Mindful life: How hungover crying helped my mental health

We spend much of our lives trying to avoid grief. But what if we are missing out on its clarifying power

June 15, 2024
Illustration by Clara Nicoll
Illustration by Clara Nicoll

It was 4.30pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a dangerous time of day for emotional spiralling, and I clattered into my flat after brunch and a riverside stroll with two of my closest friends—one of whom, Aneeta, relocated to Singapore two years ago. As I opened the door a photo sprang up from Facebook on my phone screen—a candid snap of me at four years of age, holding an ice cream and smiling at my gramps as he smiles back at me, holding the scribbly, handmade birthday card I’d given him. I was hit with a sudden wave of grief so powerful that I collapsed on the sofa in great juddering sobs, despite the fact Gramps died 12 years ago now.

I was bowled over by the force of how much, in that moment, I missed this gentle, quiet, calm man, who was one of life’s true eccentrics. A man who was a lover of pickled onions, After Eight mints, tai-chi, Gilbert and Sullivan, badminton and a roast dinner at a shabby Leicester hotel called Time Out. A man who resolutely refused to begin the day before having a leisurely cooked breakfast, a thorough cover-to-cover read of his paper (the Daily Mail, unfortunately) and a mug of fresh coffee. A man who made the 86-minute-long drive to Stourbridge from Oadby every Thursday after school, armed not only with a gingerbread man and a Magnum ice-cream each for my sister and me, but also a magazine with a toy! It is difficult to conceive of a more excellent bounty for a child, and I counted down the days until Thursday every week.

These flashes of profound grief are rare in the humdrum of daily life

Of course, on this unexpectedly grief-ridden Saturday afternoon I was feeling especially dramatic because, yes, I was hungover and a bit hormonal. But I think there was also another trigger that made my grandfather’s death so suddenly present. In spending time and having so much fun with a friend who I hadn’t seen for a year—the night before we had debased ourselves on the cramped dancefloor of the Simmonds bar at King’s Cross—I was forced to reckon with another kind of grief. The grief that one of my greatest friends is no longer just down the corridor or on the other side of the same city, but on the other side of the world.

Though I may have looked deranged as I sobbed on my sofa, I wasn’t actually feeling sad. Instead, I was experiencing an overwhelming gratitude, struck with a sense of clarity: the people you love are all that matters. As I cried, thinking of Gramps’s birthday, or dancing with abandon with Aneeta, I finally felt the appreciation that such moments deserve. The family trip to Devon we had at Easter felt so perfect and gilded and special that I wanted to stop time—I choked up at the train station as I waved goodbye to my dad. “Please don’t get any older,” I wanted to turn around and scream at him. “Stay exactly as you are.“

These flashes of profound grief are rare in the humdrum of daily life. They are momentary reminders of the reality that we cannot hold onto these perfect moments, to these wonderful people who we love—that we constantly risk losing them to distance, to illness, to death, to the vicissitudes of fate. It is easier to fritter away time worrying about other more material concerns: in my case, my career, my finances and how I’m gaining weight, than to sit with this stark truth.

So many of us spend much of our lives trying to avoid grief, and quite understandably so, because there is nothing beautiful about the sickening, debilitating grief that comes with the terrible losses that many people face. But for those of us whose griefs are smaller, or which have faded with time, I wonder if we would do better to embrace the emotion, to feel its clarifying power. To accept grief as, in the words of psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes, “the price we pay for love”. As I sobbed on my sofa, I realised that it’s a price I’d pay a thousand times over.