Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Did you read the wonderful Irretrievably Broken on her grandmother? It's a brilliant, raw piece of writing and I commend it to you, even though it will leave you limp and drained. Persephone has been writing exceptionally beautifully about the death of her father too recently (that one I linked to is extraordinary. I went back and read it and it floored me again). And talking to IB, I was sent back, in search of anything that captured those feelings, to Matthew Parris on his father's death: on embracing the hard edged and durable nature of loss.

I love these kinds of writing, difficult as they are to read. There's a clarity, a sense of emotions pinned down and powerfully expressed. I read them greedily, greedy for insight or catharsis; because I wish I felt, or had felt, something, anything, that clear. It will be ten years this year since my mum died and I can't shake the sense that I did grief wrong, somehow: that I didn't really allow myself to feel anything. The abrupt, shocking finality of an accident - far away, in another country - is quite a different experience (not better or worse, just different) from an expected death of someone nearing the end of their life, or after illness, but I'm not sure that accounts for my reaction. That whole period - and I've been trying to write about it for this stupid cake project - feels grey and small and tired. You expect grief to be operatic, unbearable, an emotion equal to the love and the loss. Instead I was left with something pinched and suffocating, frightening feelings suppressed under layers of constantly-reapplied sponge cake (hence the cake theme) and the humdrum rhythms of looking after small children.

I was scared, I know: scared to think of her; scared to conceive of a world where this had happened, unsure of my ability to process those thoughts. My stepfather would try and talk about her, and I'd shy away, hide behind practicalities. I even went to a grief counsellor for a while and managed not to talk about any of the things that frightened me, filling the hours with tiny worries to distract her. Instead I had dreams: horrible, angry dreams where my mother was dying and things or people were stopping me from seeing her; dreams in which I'd shout and shout and from which I'd wake with every muscle clenched with a desperate, confusing fury.

Very occasionally, something would penetrate - usually music, once my stepmother's beautiful eulogy at her own mother's funeral a couple of years later - and I would cry "properly", real blinding floods so I'd have to pull over driving, sit down, surrender. They were a rare relief, compared to the stuttering half-strangled hiccups, the fatigue and the emptiness. Clearly it's pointless to fret about how you could have done bereavement "better": you do what you can with the version of yourself you have at your disposal at any given moment. People react differently, of course they do, and rationally, if I am still here and still functioning, I can't have done anything catastrophically 'wrong'. These feelings of unease aren't constant or paralysing, more an occasional background twitch; the dreams are far rarer.

But now I find myself in one of those strange, angsty periods where I'm constantly beset by Big Thoughts. I can't lie down to sleep, or go for a walk, or spend a quiet twenty minutes in the bath without the Big Thoughts creeping up on me. You know, the 'what is it all for' thoughts, the terrors for an imponderable future, the dread. The sense of time slipping away. The inevitability of more loss. Perhaps it's because of spending my days trying to dredge up the time just after my mother died out of my memory, perhaps it's just mid-life, I don't know. They're not big thoughts in the sense of being even remotely lucid or penetrating, I'm no Mary Midgley, there's no philosophical clarity, rather a grey fog of confusion, a sweaty-palmed panic.

I hate it, hate the big thoughts. Bleurgh. I don't want to think about death, thanks. I want to think tiny, comfortable, ordinary thoughts; thoughts as mundane and satisfying as tidying the kitchen cupboards. Lipstick. Sandwiches. Should I start drinking green tea? Are there any bagels left? Do I need to get that unsightly stain on my front teeth removed again? What new foundation will I buy? What kind of cake shall I make for L's party this weekend and will it rain? (please, no) (yes) Will I ever own a fat pony? Why is there an ant farm on the landing?

But perhaps the only way not to end up pinched and suffocated and grey is to actually look this stuff straight in the eye from time to time? And if that is the case, I actually feel very lucky and grateful we have the Internet to help us explore the Big Questions. Personal blogs, with their immediacy and their concern with the quotidian, are a good place to explore the day to day business of loss and grief and death as much as they are more joyful things.

I think, initially, I felt uneasy with my own motives for reading blogs about death and terminal illness - it felt voyeuristic, unnecessary - but ultimately I reasoned that if people were putting it out there, they were doing so in the hope and on the understanding that it would be read, and it wasn't disrespectful or prurient to do so. People seek out and want to know about the extremes and the universals of human experience in all kinds of art forms: fiction, film, the graphic arts. It's perhaps not surprising we seek it out online too, and I do think it helps. Sometimes there's that answering echo (Alexa talks about this very eloquently) - someone expressing a feeling you barely knew you had until you see it in someone else's words - sometimes it's just a way of getting a wider, deeper, more compassionate sense of the world and human experience. Sometimes you see how incredibly much more shitty things could be and you're chastened and thankful to your bones for your lot in life. As well as the wonderful Persephone and Irretrievably Broken, I have gained huge amounts from reading about other types of loss, raw, reflective, anticipateddistinct: they all have something universal, something to teach.

So this, I suppose is a thank you for everyone who allows it out there, who trusts in the compassion of distant digital strangers at their darkest times. It's appreciated, really it is.


Unknown said...

Have you read Julian Barnes' Nothing to be frightened of?it is about death and written from an atheist's point of view (I am atheist). I read it recently, and found it deeply moving.

Samantha said...

