Writer and broadcaster

I’ve buried half my family and have a sense of foreboding. Problem Solved. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa,

Until I was 25 I thought that bad things happened to other people’s families. My own family had largely escaped illness and death, apart from the inevitable passing of grandparents in my teens. I was living in New York when the call came that my younger brother had been diagnosed with cancer. A year after his diagnosis, my brother died. Then our mum got cancer and died two years later.

Over the next decade, we began to rebuild our lives and move forward. I returned to England to be closer to Dad, who was a source of strength and comfort. I married, had children, and progressed in my career. But all the while I had a gnawing anxiety that our dark days weren’t over. Two months ago, it happened. The dreaded phone call again. My dad, in his late 70s but apparently fit and well, had had a heart attack. The night before he was due to be discharged from hospital, he died in his sleep.     

After my two previous bereavements, I was prepared for the emotional impact, but nothing prepared me for the physical impact. Of previously robust health, I have lately become prone to episodes of light-headedness, of not having enough oxygen. I feel an incredible vulnerability, as if Dad’s death has left me exposed to whatever darkness appears to have descended on our family.  At 40 years of age, I have buried more than half my family. There is only me and my sister left. It feels as if my life is destined to be defined by funerals, as other people’s lives are defined by weddings and christenings. 

What strikes me most is how few of my friends and extended family have experienced anything like the loss we have. It feels like my family has become a lightning rod for tragedy.  I now know how fragile life is.  This knowledge makes it impossible to look forward without a constant sense of foreboding. With my own family, I have become panicky and risk-averse. Every minor childhood illness has become a precursor to something more sinister. This is no way to live. Please help me to see some light in all of this.

S, via email

I’m so sorry to hear about your three bereavements. That’s tough. No wonder you feel so vulnerable. Losing close family taps into something primal. You feel vulnerable and exposed. “A layer of people who helped you to feel safe has gone,” says Gabrielle Syme, a counsellor with a special interest in bereavement (bacp.co.uk). “It’s probably put you in touch with a much younger self, who was more frightened by the world.”

You are by no means alone in experiencing multiple bereavement. This isn’t in any way to lessen your experience – I think it will help you to know that you’re not alone.Syme advises you to get in touch with Cruse (crusebereavementcare.org.uk, tel: 0844 477 9400), you can talk one to one to a bereavement counsellor or attend local support groups (or both) where you can meet others who are in similar situations.

What about your husband and children – how are they coping with the loss? (winstonswish.org.uk is a children’s bereavement charity).

Syme co-wrote a book about how to deal with grief: The Gift of Tears (I think you should read it). She tells me that how we cope with grief is embedded in our emotional history. How we are affected by loss – going to school, a family pet dying, an elderly relative dying and so on – much depends on how we were taught to deal with them as children (which is why I think it’s important that your children are included in this discussion).

Syme wonders if you were able to properly grieve for your brother as your mother died so soon afterwards? She explains that when close family members die it’s as if we lose our definition – we don’t know who we are any more. We have to redefine ourselves. “Your whole description of yourself is different and you can have a feeling that you’re always doomed,” says Syme.

You’re not doomed. You do have a future. There may be no more bereavements now in your life for many, many years. But you need help to achieve a new kind of normal, to stabilise you and help you deal with all these difficult emotions.

Your problems solved

Contact Annalisa Barbieri, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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