Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Essay: Speaking of Grief

Speaking of Grief

I   Fear
‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed[1]

This sentence still strikes me as the most honest attempt to encapsulate grief of any I have read. Not so much for its sentiment, but for its tone, for its insistence that the speaker is being let down, has not being prepared for this thing called death. This is something one learns when one mourns: no one prepares you for it. There is also, inherent in this quote, the idea that whatever we thought we knew about death and grieving is wholly inadequate. Lewis adds that grief feels, ‘perhaps, more strictly like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.’[2]
         Almost nine years ago, my sister Mary died in Toronto, at the age of fifty-two. For many days after the news of her death reached me in London, I lay in bed unable to do anything apart from cry. This ‘provisional’ quality is not technically ‘permanent’, it merely feels like it is. In fact one of the most terrible things about grief is that it does fade with time no matter how hard we hold onto it. And we do hold onto it. Letting go of this fear, letting go of our grief is like saying ‘yes’ to the death of the person we are mourning. By holding onto it, we think we are holding onto the person we love. But how wrong we are.

II   ‘Getting over it’
When Mary died, I remember thinking that I would never be happy again. To my ears now, this idea sounds melodramatic, self-absorbed and slightly mad. But to anyone who has experienced profound loss, this is one of the most vivid thoughts to surface: I will never ‘get over’ this. I don’t even want to ‘get over’ this. This is swiftly followed by: I will never be the same again.
         The awful truth is that one does, for want of a better word, ‘get over’ it. One does begin to enact the rituals of everyday life: one showers, goes to work, makes love to one’s partner, kisses one’s children, has a drink in the pub with friends. This learned socialising does come back, although so slowly and in patches that it is barely recognisable. But the second thought remains true: we are never the same again. This is partly because when one loses an object of love, the world itself is not the same again. The death of someone close to you feels as if the solar system has just lost a major constellation. Gravity and the order of the universe have been permanently altered. Days and nights are no longer the same. Nothing is.
         When the waves of grief do begin to subside and we are faced with navigating through a sea that seems almost manageable, this is exactly the moment when the object of our grieving seems to appear to us at its most real. When the boat stops pitching we can see the shoreline we left behind. It is as if somehow a state of extreme grief cuts us off from any true memory of or love for the object of our loss. When we are in an extreme state of grieving, we are unable to love. This paradox is partly why grief feels so unreasonable, so insane and so difficult to navigate.

III   Acceptance and Confusion
I hadn’t heard of the C.S. Lewis essay when I was grieving. It was simply another thing no one told me. Towards the end of his essay, Lewis does come to a sort of acceptance of the loss of his wife, when he says, ‘I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.’[3] Over the years, I have come to a similar place. I can smile when I think of my sister and I can talk about her without crying. And strangely I feel as close to her as I did in the early stages of mourning. I am reassured by this strange trick of perspective, or is it time passing. Maybe it is simply a version of the madness inherent in grief that enables us to the see so clearly the absences in the world.
         The paradigm shift towards acceptance happens despite ourselves. I remember when I no longer felt guilty for having fun, when I could go for a few hours without that crushing sense of loss, when I could perform a normal task such as buying food at the supermarket without feeling I needed to get home and hide from all the people whose lives I imagined to be perfect and devoid of loss. That is when another kind of guilt hit. And this I was not expecting. The constant surprises that fall onto one’s path on the landscape of grief remind you that grieving is a process. It is not a ‘state’ that remains solid and fixed. As C.S. Lewis puts it, ‘in grief nothing stays put’.[4]
         It came as a surprise to me that the forces of life were so much stronger than the pull of the loss. And this is actually what ‘getting over it’ means: the grief eventually loses out. Life does eventually break through the glacial, hardened terror of grief and begin to thrive. When C.S. Lewis starts to ‘feel better’ (his quotation marks) he experiences a ‘sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness.’ And then he asks himself what is behind this shame. His answer: vanity and confusion. ‘We confuse the symptom with the thing itself.’[5]

