Grief… and Love

A friend of mine died a few weeks ago. The funeral took place at the beginning of this week. I wasn’t well enough to make the journey to attend but it sounds like it was a very beautiful ceremony. I’ve been remembering in my own way, walking, sitting, watching; the changing light, the flocks of birds gathering in the trees and on the electricity lines, listening at night to the stream that flows past the front of the cottage. There hasn’t really been a day yet when Andrew hasn’t been at the forefront of my thoughts.

As I have been thinking about him, I have also been thinking about my best friend and his family who were killed I was eleven. They were killed when their car collided with a  horse-box on the motorway. I’ve never looked at horse boxes in quite the same way since. Since Danny’s death, I’ve lost all four of my grandparents. And now, Andrew has gone too.

I’ve already written a piece for this blog about the way we think about death, and about the way in which sadness and grief are increasingly pathologised instead of being embraced and accepted as a necessary and perfectly normal part of being alive. What I  didn’t mention in that piece, while I theorised away merrily, was the fact that each and every time I have experienced loss in my life there has, amongst the ongoing sadness and pain, been moments of revelation; realisations that I have sworn not to forget, and resolutions about how to move forward with my own life in a way that honours those who cannot.

It is only being back in this position again that I realise how much of this has fallen by the wayside as grief has slowly begun to fade, and life, as always, has continued at what – until my illness – felt like an increasingly breakneck pace. The paradoxical consequence of the frenetic pace of life is a slow but steady lulling of oneself into the complacent position of thinking that, at a fundamental level, everything is probably just going to carry on in much the same way as it is already. And so, here I am. I feel like I need to write now as a way of processing, of remembering, and of making sure that when life does become all consuming once again, all isn’t forgotten.

This morning, for the first time in several years, I walked up a cart track on the hill above the cottage where my Great Grandmother was born. I’ve been walking up this cart track since I was a little kid, so little in fact that in order to make it to the top I had to be bribed with fruit pastels (my parents had me well trained – or was it perhaps the other way around?)

For as long as I can remember, as I’ve walked up this cart track, I’ve always looked at the jumble of stones, cracks and mud that form its surface and imagined them as if they were the surface of a great barren wilderness, a wilderness that I, a lone giant, am striding high above. Although I have played this game of scale elsewhere, there is something about this particular track that makes it impossible for me to walk it without stones becoming great monoliths, cracks yawning canyons, and puddles sweeping lakes. Habit, I suppose.

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Walking these hills again, even as I mentally expand the objects beneath my feet, it is disconcerting how much smaller this landscape now feels. Time works slowly here; with fewer people around, it is less driven by our constant consciousness of its passing. Instead, the landscape changes at its own pace. Isn’t it strange how as we grow, the world around us seems to get smaller? These tracks are criss-crossed with memories. I walk back down into the valley, remembering the landscape laden in snow. Anna, before she was ill, sledding down the track one icy winter, or was it Easter? Only a few months ago I wasn’t sure if I would ever see this place again either. A loose stone in the stream, the shock of the cold water, the squelch, squelch, squelch of ghostly wellies, trudging home tired and happy after hours of building dams and channels. A childs homage to the great  walls of stone, the sharp lines of industry old, cut across the landscape, now slowly being swallowed back into the hills.

About a week after Andrew died, a mutual friend posted a link to a wonderful blog entry that Andrew had written and that I had, until that point, been completely unaware of. It turns out that not only had he been playing with ‘gigantism and microscopics’ during those moments of down-time when so many of us simply turn to our smartphones, had been turning wrinkles into mountains and rivers into microscopic veins, but he had also been using visualisation to stretch, melt and explode the world around him. There was something wonderful about discovering a new connection with Andrew even after he had gone. He has inspired me to move beyond my cart track deserts and, as I have been grieving his death, it is perhaps apt that I’ve become particularly taken to mentally shattering windows and blowing up trees and bushes as I walk past. You should try it… once you get over the (possible) strangeness of using ones imagination in such a flagrantly playful way, it becomes deeply satisfying.

