What I want to share with you is a topic that rarely sees the light of day, it is a very real but forgotten and unexpressed aspect of grief – envy.
I found the unexpressed aspect, dark side of grief – envy the most surprising as I didn’t expect it at all. Often when you hear about someone mourning and grieving; you tend to hear of the common emotional reactions to grief such as anger, guilt, fear, anxiety, and loneliness.
Sometimes I would go for my usual 2 hours non stop walk twice a day hoping that it would wear me out so that I can get more than the 2-3hr sleep I was getting every night. Did the walking help me sleep longer? Did I sleep longer than 3 hours? I wish it did, it made no difference to my sleeping pattern but that didn’t stop me from walking again.
Did you say, well then Tolu why not either get into the bath for a soak to relax your muscles or have a long hot shower? There’s something about grief and bathing that I am still yet to wrap my head around. In addition to sleep aids, one of our friends bought me 3 different types of malted milk drinks with a passionate conviction that it would help me sleep better. Let’s just say they had little effect.
The shock and numbness of the loss had a significant part to play in my lack of sleep. So it wasn’t physical exhaustion that was causing me to be tense and lose sleep, so physical remedies barely helped.
I remember an incident that happened as I went on my usual long walks. Lean in a bit, while I share details of the incident with you.
I had put on my usual army green jacket and a ‘brown-goldish’ scarf which my wife, Chidinma had worn on our way to the hospital. I tied the laces to my trainers and reported myself to my siblings and my sister-in-law that I was off for my walk.
The house was quiet and peaceful because the children had gone for an afternoon nap. Messages and phone calls were still pouring into my phone; so, I went walking without my phone.
I shut the door behind me as I embarked on my long walk, the weather was cloudy with a gentle cold breeze blowing upon my face and hand. I heard the jingling of keys and saw one of our lovely neighbours by their black door who was either about to enter their house or about going out.
I found myself ashamed, bowed my head, and walked as briskly as I could to avoid eye contact or conversation.
I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for them too, to think of what to say, how to say it, etc. I was also tired of sympathy, they were soothing I know I need it, but I wished I could give back all the sympathies and prayers and have my Chidinma back.
Now about fifteen minutes into my walk, my thought was abruptly interrupted by what I can describe as a high-pitched, tickling type of laughter from the belly by a three-year-old boy who had short blond hair, rosy cheeks; he was wearing a cute sky-blue jacket, blue jeans and a nice pair of trainers.
The dad: about 5 foot seven, barrel-chested, with a medium shade brown hair in dark blue sportswear with ear-to-ear laughter running after the toddler whilst his partner about the same height with a lighter shade of brown hair, appeared dainty as she pushed a buggy with a new-born baby who was wide awake with a dummy in her mouth.
I stopped walking and watched the dad and son run after each other; at times the toddler would run to his mother for shelter so that he could be temporarily rescued from his dad who was charging towards them with his hands wide open. Genuine laughter and love filled the air, and it was beautiful.
I was momentarily caught up in their joy, then found my thoughts becoming dark as I remembered that I am widowed and young, I began to ask why my Chidinma had to be the one to die, why not this stranger who had done nothing wrong to me.
In my envy I thought: “Why were they happy? Why should they be happy?”
Their laughter and joy began to irritate me, I wanted to shout at them, to shout at them to stop being so happy, I wanted to hurl something at them for being so happy and not as gloomy as I am. I no longer have my spouse.
The Macmillan dictionary describes envy as “the unhappy feeling or emotional state that you have when you want very much to do something that someone else does or to have something that they have.” Different religious and secular circles describe envy as one of the deadly seven sins.
They have something that I want, something that I can never have again, I continued walking, but now with a heavier load of guilt about the thoughts I had towards the lovely strangers who had done nothing to upset me. I know that jealousy and envy isn’t a good thing, but then it was bothering me.
The image of that happy family haunted me for many nights as the waves of envy, grief and sadness overpowered me intermittently. I had promised our daughter, Anisa, who was two years old that I would take her for a walk, toddlers have a way of reminding you of a promise you make to them, so I took her for a walk.
