“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.