The sad thing of course is that I never got to speak to Andrew about any of this. We hadn’t actually spoken at all since I feel ill and this new connection remained undiscovered until after he has gone. I am the kind of person who sometimes feels tongue-tied, even with friends I sometimes find myself feeling as if I have nothing to say. I have begun to realise how ridiculous this is on a number of levels. Firstly, what is important is not necessarily what we say, but the spirit in which it is said, secondly, whether we actually listen or not to what another person is trying to communicate is just as important as anything that we might have to say, and finally, not having anything to say stems from a fear of saying the wrong thing, from a fear of creating distance with somebody rather than from a curiosity or a desire to find connection. The fact that I never spoke to Andrew, somebody who took play more seriously than anybody else I have ever met, about this game, reminds me of how important it is to take a chance sometimes, to find the additional connections that are waiting to be discovered between us.

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Although there were a million things to admire about Andrew, who was a warm, loving, brilliant human being with a magically creative mind, perhaps the thing that I admire about him the most is that he was resolutely and determinedly himself and unafraid to speak out, for example, with regards to his own mental health at a point when he was struggling with depression, or on behalf of other groups facing stigma or oppression. Although I remember him saying that he didn’t really like the ‘A’ word, he was a genuinely authentic person. Many of us spend at least some part of our daily lives living in an alternative realm of social media in which the value, and visibility, of everything we communicate is determined largely by its popularity. In spaces such as these, the temptation to create and portray an alternative, more likeable, positive version of ourselves is ever-present. When Sartre talked about hell being other people, he was talking – I think – about the way in which our compulsion to consider ourselves through the eyes of other people reduces our ability to authentically be ourselves. Anyone who has ever experienced liking somebody so much that they find themselves lost for words in their presence will understand this. There is something quietly heroic about anybody who seeks to resist this pressure in even the smallest of ways. To quote Harper Lee, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

However we might chose to perceive of ourselves, we are all essentially the products of each other. When people are alive and ‘around’, whether in the distant background or the very forefront of our lives, I think it is all to easy to take for granted the myriad ways in which they shape us. By this I mean that it is easy to forget how the defining parts of ourselves, the parts that belong to nobody but ourselves, i.e. our own unique identities and personalities, are actually, via our interactions, constructed out of other people. Our memories and experiences are important parts of who we are, yet they would not have come into existence – just as we ourselves could not have come into existence – without this complex web of other people, a web that stretches far back into the past and predates our own births whilst continuing to move forwards with us into the future.

As Elena Ferrante writes;

“No person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others.”

When somebody dies, when they are no longer there for us to reminisce with, to construct and re(co)construct these memories, events and connections, our actual experience of these moments change; they become ours alone, trapped now irrevocably in the past, overshadowed by the absence of a future in which we can reflect back on them together. When somebody dies, or sometimes even when a relationship ends, people talk as if a part of them has been taken away. What I think we really lose, beyond the person themselves, is the specific reflection of ourselves that this person gave us access to. When we lose this reflection we also lose the future role that this reflection, replaced in turn by a new reflection that arises in response to that persons absence,  would have played in the shaping of our future selves.

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I recently stumbled across ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ by Carson McCullers, a series of short stories, set, like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in the deep south, and cloaked in melancholy and longing. The main story; the one from which the novella takes its name, is essentially a story about love, or more specifically about a bitter love triangle that draws certain parallels with the authors own life. It also contains perhaps the most profound description of love, and of the difference between the lover and the beloved, that I’ve ever encountered. This description has proven to be particularly revelatory for me with regards to finally making peace with a certain abortive romantic entanglement from which, as with all failed romances, an ongoing sense of sadness and loss stubbornly prevails.

Perhaps most pertinent of all however, is the following passage “Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer.” Just as falling in love with another person can be a strangely sad and lonely process, as one wrestles with the feelings that surge up within ourselves, cannot the same also be said of grief?

When we grieve, we grieve for everything.

