You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)
But you have crushed me and made me a haunt for jackals and covered me over with deep darkness
As leaves tumble down, branches are left empty. People in grief may feel this emptiness in every level of their being. The empty chair, the unheard laughter, and the absence of touch are painful reminders of loss. An array of feelings from fear, loneliness and anger to guilt, shock, and relief may move through us like a powerful wind. (Pathways, Bereavement Newsletter)
On days like today, the anniversary of the death of my dear Annie, I think the words of C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” are most appropriate:
“Getting over it too soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he has had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce continuous pain will stop. Presumably he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has got over it. But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man.”
That’s true. You don’t ever get over it.
Geoffrey Gorer says that
“Judging by my interviews and the range of rituals and practices reported by historians and anthropologists, it would seem as though most adult mourners pass through three stages: a short period of shock, usually lasting between the occurrence of death and the disposal of the body; a period of intense mourning accompanied by the withdrawal of much attention and affect from the external world and by such physiological changes as disturbed and restless sleep, often with vivid dreams, failure of appetite and loss of weight; and a final period of re-established physical homeostasis - sleep and weight again stabilized and interest again directed outward.”
I don’t think that is correct. It may apply in some cases, but there are no hard and fast rules or sequences. Those that try and codify grief are bound to fail. Grief has no borders, and knows no country.
The first is correct. You certainly go through a period of shock, although in my case that was very quick. What happened longer was the period of intense mourning, which began almost at once. I remember weeping buckets at the hospital bed, looking at her still unmoving body, knowing that she was dead, that she would never be alive and in my arms, embracing again, or texting me on the phone, or just chatting together. The sense of loss was immediate and palpable. There was no time of shock after that initial phone call.
And while I did come out of the period of intense mourning, that’s not to say it does not happen again. It is not a long sustained period, but I still have short times of intense mourning, I still have times when I miss Annie with just such an intensity as I did before. I can tell, because my eyes become red rimmed from weeping. Anniversaries, such as a birthday or a deathday are such occasions, as is the All Souls Service at St Brelade’s Church. Or a sight, or sound, or a scent, can trigger the past, come alive once more.
So I think Lewis is right – you learn to hobble about, and you may even forget that you have a wooden leg – it becomes part of you, just as you learn to adapt to failing eyesight, diminished hearing, and all the other vicissitudes of a body that gets old. But the leg remains, and at times you feel the twinge of that imaginary limb, cut off, and you remember how life was before you were scarred so deeply.
And of course there is another obstacle for those of us, like myself, who had a relationship, but never married. There is almost by default an exclusion. People can have partners, and it is acceptable to say Annie was my partner. But there is no formal words, no way of acklowledging the loss. Am I widowed? Yes, in many ways I would say that I certainly am. I have lost Annie, and I have suffered grief and bereavement. But on all the official forms, there is no place for widowed except for married people, no way of speaking about that, and yet I want to be able to do so.
I must confess to cheating a little: on the last Census, I did put widowed. It was because it is as close as it can get to honestly acknowledging the loss. I do not want any benefits from saying that. I am not putting it on official forms like tax returns etc. But I do think that there should be some way of acknowledging that loss in one’s personal history.
I was lucky. No one excluded me in any way after Annie’s death. I was there deciding matters as the funeral arrangements were made, and I made the order of service for the humanist wedding she wanted, and people looked to me as the bereaved partner. But it is not always the case. Sometimes people get shut out, excluded, because they are not married – “it is like my voice doesn't matter” says one person in a forum on grief. No one should suffer in that way. It always matters, even if the status of loss is invisible to the rigid tick boxes our society tends to work from.
People find a variety of ways to acknowledge the reality and pain of loss and begin the process of making meaning out of the experience. I was interested to learn that J.K. Rowling’s mother died while she was writing her first Harry Potter book. The sense of grief that Harry has, the yearning to see his parents, is something genuine and honest. It is drawn from life.
How does one emerge from the darkness? Not entirely, not forever, but the darkness can perhaps seem not so black after all. There’s another passage from C.S. Lewis, and part of it was quoted verbatim in the BBC production of Shadowlands, but excised from the movie version for a much weaker ending. This is the paragraph in full:
“Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off—waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound close at hand—a chuckle of laughter. And if so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound. I’m not mad enough to take such an experience as evidence for anything. It is simply the leaping into imaginative activity of an idea which I would always have theoretically admitted—the idea that I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.”
As someone who studies the stars, in an amateur fashion, there is much to be said for darkness. When your eyes adjust to the dimmer light, you can see that instead of being pitch black, on a clear night, there is a vast canopy of stars above. If you live too close to a well lit place, it can be lost, and you can never see it, and wonder at the mystery of the cosmos. I remember sitting with Annie, down at St Catherine's Breakwater, around Midnight, holding her hand as we watched the stars over the dark waters of the bay.
In a strange way, grief can be like that too: it can open up new vistas, and a different way of seeing your own past, your lost love. Darkness too is part of our lives, and we should rejoice in it, that it can enable us to see those far off worlds that we would never otherwise know exist. And how she loved Star Trek. There was something restless and always exploring, something captured in the lyrics of Enterprise.
"It's been a long road, getting from there to here.
It's been a long time, but my time is finally near.
And I will see my dream come alive at last. I will touch the sky.
And they're not gonna hold me down no more, no they're not gonna change my mind."
And now she has touched the sky.
For now, I remember the passing of the sweet light wine of our love, but in due course, I too will drink of the dark wine of death. But in our grief, we all sip a drop or two from that glass. And we are never quite the same again: we have faced the darkness.
The light wine is for rejoicing
For making merry, and feasting
Opens hearts to simple pleasure
Each partakes of their own measure
Life changes, with a golden hue
Light lifting spirits, does imbue
A simple wonder, joy so bright
At all the wonders now in sight.
The dark wine is for mourning
For final drink, now quenching
All thirsts, ending all the light
Darkness rejoicing in the night
Drink deep of this, sweet bliss
Savour the taste, a lasting kiss
Empty the cup, with final end
As death is coming as a friend.