Firsts, After

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix. (Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers)

There have been a lot of firsts for us since Owen died, new things we have had to say or do because of his death. As the days begin to stretch, slowly but inexorably, into weeks, now we have to face doing things we always used to do, but for the first time after his death. There aren’t any rules to govern when to do most of these: how soon is too soon, how long is too long to put them off. We don’t have any rituals to give us a timeline: our beliefs about life and death, which are in other respects enough for us, give us no guidance here.

Necessity has made some decisions for us: prescriptions have to be refilled, we need to eat, our booster shots were already scheduled. Steve and Maddie are starting classes again, which also, for better and for worse, generates immediate demands to be met. It’s the inessentials that puzzle me right now, the small but constant things that made up the fabric of my life before and that I know will once again be integral to it—but when? but how?

I have already written my first blog post, after—and my second, and now my third—but they are about Owen, about my loss and grief. (It turns out this is one of the only things I want to do. Writing feels safer than speaking; it is also how I have always sorted out my thoughts and feelings. I also feel uneasy about it, though: is it inappropriate to write here? How often, when writing about other people’s writing about grief, have I wondered why they took such private feelings public?) Eventually, I will write my first blog post after his death that is about something I’ve read—eventually, I will read my first book, after. (What will it be?) At some point I will rejoin the stream of conversation that is Twitter, to talk about the usual things, not about Owen—about the things everyone else is still talking about. (What a ruthless indicator Twitter is of how quickly everything moves on; while I find it painful right now, from the sad sidelines, there is perhaps some prospective reassurance in its continuity.) These are such trivial things to do, which is one reason I can’t bring myself to do them now, but the first time I do them, after, whenever that is, they will feel significant. How will I know when it is the right time—what will make the difference?

Maybe nothing will: maybe there is only the time, not the right time. In the absence of rules or protocols or schedules for mourning (which, I am realizing, is entangled with but not identical to grief), there’s really only trial and error. A small example. We have now watched our first episode of Jeopardy since Owen died, a nightly pandemic ritual he often joined us for after he moved back home in November; even though he didn’t really enjoy the show himself, he was willing to hang out with us, which was nice. It felt strange and wrong and haunted to do it, but either we were never going to watch Jeopardy again, or at some point we were going to have to get through the oddity of doing something so completely familiar in this still unfamiliar world, for the first time.

Normalcy is an emotional precipice for me right now: it’s still too common and too painful to look up from the stove or the keyboard or the TV and feel the new reality flash upon me all over again, with all the intensity of breaking news. In this terrible aftermath of our loss, I think in those moments, how can we bother with ordinary life? Yet the writer who means the most to me is eloquent about the beauty of “commonplace things” and I believe she is right. I’ve also been thinking about what I wrote last year about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, about its affirmation “that if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing.” I believe this too, though it is hard to feel its truth right now. At some point, then, maybe even today, I will try to do some work. Oddly, the book I was reviewing—am reviewing—for the TLS is Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation. (How hypothetical his arguments seemed to me only two weeks ago; now I can test for myself his claims about the healing power of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.) At some point I will pick up my research and carry on with the writing that this sabbatical was meant for: I will download a PDF and take some notes—such a mundane task, unless it’s for the first time, after.

15 thoughts on “Firsts, After

  1. Jeanne January 11, 2022 / 11:33 am

    What you say resonates with me (as it so often does): “Writing feels safer than speaking; it is also how I have always sorted out my thoughts and feelings. I also feel uneasy about it, though: is it inappropriate to write here? How often, when writing about other people’s writing about grief, have I wondered why they took such private feelings public?)”
    It’s enough that it helps you sort out your thoughts and feelings, but in terms of being public, our reception of it is in terms of agape–the love of one human for another, because we’re human and we’re all in the same boat. Maybe what you write will help someone else find their mooring in the midst of overwhelming grief. If any writer has made you feel less alone in your grief, you might find a bit of comfort in being able to offer something like that for someone else.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 11, 2022 / 12:47 pm

      Thank you for that lovely framing. It is true that I have turned to many people’s writing myself already.

      I hate the term ‘processing’ but that does seem to be what this writing is for me. Thoughts swirl in my brain and fill me with sad restlessness: putting at least some of them into words is calming.

