeling of incompletion and not achieving everything I could. Anyone who supports in an illness period and then deals with death carries such a silent burden that more could have been done. And many feel reluctant to talk about it, because relatives and friends, most often out of concern, silence these thoughts, and as a result I choose not to talk about it and feel completely alone with it.

Translated from Polish by Kasia Borowczak

Corrected by Jen Fearnley