Grief. Art. Writing

I was honoured to be a guest on Jane Davis’ blog yesterday. You can read it here:

https://jane-davis.co.uk/2018/06/20/an-exploration-of-art-in-fiction-part-3-grief-art-and-writing-by-vivienne-tufnell/

I’ll be writing later this summer about the various books I’d recommend for a non-beach read, and Jane’s recent book Smash All The Windows will be among those I’ll be suggesting for immersing yourself in excellent fiction rather than sand, sea and suncream.

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

Many of us have heard or are subliminally aware of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as postulated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross‘s famous book On Death and Dying. The book was published in 1969 and was the result of her work with the terminally ill.

Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, they are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model)

As a result of this misunderstanding, people seem to feel that grief is both a linear and a limited process that can be “got through” in a set amount of time; it then seems to legitimise the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people encourage those grieving to move on, to put it behind them, and to cease grieving.

There is no hierarchy of grief. Some will grieve for losses that others consider negligible. The loss of a beloved companion animal is as painful for some as the loss of a parent; it all depends on the relationship and on the circumstances. Having seen others say, “It was only a dog/cat/guinea pig; get over it!” I can testify to the cruelty of such speech. We all feel grief in different ways and for different things.

Every one of my novels is about grief and grieving in very different ways and for different people. Antony in The Bet is buried under a heap of grief, so unable to process it that he has become numb and detached and so lost and vulnerable in his need for comfort that he mistakes the attentions of the predatory Jenny for affection and love, and so descends into a further hell. His journey back out of that hell is the story of one journey through multiple griefs. Strangers and Pilgrims focuses on the journeys of six people through loss, grief and unhealed hurts. Square Peg starts with a funeral and the loss of the only stable, loving person in much of Chloe’s life, just at a time when the loss of her previous way of life and the start of a new and very alien one has destablised her and left her at risk from loneliness, grief and confusion. Away With The Fairies is primarily Isobel’s exploration of the loss of both parents.

Yet grief has a single unspoken component that Kübler-Ross’s work points to, that all grief returns to a single point, that of our own mortality, best summed up by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant poem Spring and Fall, which I tend to remember as Goldengrove (another G)

Spring and Fall

(to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

( I blogged on this poem before:  https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/endings-and-beginnings-why-you-need-to-grieve-for-the-past-before-you-can-begin-anew/ )

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

I’ve always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry but the following poem was recently brought back to my attention by a musical version of it by Natalie Marchant.

Spring and Fall:

to a Young Child

 Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as the heart grows older
   It will come to such sights colder
   By and by, nor spare a sigh
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
   And yet you will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow’s springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

For those of you that are not poetically inclined, the poem is addressed to a young girl who is distressed that the leaves of her favourite woodland are falling. For a child, the seasons have not yet become predictable and the certainty that we as adults may feel that the spring will come and the trees with again be crowned in green is not present. The grief of the child is palpable in the words Hopkins writes; she is too young to have the assurance of spring. And yet, Hopkins does not dismiss this. Indeed, he says that even though as she grows older and becomes more hardened to such things, she will still weep for such things because the origin of the sorrow will always remain. Essentially a poem about the grief our own mortality can bring us, it is one of such compassion and understanding of a particularly sensitive child that I felt it speak to me personally.

Death has become the last great taboo in our culture and the thing that divides us most. People would rather not think about their own mortality at all and those who do are labelled as morbid or negative. Yet the fact remains that we all die. How and where and when are the great unknowns. And what comes next, if anything, is the greatest mystery of them all. Unlike children who learn by experience that after the great unleaving of the trees in Autumn and the cold, cold days of Winter, the Spring returns without fail, we cannot discover by experience and rest easy in that knowledge.

So the smaller deaths in life, the partings and the endings, become focuses for our anxiety and need for reassurance. Moving house, as I have done many times, becomes a grief beyond the mere hassle. So much of my life has been bound up within those walls. Changing jobs. The death of others close to me. All these endings. They’re hard to bear. Really hard to bear. And the temptation is to leap ahead for comfort, to try and see the future where things do not hurt. To know that the Spring will come again.

And yet, this is something that denies the reality of the moment. The death of a friend even when you are sure in your heart that death is not the final curtain but a change of state, should hurt. It needs to, because it returns you to a state of innocence, that of Margaret in the poem, where you grieve in a pure state.

In our busy society, without time or inclination for either rites of passage or time to grieve, to be allowed to grieve is a blessing. It allows healing to happen. If you cut that time short, you cut yourself. And the longer you defer or postpone or refuse that grieving, the more you may find waiting for you later.

  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve, because in some ways, you are grieving for yourself as well. 

Dealing with grief: a personal perspective

 

Dealing with grief: a personal perspective

I wanted to write this before I lose courage to do so. This is not a post that is even going to attempt to be scholarly or give helpful links; there are plenty to do that.

I was blind sided this morning by grief. Doing some tidying up, I wanted to put a box of beer away in the cupboard and realised that the cans of dog food were still there, taking up room. No one has got round to moving them. I suspect no one had the time to do it but today I did. There was a couple of weeks supply of cans, a bag of mixed dog food unopened and the teeth cleaning chewies Holly used to love so much at bed time. I’ve piled them all up in a bag to take over to the vet’s later where there is a box for donations for local shelters. I can’t bring myself to do it now until I get my emotions back into order. I found myself crying, you see.

I didn’t expect to feel quite such acute emotion now, nearly five weeks later. I’ve slowly begun to get used to her not being here, and I felt I was recovering. But this makes me realise the feelings are still quite raw. Not enough time has passed. The normal every day things I have begun to accept, like not having a walking companion trotting along with me, or letting her out first thing in the morning. But seeing her food, that she’ll never eat now, well, it set me off again.

Grief is a strange thing. It’s both complex and simple. And it has no official time scale. You can’t say, it’s been a year, I ought to be OK now. Every journey through it is different. The basic stages as I have seen are: shock/denial, anger/guilt, emotional storm, acceptance, regaining of perspective, the beginning of healing and finally a deepening of our capacity for love. In my experience, the passage through these stages is not linear nor is it easy. It depends to some degree on the nature of the loss, the closeness of the bond and personality. When a death is expected, the shock is usually less, but not always. Human beings “cannot bear much reality” and even when you know death is coming, you continue to hope beyond hope that it won’t come. Anger and guilt also depend on the relationship. When a relationship is flawed or fractured, then it’s logical that the time spend in the anger/guilt stage may be proportionately longer; for this reason, it’s better to try and heal relationships in life, if possible.

I’m not a weepy person. I don’t cry very easily when I am in a stable state, but when I am low, I shed tears easily, but hold it back. Tears are as healing a thing as any I can think of. Weeping produces certain chemicals in the brain that are closely related to opiates; if you’ve ever cried enough, you may have experienced a sense of calm and even peace after a long crying fit. I hate crying. I hate anyone seeing me cry. And yet, I know it’s probably the best thing to do to help heal emotional pain.

I should tell myself: let yourself feel and let yourself weep. I should tell myself: give yourself time. But then I never listen to me, so here I am telling you.

Give yourself time. Be gentle to yourself in grief. Let the journey unfold as it needs to. Let tears flow if they need to. Talk to someone who cares. Don’t be alone if you don’t want to be.

And finally, it will pass. Every day it becomes a little less painful. The first anniversaries can be hard, but even then, with time, they become bearable. The deepening of our capacity for love is usually a sign that the journey through grief has been a successful one and yet so often people who have endured a lot of grief in life are often bitter.

I aim not to be one of them.