The two things I’ve heard or read most often about grief are “it takes time” and “wait until you’re ready.” These are helpful comments, as far as anything is helpful; they lessen my anxiety and confusion by reminding me that there is no timeline, there are no rules, there are no ‘oughts’ that follow from this shocking and disruptive ‘is.’ They are also, less reassuringly, very vague: nobody knows how much time or can say exactly what “it” is, or when, if ever, I’ll be “ready” for the things I currently can’t face doing—sorting through his belongings, for example, so poignantly scant and so heartbreakingly reminiscent of him. But it has been good to remind myself that it is OK for now just to get from one day to the next as best I can.
The world won’t wait for me, though. The days keep relentlessly coming and going, their accumulation inexorably putting distance between this sad present and the innocent times before—especially that last happy day, the day when he knew but we didn’t that it was the last one, the day he told us, as it came cheerfully to a close, that he would remember for the rest of his life (how different that remarks sounds today). And now winter is starting, slowly and haltingly but perceptibly, to change to spring. Usually I am impatient, desperate even, for this to happen: the contrast between the shorter, milder winters I experienced growing up in Vancouver and the longer, harsher winters we suffer through here has always made me depressed. I never understood why April would be considered cruel until I lived here; if winter comes, I often crankily exclaimed, spring can indeed be ‘far behind.’ Now, however, the lighter mornings, the lengthening days, the brighter sunshine all exert the kind of pressure on me that those consolatory phrases attempt to protect me from.
Mourning in winter has been very hard, and very isolating, because of the added complication of COVID concerns, but it has also made emotional sense to me that the weather has stayed as bleak as my feelings. “He left us in the dead of winter,” as Auden’s poem goes; “the day of his death was a dark cold day.” Beauty and brightness seem so incongruous. I went to the park one rare mild morning, hoping to find some consolation in the loveliness of sea and sky, but I was immediately flooded with memories and overwhelmed with grief knowing that Owen would never again turn his face to the sun.
It takes time, I know. I’ll try again, when I feel ready. But spring will come whether I’m ready or not, and this year I can’t imagine that the renewal of warmth and life around us will seem anything but painful, a constant reminder of our loss. It takes time—but “the dead slip away,” as Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’m not ready for that.
As it happens, my recent reading has also been seasonal, though I don’t think there’s any connection to these ruminations. At any rate, if there is a link, it’s not conscious or deliberate. Prompted by my attempts to conceptualize my book project, I looked up information about Ali Smith’s recent Orwell Prize win. What I read about it and her it sent me back to reread Autumn, which I had liked but not loved before; with questions about form and content and ‘novels with a purpose’ in mind, I found it engaging and thought-provoking, so I read on through Winter and Spring, and I will get to Summer soon. I’m not confident that the connections I was making between her series and the other earlier books I am planning to write about are good ones, or that it makes sense to include a contemporary example, but the flicker of intellectual excitement this idea gives me feels good enough to make it worth following up on anyway.
Image: Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Gallery)