This time I took a different route, hoping that I wouldn’t see anything that would upset me, what do you think? You guessed it right! I did! This time I saw another happy family, only this time it was a girl about Anisa’s age riding a bicycle.
I had to be cautious about my expression because Anisa was with me and she was becoming quite good at mirroring responses and reactions. While she was running ahead of me I threw my fist in the air and muttered underneath my breath ‘give me a break!’ We continued our journey home and I decided that I will get Anisa a bicycle.
As we were about to get home, we saw our family friends who had parked and were walking ahead of us. It was a full family visit; seeing them felt like someone punched me in the gut. I took a long and deep breath because I was still recovering from the earlier scene and now our full family friends are here! These guys are our good friends, they have two children.
Their son who we fondly refered to as Chidinma’s boyfriend, even had a pet name for Chidinma; their daughter is my bae. They had also driven some good miles to be here and they also brought Anisa a bicycle!
We head into the house, the children are engaged giggling, and generally having fun with bouts of cries over ownership of a toy. Our friend prepares a meal, it’s not the first time she’ll prepare a meal for us, nor is it her first time preparing a meal in our house. When the meal was ready we sat eating and discussing funeral plans etc.
The internal raging war of envy was vicious at times drowning the conversation as unimaginable thoughts competed to take over my mind.
Envy is such a nasty emotion because unlike the rest it can be masked well, hidden out of sight. I would often attempt to shake and fight the thoughts and asked anyone talking to repeat himself or herself, and sometimes I would pretend to understand what was being said so as not to frustrate whoever was speaking by asking them to repeat.
The hardest was when they were leaving, one of our traditions as friends had always been seeing each other off to the car.
I watched as Anisa strolled hand in hand with her ‘brother and sister’ friends. They encouraged me further with kind words as we hugged and said goodbye. I watched as their children were tucked into their car seat, as the husband got into the drivers’ seat, as the wife got into the passenger seat. I watched as the car reversed and the family blew us kisses and waved goodbye as the car drove off.
My envy tank was bursting and overflowing as I saw the things that Chidinma and I would never do again, she would never sit in the passenger seat again, she would never buckle the children into the car seat again, she never even got to see their new car. The reality dawned on me again that I am a widower, it felt like a prison sentence.
Do I tell my friends that I am envious of them? How do I even begin to say it?
How do I tell those who are also grieving and propping me up that I am envious of them? I would find myself in a tailspin as I got upset and guilty for being envious of our very good friends. I would imagine their reaction if I told them that I was envious, they may become conscious of themselves around me or become guilty of what they have that I don’t have which won’t relieve my pain.
You never truly know your emotional responses until we are tested and challenged with one of life’s huge difficulties. I am learning to put things into perspective, that it’s not that I hate the happy family or our friends, I just hate seeing how these families remind me of the enormity of my loss and how it makes me feel desperately sad.
But I am envious, I am envious! I feel it most around people whose lives have parallels to my own.
Those similarities seem to highlight the one glaring difference all the more. I feel it most around people who are happy, who seem to have many things going their way, who are experiencing and expressing joy.
I recognised that I was envious of our family friends, I would ensure that I picked their calls and messages. I encouraged and welcomed more video calls where possible, they’ve visited again and again.
Your next question is probably “Tolu, are you no longer envious?”
I am learning to acknowledge and reframe this emotion, to face it head-on, and allow it to play out by not questioning or repressing it. I am learning not to judge myself for what I feel because I am unable to control what I feel, but what I can control is what I do with what I am feeling
I found myself not wanting to share this part of my grieving process and journey with you especially because envy is culturally and spiritually shamed, very few people are willing to acknowledge it to themselves much less admit it to others. I found the impact of this emotion so close to home.
I confided in a friend about not wanting to share this with you.
Below is an image of our conversation.
I have her to thank for encouraging me so to share. It has taken me a greater deal of courage to share with you a part of my grieving process which I am not proud of. I hope it helps you process your grief and loss as you may be journeying through envy.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below. Thank you.