This so-called ‘work of grief’ is turning out to be a shatteringly exhausting apprehension of the needed work of living. It demands to be fully lived, while the labour of living it is physically exhausting—like virulent jetlag, but surging up in waves.
The notes and emails of condolence have stopped arriving and I’ve acknowledged each of them. Yet after all this ritual and effort, he still hasn’t come home. What more does he want?
Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without its Flow
“How are you doing?” people ask a lot these days in emails and messages, kindly reaching out, letting me know they are still here, still available, still caring. I am genuinely grateful, because (as many of them who have known grief themselves have said) grieving is a lonely business even when it isn’t midwinter during a pandemic. And yet somehow as time goes on I find I am less and less able to reply with grace, because (unfairly, unreasonably) what I hear, even though of course it isn’t what they’ve said, is “How you are doing now, what has changed, are you doing any better yet?” Actually, some people probably are tacitly asking that, or at least wondering it, hoping—for my sake—that I am doing better. “How would you be doing?” I sometimes want to reply. Riley talks about “kindly onlookers” saying “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.” “I’d like them to try to imagine,” she says; “it’s not so difficult.”
It is terrible, the damage grief does to one’s own generosity. I don’t like it, though for now I can’t seem to help it. Anger is often mentioned as one of the ‘stages’ of bereavement; I haven’t seen any discussion of selfishness, but that’s what it feels like, or self-absorption. All these years reading Middlemarch and now I can’t displace myself and my sorrows from the center of my narrative: I’m disappointed in myself. How I have always admired Dorothea’s resolution after her night of mourning her lost love: “She said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.” Of course, thinking the man you loved is not the man you thought him to be—even believing that your chance at joyful passion is over—is hardly the same as knowing your child walked away from you into the night and will never come back.
How am I doing? I am still sad, still (how, after two months?) shocked, still struggling to make sense of a life that has been dealt such a blow, still trying not to think about it but also still unable not to think about it, still counting the days since it happened, still remembering the days before it happened and marveling at their innocence. (Who know a bullet journal could take on such pathos when it turns out that its cheerful notations—decorate tree! Maddie here! Christmas dinner!—were counting down to this?) I am still unable to bear going in his room or looking at baby pictures (why are the happiest memories the saddest ones?), still finding it surreal that his ashes are on our bookshelf, still frequently startled into painful sobs by thoughts or reminders of his life and his death.
The other question I’m hearing more and more is some variation on “have you considered talking to someone?”—meaning, of course, someone else, someone professional, someone who knows what to say. (Maybe that’s why the “how are you doing” question feels a bit loaded, as the combined subtext starts to seem like “this has gone on long enough.”) This has made me think again about Ignatieff’s comments in On Consolation about our current reliance on “therapeutic professionals” who “treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover.” “When suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure,” he says, “something is lost.” I don’t think anyone who has suggested this to me means to imply that it is wrong for me to still be grieving; again, I know that they want to help, they want—for my sake—for me to be feeling better, doing better, living better. I don’t know if a therapist would approach my grief as something to be fixed or cured. I hope not: I don’t want to “recover” from it, and I don’t think I could. (“Some part of you may still remain in the underworld,” Riley says, and that seems right, meaning both true and appropriate.) I will find out, though: I have found someone to talk to (it’s not an easy process, as many of you probably know), though they can’t fit me in for a while. It is hard to think even that far ahead, but it seems likely I will still need whatever it is that they have to offer.
I feel like I need to add: I mean it that I am truly grateful to everyone kind enough to check in with me. Please don’t read this as my wishing you wouldn’t.
I’ve never grieved a child but it took me about a year to grieve my parents. I wrote about the process of coming back to my life as feeling like I had skin again.
Didn’t it used to be the rule that a widow wore mourning for a year? That seems more forgiving than our modern mania to “fix it” and hope to see someone get back to normal within months.
I have sometimes thought it would be good to have a convention like that to follow, if only to have an answer to at least one “what do I do now?” question. Full mourning for a year, then light mourning (grey or lavender) for another year, I think.
Thank you for that phrase, it’s incredible well put.
When I lost my little sister, that is how it felt like, a layer of protection from the world ripped off and everything hurt. Sunshine hurt, people hurt (even the most well meaning and kind ones), because my sister was not there.
Dear Rohan, I’m really sorry for your pain and grief. Don’t feel the you need to hurry it along or try to feel better, in my memory not only does it not work, you feel almost worse for trying and failing.
At the worst time, I remember the self absorption becoming annoying even to myself, which was at least a different feeling (if not a happy one).
And yes, I think our ancestors (due to extensive experience of grief and bereavement) had a more robust understanding of mourning. Although in the case of widows as far as I know, it was also to ensure that any potential baby was born before a new marriage,
Grief takes time, lots and lots and lots of time and energy, and emotion and hard work that you never wanted to do. And there is no getting over, in my experience, there is only getting through.
Please know, that you and your family are in my thoughts.
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Thank you, Claire. I’m so sorry about your sister. Yes, stripped of protection is exactly it, and the world is so full of reminders, as it must have been for you too.
Like Jeanne, I haven’t lost a child, but (as I think you know) both my parents died suddenly, long before their time. So much of what you’re saying here resonates with me, especially your reflections on the tacit implications behind the “How are you doing now?” questions. I was in my mid-twenties when my mother died of a brain haemorrhage, and I recall my flatmate trying to chivvy me along after two weeks. She never said it directly, but the gist of it was ‘Surely it’s best if you try to move on…’
Please don’t be disappointed in yourself for feeling like this. What you’re experiencing is a natural response to the trauma of the past few months. We all experience grief in different ways, and many things can influence this, not least the fact that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. I’m glad you’ve found someone to talk to, and hopefully it won’t be too long before they can see you. It’s the one thing I wish I had done back then… X
Love to you, Rohan. I began seeing a therapist in December to learn to live with my escalating anxieties, and it is helping me so much. Underlying all of it seems to be reminding us to have compassion for ourselves, to be gentle and loving with ourselves—always a good thing. You just have to be where you are. xo
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