The Extraordinary Animal That Is Grief
I thought I knew about grief. I’ve written enough about it, after all’s said and done. I thought I understood it.
But I realise that like a child who paddles on the shores of a vast ocean, sometimes venturing in deeper to swim, I only knew what had so far presented itself to me. Oh I’ve maybe snorkelled a bit; sailed out into the open on a calm day; watched the storms from the shore; read books on the subject.
This spring has been a spring like no other. In the first week of the UK lock-down, my mother passed away, less than seven months after my father. Amid that shock came the immense changes to daily life and the sudden ramping up of the baseline anxiety I experience most of the time. Friends lost beloved relatives and friends to the virus; the whole of my social media has been dominated by the pandemic. The usual rituals and solaces for coping with stress have been denied to most of us. Church buildings have been locked; church services have gone to a totally different level and have been done virtually. Places I would have gone to spend time grappling with my feelings are not accessible.
I’ve had even more problems sleeping. It’s not been unusual to fail to get to sleep in the normal manner; I go downstairs, make a hot drink, curl up on the sofa with a book, a heated blanket and sometimes the cat, and try to get past the racing thoughts, the emotions I cannot quantify or express but which make my body and mind spasm with pain. Other nights I wake in the small hours, overwhelmed; a dream may have brought me squarely in the face of the losses and I wake sobbing. The sofa, a book and the cat again become my companions. The thing with grief is you experience it alone; it’s a unique experience that only you can go through. Had I an identical twin, their journey through this loss would be different from mine. We might be companions on the road, but our journeys would be radically different and radically similar all at the same moment. I compare notes, sometimes, with friends, and there’s comfort in recognising that reactions, behaviours and emotions are normal.
I’ve done a lot of staring into space, unable to focus on a book. Only familiar much loved books are my reading fodder right now. I’ll try and read something new but in most cases, I’ll find my eyes slide off the page and I’ll lapse into silence and empty thoughts that are soon replaced by the same litany of confusion, unplaced and unembraced emotions, and a vicious shouting chorus of Furies.
The collective grief of a nation where probably a good 60k(and rising) people have died as a direct result of the virus (official death count of confirmed deaths due to the virus is getting close to 40k) and the restrictions associated, is a silent scream on the ether, a white noise that enters my waking mind as much as my sleeping one. The anger at mismanagement, at the flouting of rules by some, the knowledge that other nations have managed it so much better, make me grind my teeth at times. I am powerless, voiceless. I have written to my M.P, emailing my letter and sending it to his local office and his Westminster office. I have not received any sort of reply. I probably won’t. He’s sitting pretty in a safe seat; he doesn’t need to bother. No one who should care seems to care. I avoid watching any of the briefings now, catching up with various précis later.
I have mentioned staring into space; I’ve been unable to write, draw or do anything very much. The creative urge is drowned by intense sadness. The kind of exercises that are suggested for kickstarting creativity are torment. Brain fog is like being stuck in a sort of mental pea-souper. I know it’s probably temporary but it’s horrible. I’d barely begun the grieving journey for my father, scarcely got a handle on it. Now my mother also is gone. This grief is a different animal, one I cannot yet fathom. It’s a new species to me. But that’s the thing. Every loss is a new experience of grief. If it were truly an animal, I’d observe it. I’d study it. I’d maybe draw it, or write about it. I might seek images or representations of it. Season by season, I’d learn a bit more. And it would still manage to surprise me, shock me, by what I still didn’t know about it.
That’s how grief is: a new species each time. Maybe it is closely related to existing species; maybe this one is new to science and therefore harder to understand. But it cannot be classified, stuck in a box or a book and forgotten; it’s a living thing that changes, evolves, interacts, surprises and sometimes shocks.