I recently lost my uncle, unexpectedly. Although we were never really close, he was part of my family tapestry, and things are strange without him.

Even worse, I now live on the other side of the world and so am not a part of the day to day grieving that the rest of my family is. I'm besieged by BIG THOUGHTS, especially ones that say "you're not really entitled to grief, because you never really gave a shit before".

But I guess it just reminds me that I'm not in Kansas anymore, things have changed, and I'm out here on my own. Gotta take care o' business.

Anonymous said...

That first link, to Persephone's blog, to the entry about her father with the Merwin poem? My god, my god, my god.

frau antje said...

Women like you taught me how to do this (grief), it's just not as straightforward as a youtube video on window rot repair. Windows, as it turns out, are much more durable than we are--but never underestimate water, or 'women talking about their feelings on the internet'


Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've seen this somewhere before (or I've linked to it) but this is one of the most moving pieces about the loss of a loved one that I have ever read.

Grief is tough and I don't know that anyone ever thinks they're doing it right. You grieve the way you need to.

BTW, one of my captcha words is kinship :-)

Peter said...

Ten years since my mother died too, and I was a wreck for years after. Functioning, but impaired enough to not see how impaired I was. It's better now, but it still sucks.

ephemerette said...

My father died 4 weeks ago. I think at the moment I feel a bit like you did with your mother, slightly suffocated, strangled, running away from spidery bad thoughts, unable to collapse and sob. I keep expecting grief to sneak up behind me and bludgeon me to the ground but nothing so far. I keep wondering if it'll happen at all.

What Possessed Me said...

My God, you are gracious, woman. I've been trying since you posted this to find a way to thank you, and the only thing I can come up with is buying you this fat pony and shipping it in a wooden crate festooned with Etsy garlands. You should have one, def.

The only thing I know about grieving is that everyone thinks they're doing it wrong. We can't even give ourselves bereavement without guilt and self-doubt creeping in to spoil everything. I'm sure, as soon as I write this, that the New York Times will come out with a story about how the French do grieving better than anyone - since they are clearly superior in all other categories - and that the yam-exchanging Trobrianders of eastern New Guinea can teach us valuable lessons about bereavement. But the rest of us choke on this dry, indigestible THING, working it constantly - and subconsciously - hoping that one day we'll be able to swallow and process it. Part of me never wants to feel this way again, and the other part never wants to let it go.

Thank you for introducing me to so many wonderful writers, who gave me my first good cry of the week - the release I needed badly. And thank you for giving me the courage to write about this again. I've been reluctant to drown everyone in my sorrows, shy about revealing how crappy I feel - and so I've written nothing, when writing seems to be the only way I can find relief.

Anyway, I send all love and courage your way, as well as a heartfelt endorsement of NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer, because it's the tiny thoughts that provide welcome relief from the big ones. xox

Anonymous said...

I find it very hard to read things like that - Thursday's Child's memory of the day her mother died had me in floods of tears. You can only do grief the way you personally are able to handle it; there isn't a right or wrong way but if you do find a way to express grief, whether overtly or privately, short or long term, then I think you need to grab it. When my husband committed suicide I talked about him incessantly with my daughters, his sister and mother and, to a limited extent with my sisters and mother. You do need people close to you for that - outsiders seem to think that after a year or so you are 'over it'; it's not till you have been there that you realise you will never get over it, you just learn to live with it.

We still talk about him regularly and I don't think a day passes when I don't think of him (but then I think of my father every day too and he died in 1987); my house is still full of photos and memories of him. I don't think that I could do anything else, partly because that is my way, but also because he is still the girls' father and I don't want them to forget him or think that he did not love them or that he would not be so proud of them now.

His father, on the other hand, will still not talk about him - he flinches when anyone mentions his name. It is coming up to 6 years, and in that time he has sagged, and shrunk and aged beyond belief before our eyes. And we cannot reach him or help him.

Anonymous said...

My cousin died suddenly in an accident a couple of years ago. We were very close when we grew up, and there are so many memories between just me and him that now only I keep.
I grieved differently than I thought I would, not being able to share it with anyone. Being angry with him more than anything else. Such a strong, healthy, handsome man in the prime of his life.
But I could also feel a bit relieved somehow that I didn't fret so much about small, worldly problems, having a Big Thought occupying my mind instead.


Korinthia Klein said...

There are a couple of blogs in particular by women who have lost children that are so heartbreaking and so well written it takes my breath away. Those aren't stories I can imagine getting out there if it weren't for blogs and I feel fortunate to have read them.

Marie said...

23 years after losing my dad, I'm starting to think that this wound will never heal and learned that it's perhaps better for me to learn to live with it,because it's living anyway, rather than to force myself to try to get over it for I obviously never will (or never wish I will ?). There were times where I was mad angry with myself for not being able to live,love,feel the way teenage folks my age did but this wast just mission impossible for me then. The pain was this huge it used to phagocyte everything in my life and Hell, It felt even worse when I became a parent myself. I now allow myself some grieving time when the urge is there and where I can do anything from pillows kicking to booking a spa afternoon for me,myself and I (yes,I too realised I've been too hard with myself and needed treats)Sure the wound will always be there but the years taught me some tricks to lick it.

Adventures of a Middle-aged Matron said...

Came over to congratulate you on being a BiBs finalist because I love the name of your blog. And what a beautifully-written reflection on death - a subject I've been pondering a lot this last week.

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