IV   Guilt
I don’t remember how I coped with my guilt. I remember the intense feelings of shame when I was able to laugh or go to a film or read a book for pleasure. But I do remember telling myself that Mary would not have approved of this guilt. She was not a person to dwell on sadness. She was someone who jumped into situations headfirst. She was impulsive, beautiful, fun, intensely intelligent, complex, and at times self-absorbed and infuriating. She was a photographer, artist and teacher and had been the person I ran to when I left home at the age of seventeen, lost and confused. She helped me navigate my way from an aborted start at university to art school and through first love and pretty much all the milestones of teenagerhood and early adulthood. We shared various apartments all over Toronto and we shared pretty much everything else, too, until at the age of twenty-four I upped and moved to Europe, settling in London. It was on her front lawn that I sold all my earthly possessions in order to buy my plane ticket to London.

V   Bringing Back the Dead
At Mary’s funeral the thought I couldn’t shake was: ‘I don’t know how to do this. I need Mary to tell me how.’ She had always been there to advise me about every aspect of life. Once she was gone, I had to do what people in films or in Nancy Drew stories do, I had to think, ‘what would Mary do?’ And, oddly, it sort of worked. I would be faced with an invitation to a party and, rather than stay home and cry on the sofa, I would think, ‘would Mary want me to go?’ Invariably she would. So life slowly began to creep back, but it was not the same. And almost nine years on, it is still not the same. My version of her is not her.

VI   Connections
I don’t remember the first book I read after the death of my sister. My grief did a very good job of wiping my memory clean. I was in shock and unable to make choices or decisions. Eating was too much trouble and I remember finding that breathing was labourious. When Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking came out six months after my sister’s funeral, I pounced. Oddly enough Didion started writing her book exactly one month to the day after my sister died — a welcome connection. When you are lost, you are grateful for even the most trivial coincidence or piece of synchronicity that just might lead you towards a sense that life has meaning afterall. That not everything is random, which is how the death of someone you love feels.
         I was short of cash, as always, but forked out for the hardcover edition so I could read Didion’s Magical Thinking immediately. It was the first decision I remember making after losing my sister. It was the first thing I knew I needed to do. It was the first positive act to come out of my grief.

VII   The Grief of Others
I remember vividly my excitement: At last, here was someone who could tell me how to do this. Mary wasn’t around, but Joan Didion was! I had always loved Didion’s prose, her subject matter, the way she could pull you in with a sentence and then land a cerebral blow with the next. She was a writer who had altered the way I read and the way I looked at life. In fact it was my sister Mary’s copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem that got me into her in the first place. I could not imagine Didion taking on grief and doing anything other than examining it in forensic detail laying bare exactly what was really going on, just as she had done in her books about the sixties and seventies. 
         As soon as I finished Magical Thinking, I opened it at the first page and read it through again. I felt it didn’t have the same rigour of her earlier non-fiction, but how could it? How could she write her grief in the same way she examined San Francisco’s counterculture or the Black Panthers or Charles Manson. What she was doing here, mining her grief, had seemed impossible to me. What Didion did was give me some kind of vocabulary for grief. I saw it was possible to write about it and put it into the form of words without lessening its elusiveness. But I worried that it was only someone of her calibre, of her skill and of her experience who could do it without descending into sentimentality or New Age babble or straightforward incoherence. I still had no idea what my grief looked like, sounded like or what it was doing to me, except I knew it was raw and alive. And I could not pin it down with words.
         In Magical Thinking, Didion tracks the grief she suffered after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, dies suddenly at the supper table on 30 December 2003. And in true Didion form she stalks her grief like a cat stalking a sly, intrepid mouse. She is almost chilling in her examination of her loss. She goes at it with a scalpel and lets us watch as the skin of her grief is meticulously peeled away.
         A matter of days after her husband’s death, a social worker assigned to Didion calls her a ‘cool customer’. She makes a note of that, and so do we, her loyal readership. She has always been a cool customer. She is not one for self-help tropes and ‘getting over’ the grief. Instead, she becomes a sort of cipher for her grief, and watches, clear-eyed as it devours her, disfigures her and makes her literally ‘deranged’. 
     To help her understand this derangement — for Didion is not one to blithely accept anything on face value — she turns to Freud who reassures her that the act of grieving ‘involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life’.[6] She notes that both Freud and Melanie Klein do not see grief as a pathological condition, and therefore cannot rationally advise medical treatment to cure or alleviate it. If only there were a pill, the griever thinks. But there isn’t. There is suicide, although Didion doesn’t talk about this. To me the idea surfaced, but it felt all wrong. To heap more sadness upon an already existing body of sadness seemed pointless.

