“Where can we live but days?”
At the end of the first day, the day it happened, the day we found out, we said to each other, “At least we don’t have to get through the first day again.” The second day wasn’t easier, but at least it wasn’t the first. The third day, we went to campus to see the flags lowered in Owen’s memory: it was sad but not terrible, like the sixth day, when he was cremated. Sleeping is good, because a day is over and then you forget it for a while, but waking up to every new day is awful, because you remember. “What are days for,” Larkin asks; “They come, they wake us / Time and time over.”
It turns out that there was a certain simplicity to the first few days. As many of you probably know, there’s a lot that has to be done after a death. There are questions to answer and forms to complete; there are announcements to prepare and arrangements to make. There’s also the shock, when the death is sudden, as Owen’s was, which is overwhelming but also insulating. For a while, grief is the only thing—but then the noise of life begins again. Now, as we pick up some of the pieces of what was once just routine, we all find ourselves confused by sudden vertiginous shifts between familiarity and estrangement. So much is exactly the same, but everything is different. I cooked dinner last night, a favorite dish, one I’ve prepared dozens of times; I broke down in the kitchen because it made no sense to me that it was all exactly the same when nothing will ever be the same. The food tasted delicious. How is that possible?
A lot of people who know about grief have told us it gets better, though it takes time, but also that the process isn’t simple or linear: it isn’t as straightforward as just getting through more days, each of them easier than the last. Right now the passing days feel too fleeting anyway. “I don’t want it to be four days already,” Maddie said last week, and now it has been too many more days but also far from enough days to understand what this loss means for us. We still feel grateful that we know what it meant for Owen, and there is still comfort in his last words of love. But we are the ones who have to go on now, a family of three where once we were four. He couldn’t tell us how to do that any more than we could tell him not to leave us.
In the days since his death we have talked a lot, to each other and to family and friends. I can’t talk much without crying; I think it’s because every spoken word confirms what otherwise seems surreal. Writing is strange and hard in a different way. “I sometimes hold it half a sin,” Tennyson notes in In Memoriam, “To put in words the grief I feel.” But he did, and his words helped him then and now help us. My mother shared this line from Macbeth with me: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” My life is in words as well as days, even when they are not “to be happy in.” All I can do is try to get used to them again.
This was sent to me when my daughter died, and I found immensely helpful. I think it’s by Samuel Beckett.
‘I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words of reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’
Waking up with grief is like facing strong winds at sea, bracing for the waves that will come, and they will pass over and through you, and more will come, but you do get through. You do carry on. And it does get more bearable.
Those are powerful words – Beckett’s but also yours. Thank you, and I am sorry for your loss, that made you need them too.
I wish I had some kind of consolation to offer, but I have only the assurance that I’m here, listening.
Thank you, Jeanne: that’s everything right now.
The words you have written are poignant, A poem I remember is:
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Thank you, Carolyn; those are very peaceful images.
I’m a longtime reader of Novel Readings, and I am so sorry for your loss. My condolences to you and your family.
Thank you so much, Susan.
All I can say is I’m thinking of your family.
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Deepest condolences to you and your family.
A friend who lost her dear son some years ago shared this quotation from Shakespeare’s King John in a later memorial service. I offer it to you in the hope that you will find some small comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your experience. It will never be easy, and how grief goes on is as different for each grieving parent as their children were unique and precious, but you are not alone. Speak his name, tell his stories.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
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As a long time reader, I was very sorry to hear of your sons death. You and your family are very much in my thoughts.
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I am so sorry. I read your posts and admire them so much and it seems presumptuous to say anything at all but I send warm wishes.