About three years ago I went through an extremely rough patch: a close friendship dissolved, I lost my job, and I was surrounded by illness and death. Within a few months’ time I had to put my cat down, my grandfather died, my friend and colleague Pete Peterson died, and my good friend’s brother committed suicide.
I’m in another one of those periods–my two remaining grandparents are both in end-stage care, my cousin remains in the hospital after a very bad car accident, and a close friend is battling cancer. And so–although it is not my usual style on the blog to discuss these things, I’m compelled to share this lovely piece of writing about loss from one of my favorite writers:
Did you read the wonderful Irretrievably Broken on her grandmother? It’s a raw and wonderful 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, anticipated, distinct: 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.