VIII   Overcoming Grief
Freud makes it clear that grief is simply something to be overcome ‘after a certain lapse of time.’[7] Melanie Klein however, seems to acknowledge what Didion is after. She admits that ‘the mourner is in fact ill,’ but then goes on to echo Freud, ‘but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness … in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it.’[8] Didion then writes: ‘notice the stress on “overcoming” it.’[9] I can almost hear the sneer in her voice as she writes the word ‘overcoming’. I loved her for this. It is not what you want to hear when you are grieving. The grieving is you, it is not something to ‘overcome’. No one tells you this either. No one says that you actually don’t want to get over it. Like a bath gone cold, you still prefer soaking in the tepid water to stepping into the chilly air of your bathroom.

IX   Dreaming the Unreal
The first diary entry I made after my sister died is dated ‘London, 10 September, 2004’ and it describes my dreams on the three consecutive nights after her death. In the first dream, I ring Mary’s apartment in Toronto and she answers telling me there are so many things she wants to say. She tells me she loves me. In this dream, I relate the news to her husband Marcus that she is still alive, that she answered their phone. I am overjoyed. He doesn’t believe me, which infuriates me.
         When I woke from this dream, I sleepily dialled their number in Toronto. Her voice was still on the answering machine and I felt vindicated. She was still alive. She must be if her voice could still be heard on their phone. I never told her husband this.
         This is one example of how I was blindly stumbling around after what I call my first ‘Big Death’. In the early days of grief nothing seems real. What memories I can retrieve of those first murky, grief-strewn months have the texture of a piece of driftwood hammered with rusty nails. There is a worn smoothness, a timeless universality to my grief punctuated by a spiky, monstrous, metallic anger.
         Didion talks of how she was convinced her husband would return. For this reason she left his shoes by the door and said ‘no’ to his organs being donated: ‘how could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes.’[10] There is fear and madness in grief along with a complete and utter loss of anything resembling an understanding of the material world one has previously taken for granted. And there is simply no language with which to make sense of this loss until one is distanced from one’s grief by the passing of time.