  2. kerryclare January 11, 2022 / 3:37 pm

    These posts are as dazzlingly rich as they are devastatingly sad. I am so sorry about what you’re going through, but am fascinated that you’re examining grief as curiously and precisely as you do everything.

    • kerryclare January 11, 2022 / 3:38 pm

      “with the same curiosity and precision” is what I mean….but I think you know that. xo

  3. Liz Mc2 January 12, 2022 / 9:26 pm

    You know I have been travelling with my own different kind of grief the past year or so. The firsts are terribly painful. There you are in the same old life, but everything is changed.

    I have always enjoyed your posts about holidays (and I am sorry if this is touching a nerve) and how your family created your own rituals and celebrations, since religious ones weren’t meaningful to you. I hope you find ways to do that for your grief as well. Maybe for you, one of those rituals is writing these posts.

    This year, the second Christmas after my marriage ended, my daughter and I actually looked forward to some of the new holiday rituals we made for ourselves last year, and we made more new ones. I wish those new ways of living for you one day, too, when the time feels right. It does slowly get easier to carry your grief, but I didn’t find it helpful (or believable) when people told me that in the time of firsts.

    I continue to hold you and your family in my thoughts–and in my prayers, too, since that is a meaningful ritual for me.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 13, 2022 / 11:22 am

      I really appreciate this perspective, Liz. I am glad that you are finding ways to move through your own grief. The idea of new rituals is a good one.

  4. Melissa Beck January 12, 2022 / 10:18 pm

    So many things in your post resonate with me. There was my life before July 2nd 2020 and my life afterwards. Like your nightly routine with Jeopardy the quiet moments are the ones I miss the most- looking over and seeing the cat asleep on Alan, sending each other funny texts during the day, etc. Writing about him, our life together and my grief has been one of the most therapeutic things I have done. It was one of the few things I could focus on and it is helpful for me to go back now and read them and see how far I’ve come. My reading pace is still nowhere near it was before. But one thing, one day at a time. Sending good thoughts and hugs to you. Thanks for writing this.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 13, 2022 / 11:23 am

      Oh, Melissa: yes, those little things. As I think I’ve told you already, your posts have meant a lot to me as I begin this journey for myself. It makes sense, I guess, that if we have always been readers and writers this is how we do this – by reading and writing.

  5. peterleyland January 13, 2022 / 9:24 am

    ‘We must be brave,’ Mum said to us after my Dad died from MS. Your bravery and that of your family is remarkable Rohan in the face of such tragedy. Take care.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 13, 2022 / 11:46 am

      That’s kind, Peter; thank you. I don’t know that we’re particularly brave but we are trying and helping each other as best we can. xo

  6. susanmesser January 15, 2022 / 9:44 pm

    Nothing really to add, Rohan. Something drew me here tonight after so many months of not checking in with you. My heart is breaking for you, always so clear and open in your thinking, finding your way. Holding you in my thoughts.

    • Rohan Maitzen January 18, 2022 / 10:43 am

      Thank you for your kindness, Susan.

  7. JacquiWine January 16, 2022 / 2:46 pm

    Like others have said already, so much of what you’re expressing here resonates with me. We lost my father when I was eleven – a freak accident that could have been prevented by better safety measures at his work place. He loved cooking and was always in charge of the Sunday roast – a routine activity that no longer felt ‘right’ when he wasn’t there to take care of it appropriately. We got through it, of course – how could we not? – but these rituals felt alien to us for several months.

    I think you’re right to take things slowly, to find your own pace for what feels bearable at the time. Sending much love to you and your family, Rohan. I’m so very sorry for your loss… X

    • Rohan Maitzen January 18, 2022 / 10:43 am

      Oh, Jacqui, how hard that must have been for your family, and that is indeed a classic ‘dad’ ritual that must have taken a long time to feel right again. All we can do, as you say, is find our own pace. The movement is inevitably forward.

      • JacquiWine January 19, 2022 / 12:04 pm

        It was hard, but I think your loss may well hit harder, especially in the early stages. Sending much love and best wishes your way, Rohan, as you try to find a path through this difficult time. (PS Many thanks for sharing the quote from Max Porter’s book; it really resonates with me too. Xx)

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