Grief and hearing loss 

When I was 18 I experienced a massive drop in my hearing. I’d gone from having a severe loss to a profound one but the drop was so sudden it was hard to deal with at first.

I’d changed from being someone who wore hearing aids when I felt like it to a person that couldn’t live without them. 

Nobody really explained why it happened the way it did. 

My sister and I were both born hearing (apparently- there were no newborn screenings then) and our high frequency hearing losses weren’t detected until we were at primary school. My parents were told it was likely our hearing would deteriorate as we got older due to the hairs in the cochlear that transmit sound slowly dying. 

So my loss of sound was a gradual one up until my eighteenth year. 

The drop in hearing I encountered was a big one. So much that I was offered counselling to come to terms with the loss and the therapist introduced the process of grief to me. 

I remember being confused. Grief? I haven’t suffered a bereavement? But they explained that losing a sense has similar effects to a physical loss and the process of accepting and adapting to this enormous change is almost identical. 

First there’s denial. I sure felt that. It was no big deal I kept saying to my Mum. I didn’t want to talk about how I couldn’t hear the TV anymore or even my own voice when I screamed… just get on with things. That was my initial response. 

But then came the anger. Anger at how unfair it was, how cruel life could be; feeling out of control and helpless to do anything as my hearing slipped away. 

The counsellor explained that the phases of grief are not linear and can return in waves throughout your life. The trick is to ride the waves as they came and not to fight them. 

Since those sessions I’ve come a long way and I’ve fully accepted what I can/can’t hear. Maybe it’s different when you’re born deaf as you may not know what you’re missing. But to have full hearing and then lose it the way I did is something that definitely has its moments of sadness.

It was a couple of years ago now, that my sister and I went to the Big Reunion concert; where all our favourite bands of the late 90s and early 00s played. We were beyond excited as we had grown up listening to these groups and singing them together. 

The opening act was A1 who performed a cover of Aha’s Take On Me. I adored the song and even performed to it as a young girl but as the show started and the crowd went crazy, I stared at the stage, confused. 

Nothing made sense acoustically. Where was the electro melody? The high pitched keyboard synthesiser? All I could hear was screams and a strange thumping bass. 

That’s when the grief hit me in the stomach. God I missed music.

I missed hearing it properly. Not with strained ears in a quiet room, focusing intently just to hear something familiar. I missed the ease of popping a song on and being instantly transported. I missed being involved in that world. 

I watched the rest of the concert in bittersweet nostalgia. Happy to see the bands and routines I recognised but sad that I could no longer participate in fully enjoying them. 

I still love music but my relationship with it has changed. I tend to stick to the oldies that my brain recognises and when I do learn a new song it takes me a while to study and revise all the layers; the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, the overlapping sounds. It’s hard work but a labour of love. 

I know that I’m not alone in experiencing a sense of loss from time to time. I’m aware that amongst all the jokes and banter and the big D little d debates, there are individuals who are perhaps still coming to terms with a change in their hearing. 

So if you are struggling or if this deaf world is still new or alien to you, please don’t be afraid to get professional support. 

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Read my lips… 

I just laughed. It seemed to work though as he chuckled back at me then wandered off. 

It was an old guy who had said something randomly to me as I pushed my daughters buggy. She had stared at him straight-faced as he walked by so he murmured something witty/sarcastic/humorous/who knows… 

The truth is I didn’t have a clue what he said. 

So I laughed. And it worked. Phew. 

More often than not I will say the usual “I’m deaf can you say that again?” But it takes effort and patience to lipread and on this particular occasion I bluffed my response for the sake of some energy. 

I cringe when I recollect the times that “winging it” when it comes to lip reading didn’t work. Getting chatted up in nightclubs was always a nightmare, guessing the questions in the dark…

What’s your name? 

Rebecca

Where you from?

*nods head*

You don’t know where you live? 

*laughs* no thank you. 

To my hearing friends,  it was hilarious (thanks guys) but they – like my deaf buddies – urged me to be straight up and out with my deafness. That way I’d filter out the people that had no patience for my lipreading and save my time anyway. 

Truth be told, I’m not a bad lipreader. Once my eyes are hooked onto a lip pattern and I’ve worked out an accent, and the general rhythm or speed of the speech I can usually manage okay. But reading lips isn’t a science, there’s an awful lot of guess work, intuition and filling-the-gaps.

But seeing as I got myself some new specs to help my short sightedness I’ve been having a ball lip reading people from afar. I’m not talking about miles away, that’s just daft. 

But if you see me with my glasses on and deep in concentration, I’m probably “eye-wigging” a conversation that’s happening around me. If hearing people can ear-wig, I’ll do the deaf equivalent 😉

I find it so interesting how some people are naturally easier to lipread than others. I tend to gravitate towards those who speak a little more animatedly as they’re easier to read but at the other end of the scale I stay away from those who pointedly exaggerate and change their lip patterns for my ‘benefit.’ 

If you’re hearing and you’re reading this you’re probably thinking so speak clearly but not too clearly, huh?! So I’ll clarify. My fave pointers for being lipreader friendly are as follows:

  1. Positioning matters. We don’t lipread sideways, it’s face on. So always stand in the direction of the lipreader. And avoid standing in front of a window, mirror or direct sunlight, you’ll just get scowls, squinty eyes and lipreaders struggling to follow you. 
  2. As mentioned earlier, don’t be too random. Blurting out “drinks?!” can be read as “ring? Rick? Rig?” So putting it into a sentence “do you fancy coming for a few drinks” with the universal *drink* gesture is massively helpful!
  3. Keep a nice and steady pace. I have a friend with a broad Black Country accent who I can lipread fine 80% of the time. But the other 20% of the time he becomes overexcited or eager to tell a joke and it all gets lost in a -ohmygoodnessyouaresogoingtolaughatthis – blur. We lipreaders might be good but ninjas we ain’t. So relax, speak casually and give us some warning if a jokes coming…
  4. Please do not  over emphasise words. Not only does it make you look silly but it blurs the consonants and natural rhythm of the words that we are accustomed to seeing everyday. The only times I’m comfortable at seeing exaggerated words is when I’m being told a number or a price… “Is that 9.99 or nineTEEN 99?”
  5. Lastly – making things visual  really helps. I don’t expect everyone I meet to be proficient at sign but if you’re in regular company of a lipreader it would be doing them a favour to use universal signs that pretty much everyone can guess. Numbers can be shown, areas pointed to, and things can be written down. Before having a meeting or gathering, if the lipreader has some prep/notes beforehand this can make a world of difference by anticipating what’s to come. 

I love how lipreading means I can tell my Dad what the footballer is really saying when he’s yelling at the referee but there’s no sound on the telly… And it’s fun (though admittedly very nosey) to lipread other mums at playgroups chatting when I’m sat on my tod. 

But there’s an awful lot of time when I do – like the case of the elderly gentleman – just guess what’s being said. So next time you nod or smile in clueless wonder at what someone’s said but you haven’t the time nor energy to clarify… You’re very much not alone. 

Lipreaders, I salute you.