Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speaking of Grief, short version

‘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 insistence that the speaker has not being prepared for death. This is something one learns when one mourns: nothing prepares you for it.

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. One of the most terrible things about grief is that it fades with time no matter how hard we hold onto it. And we do hold onto it. 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.

When Mary died, I remember thinking that I would never be happy again. To my ears now, this idea sounds melodramatic and slightly mad. 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.

Towards the end of his essay about the death of his wife, Lewis does come to a sort of acceptance of his loss, 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.’[2] 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 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. And 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. The forces of life are so much stronger than the pull of loss. And this is actually what ‘getting over it’ means: the grief eventually loses out.

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.

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. My sister was 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.

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. 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 perhaps in something yet to be written. 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. 

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, London: Faber & Faber, 1961.
[2] Ibid., p. 48.

This shortened version of a longer piece I wrote about grief was published in September 2014 in the Hope Paige Medical Magazine. 

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