X   Learning to Speak of Grief
I so remember after my sister’s death the sense that the world as I knew it was no longer recognisable. Words I had been using all my life felt empty and meaningless. The diary entries after the ones of my vivid Mary dreams are all notes for the PhD I was working on. Looking back I can see how I was trying to process my grief intellectually. My sister was still appearing to me at night and giving me instructions. She was so like herself in my dreams that when I woke I could barely believe she was no longer alive. I could not understand her presence in my life, the fact that she was so much there and yet absolutely not there.
         So I did what I do when I am confused I tried to take control and make order of life using my work. I ploughed on with my PhD which was about Anna Jameson, an Englishwoman who had reluctantly travelled to Canada in 1836 to obtain a divorce from her alcoholic husband. Jameson’s only enjoyment of the fledgling colony came from a brief stay with a tribe of Chippewas who took her white-water rafting. They called her Wah,sah,ge,wah,no,qua, which means Woman of the Bright Foam. In these foaming rapids Jameson saw the face of the person she truly loved: Goethe’s niece, Ottilie von Goethe. In her grief at ending her marriage and letting her husband drink himself to death in Upper Canada, and being unable to consummate her one true love, Jameson took on a new identity. She managed, although not permanently, to escape her stifling and miserable existence. And the more I read, the more I knew I wanted the same. I delved deeper into Jameson’s life and absorbed her diaries and letters in which she wrote about her terrible suffering at the hands of her alcoholic husband and her unrequited love, and her worries over not having any money. Jameson took me away from my own grief, and allowed me to mourn hers at a safe distance.
         I spent my days in the British Library making sense of this woman’s life for my thesis, while also writing a novel about her. And during this process I realised that I still could not find words with which to express my own grief. I could not talk about it intelligently even to myself. I kept coming up with descriptions like ‘lost’, ‘on shaky ground’, ‘confused’, ‘numb’. Every one of them a cliché. A friend at the time reassured me that clichés existed for a reason: because they encapsulate what most people feel and think. But I knew deep down that my grief was not a cliché. How could it be? I was a writer. Yet the clichés kept coming like mosquitoes on a warm Toronto night, buzzing around my head.
         As a writer I needed to see my grief as something unique. Grief is universal and yet painfully specific to the mourner. Again there is a paradox at its heart that makes it so tricky to pin down. The words did not come until now. All these years later, I have come to accept my sister’s absence but not her death which was cruel and painful. She suffered a lot in the final months as the cancer took over her lungs. Breathing was increasingly difficult. And of course I wanted her suffering to cease. With her death came a sort of relief for her.
         It has taken me these nine years to process my loss and to see it as something worth writing about. I have realised that grief is both universal and terribly specific. In that sense it is very much like childbirth. So many women experience it and yet each time it is utterly different. No two births are alike just like no two deaths are alike and yet our birth and our death are experienced by every person on the planet.
         Talking about death and loss should be part of life. I want to be able to pass on a vocabulary of grief to my daughter. Some day she will no doubt find herself mourning the death of someone close. Some day she may find solace in CS Lewis or Joan Didion or perhaps something as yet unwritten. I hope she can find the words, and use them to navigate her way through the terror, the confusion, the sense of utter loss and desperation that comes from losing something that has in essence become part of oneself. I don’t want her to say, ‘no one ever told me grief felt so like fear.’ I want her to know it feels like fear and so many other things, unnamed things, unwritten things. Things that will be specific to her and yet linked to every person who has loved someone and watched them die.

XI   Words
The language of grief used in American self-help books is empty and insulting. It assumes we are all the same in our grief. Which is why there is such consolation in Lewis’s and Didion’s accounts of their grief. In these books, we are getting reports from the front line of loss from people whose business is words. It takes a master or mistress to shape something so evasive into a form that has meaning and depth. And yet for all its slipperiness there is great consolation to be had in pinning one’s own grief down in one’s own words. No one ever told me you could survive grief and shape it into something that almost makes sense of it. No one ever told me anything about grief because it is not something we talk about. No one ever told me about grief because the shape of our words is inadequate for the monstrous form of grief. I have battered my grief into some sort of submission and lived with it for enough years now to be able to look at it face on and not be afraid of it. I have attempted to make sense of loss and yet somehow I feel I have won the battle but lost the war. Perhaps this is the final thing no one ever tells you about grief: despite our attempts to verbalise it, to tame it into something we can understand, it has a way of hanging onto us. Grief is a shape-shifter, a creature that goes deeper than we like most things to go. It mines our subconscious and uses whatever weaknesses we have. Perhaps accepting this about it is what mourning really means. Perhaps only when the hurricane of grief has passed and we are righting the furniture and putting the pictures back on the wall, can we see that the fabric of grief does not come undone easily. Yet we carry on and our lives, changed forever, still contain hope and love. No one ever tells you about grief because it is too big to be simply told. It must be lived.
A bone scan photomontage 
by Mary Pocock

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, London: Faber & Faber, 1961.
[2] Ibid., p. 29.
[3] Ibid., p.48.
[4] Ibid., p.49.
[5] Ibid., p.46.
[6] Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, London: Fourth Estate, 2005, p. 34.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p. 35
[10] Ibid., p. 41.

An edited version of this essay is about to be published in an anthology of writing about loss published by Hope Paige. A link to it will come....

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