This is what my friend in Berlin said to me during a Skype conversation in which I tried to convey the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss that I was feeling, not only about Andrew but about life more generally.

If the object of ones affection often simply serves as a stimulus for all of the stored up love within us, can the tragedy of a death, the object of our grief, also serve to release all of the stored up loss and suffering within us too? It is only really when I heard the news that Andrew had died that I realised that the world that I am returning to, as my period of illness finally draws to an end after a year and a half, has permanently and profoundly changed. The life I knew beforehand – and have been so desperate to return to – does not exist anywhere anymore, other than in my own imagination.

Only now have I really been able to  grieve for everything that I have lost during my illness. I had already accepted that a partner, a home and a pet had gone and would not return, but losing Andrew has forced me to come to terms with the fact that the very community of which I had felt such a part, of which Andrew and I had both been a part has, if not gone, then changed irrevocably. There is to be no returning to life as it was, because, to put it bluntly, it not longer exists.

I ended up sobbing, for the first time in almost a year, down the phone to a friend. As with Andrew, I hadn’t seen him since before I got ill. He was still in something of a state of shock, trying to manage the challenge of leaving Bristol for a new start abroad whilst processing the news of Andrew’s passing, and together, for a few brief moments, we tried to come to terms with everything that had changed since we last saw each other.

Perhaps this is one of the things that death teaches us. Change is not only scary but it almost always involves loss of one kind or another. For those reasons we can try and resist it, or simply look the other way and pretend that it isn’t happening, abdicating ourselves not only of any responsibility, but also of the opportunity to try and shape whether the impact of that change is positive or negative. When somebody dies however, we cannot simply turn away, we cannot pretend that it hasn’t happened and nor can we fool ourselves into thinking that things are going to go back to the way they were before. Death reminds us that change is inevitable, it can be profound and often it will happen whether we want it to or not.

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Things that I have re-remembered in grief that I wish I hadn’t forgotten:

  • We really don’t know how much time we have left. You can put things off until tomorrow, but be prepared for the fact that tomorrow will not necessarily be there for everyone.
  • We are the product of all of the people we have ever known, shaped by our shared experiences. There is no such thing as an end to a relationship with another person. We may not see somebody anymore, we may not even talk to them, they may have passed away, but we will continue to carry a part of them within us for the rest of our lives, whether we want to or not, and no matter how large or small a role they played in our lives.
  • Tell people how you feel about them. Tell people about how you feel about yourself too. They aren’t going to be around for ever and neither are you. If you still care about somebody it’s never too late to get back in touch. Hell might be other people, but to quote Emily St John Mandell, it is also “the absence of people you long for.”
  • If you have a problem with somebody, try and find some resolution to it while you still can. Time can be a healer (sometimes) but it can also run out.
  • Life is full of change, which means it is also full of loss. The harder we fight against or try and deny change, the more we suffer.
  • When we grieve, we grieve for everything and everyone that we have ever lost. This being the case, it’s ok to feel sad as you go along. It might feel easier to try and avoid thinking about it and just carry on, but rest assured it will all catch up with you sooner or later, and you might end up wishing you’d tried to deal with some of it along the way.
  • Don’t be afraid of being true to yourself. It might not make you the most popular or the most successful person (which isn’t to say that it definitely won’t) but it is what people will love you for and remember you by.
  • When you feel lonely, try and remember that you have had far more of an impact on other peoples lives than you can possibly imagine, often in ways that you might be completely unaware of. Just as other people form a part of us as we move forward in our lives, so we also form a small part of the lives of everybody around us. Its easy to forget this, so when somebody has made a real difference for you, help them to remember by telling them.
  • Life is precious. Its ok to be scared, or bored, or stuck. It isn’t going to last forever, but nor is your life. Try and honour the things you value most about the people that you have lost by living your life as fully as possible and in a way that would have made them proud.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff, in the greater scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. And besides, a lot of the big stuff is out of your control anyway.

Nothing puts life into perspective quite like death.

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