I remember soon after Owen was born feeling as if I had been admitted into a vast secret society, one where people talked freely about really personal things like sore nipples and episiotomy stitches and traded used onesies and shared tips about teething pain and diaper rash. I looked at (and talked to) people we knew who were already parents in a new way—not necessarily as guides or models, but as people who had been where we were and who had, one way or another, come through it still standing, or at least seemed to have.
Since Owen died I have been unwillingly inducted into a different society: the mourners’ club. It’s a surprisingly welcoming place, perhaps because nobody already in it wants to belong to it either: each of them has already had to deal with the wrenching realization that membership is neither optional nor revocable, and so they empathize effortlessly with your shock and confusion. At the same time, it is quieter, or at least less conspicuous, than the parents’ club—you can’t hide your children, after all, but a lot of people, it turns out, are hiding their grief, which, once you start listening for it (or people start talking to you about it) really is “the roar on the other side of silence.”
“This instant enlargement of human sympathy,” as Denise Riley puts it, can be overwhelming, especially at moments when my own personal feelings of loss are more than I can bear. There’s so much, too much, sorrow in the world: this is not news, of course, but as George Eliot observes in Middlemarch, if we allowed the scope of everyday tragedy to be constantly present to us, “our frames could hardly bear much of it”—and thus, as she says with her characteristic blend of insight and critique, “the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.” It’s a matter of survival, not (or at least not just) self-centeredness that we aren’t constantly preoccupied with “all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth” (to quote Dorothea’s “Hamlet-like raving”). And yet to retreat into solipsism is a failure: enlarging our sympathies is both an aesthetic principle and a moral imperative for her. It’s a beautiful theory but one that’s not easy to put into practice, especially when our own suffering is intense and immediate.
Like my changed perspective on the other parents in my life, my heightened awareness of other people’s grief is a source of strength, though not always comfort. There are concrete ways other mourners have helped me: by being generous enough to share their own experiences, by offering a sympathetic ear, by passing on a poem or a book or an idea that helped them and they hope will do the same for me. But it’s also strangely, a bit perversely, encouraging just knowing there are so many other sad people out there. I don’t imagine that it feels easy to any of them, or that they are “over it” or have “moved on,” but there they all are, carrying on with their lives while also somehow carrying their grief. “How do they do that?” I still wonder, even though I suppose I am now doing the same, however haltingly.
Looking again at Riley’s book this week, I paused at the section headed “Five Months After,” which seemed such an unfathomable distance away when I first read it in February. Though the received wisdom about grief these days is that there is no common timetable, it turns out that Riley’s “five months after” feelings are very much like mine. The overwhelming sensation is of disorientation, “knowing and also not knowing that he’s dead. Or I ‘know’ it, but privately I can’t feel it to be so.” There’s the “recall” of the person you knew, so complete and vivid and real, and “your knowledge of the fall of sudden blackness”; “you struggle to hold both in mind at once.” Recently I have experienced literal, physical dizziness trying to do that, as if my brain cannot reconcile itself to the two facets of my new reality, which is a world in which all the familiar features of Owen’s life surround me but he is not here (“what could it mean to know this,” Riley asks in her poem “He Lies Somewhere in France”). Poking around in books about grief, I have a few times come across the term “integration.” I don’t know its technical meaning, but “disintegrated” seems like a good way to describe how I feel. It’s not just that I can’t adjust, though: I don’t want to integrate Owen’s death into my life. Like Riley, I resist calling this “denial” (“Yet who,” she wonders, “is policing my ‘acceptance’ of it?”). I’d call it “refusal,” which I’m sure is (therapeutically speaking) not any better for being more self-conscious.
My most recent related reading has been Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief, which I didn’t find offered me much that other books haven’t, though it does some useful synthesizing. The most helpful aspect of it, for me anyway, is its emphasis on “account making.” She quotes Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby on stories: “we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.” Edelman describes her own early grieving as a state of “narrative limbo.” Inevitably, this literary take on mourning appeals to me. “Lives do not serve as models,” Carolyn Heilbrun says in Writing a Woman’s Life, the small critical book that has had such a large influence on my own thinking and writing; “only stories do that.” It’s interesting that though we all have, or will inevitably have, our own stories of loss, that doesn’t make them all the same (quite the opposite, in fact, as they are as unique as each of us)—or any easier to tell.
You are doing well Rohan. Everyone’s experience of grief is different and from my own, it doesn’t ever really go away, just becomes a kind of accommodation. I think it’s good to write and share with reference to books like Middlemarch as you are doing. Peter L.
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Recently I lost someone dear to me, but she was 85. Mostly I “walk about well-wadded with stupidity.”
I’m sorry. Every loss hurts. But I think it’s really understandable and even important that we not try to feel all the pain all the time.
Thank you Rohan for this lucid and insightful piece. The journey through grief is intensely personal. Learning from it, sharing with others can make the journey bearable.
Thank you, Ian.