A close friend of mine had her father die recently It was one of those slow creeping cancers that keeps loved ones hoping that medicine will do its magic. I remember when my sister died, slowly, of a cancer in 2009, leaving two young children. The grief was heart-breaking.
It also brought back memories of when my dads death. That was back in 1991. A sudden heart attack took him, the kindest cut of all I suppose, (except for the relatives who suddenly have to get used to the idea). It made me realise how ill-equipped we are to deal with that particular loss – and the grief that accompanies it
Grief is like wandering through a field of unexploded mines: however carefully you tread, a sudden detonation can happen out of nowhere. A song played in a bar; an overheard phrase; someone in the distance who your mind, cruelly, reminds you is your lost one for a moment. Until reality pulls you back to the here-and-now.
Grief can be an insidious force, gnawing relentlessly at your now fragile emotions.
There is a play called Nightfall by Barney Norris. It’s about a family on a declining farm simultaneously united and divided by the grief of losing their father. The grief relentlessly eats away at all of them, but they don’t have the emotional tools to deal with it.
Does anyone? In western society we do this badly, a combination of death being treated as a macabre taboo subject and then there is a particularly British awkwardness about raw emotions. It’s also – sadly – that the expression of emotion is portrayed as weakness, especially in men.
My dad didn’t have to think about death, I guess he never saw it coming. But my friend’s dad, and my sister, didn’t contemplate death until it was imminent, our culture discourages us from doing so. It’s only when it happens to someone we know that we are reminded of the impermanence of life.
The bereaved are often treated badly. There is no bereavement leave as such, the emotionally stunned often compelled to work within days of losing a loved one. At the very least, surely, we need to learn to talk more about grief.
Grief has been difficult to avoid.
My sister who succumbed to cancer. That was an even more long drawn out affair. I think it was eight years- She ended up being riddled with it. I recall the long nights of increasingly rattling breaths, wondering when the moment would come – and then that long pause before the last gasp, the instinctive, wide-eyed panic etched on everyone’s face. A moment when time is frozen. It must have been the same for my friend and her family.
That whole period, the no-man’s land between life and death, of watching a parent (or sibling) who in your childhood appeared as if they would go on forever, becoming as dependent as a new-born baby, of asking for a water before quietlyslipping away – that does disappear in time, I’m told, in favour of better memories of who they once were.
The Jewish approach to mourning and grief seems a little better in helping to fend off the memory of those last days. It never is going to be easy though. A seven-day period of mourning, or shiva, when those grieving open their doors to friends and visitors, where they pray, eat and remember; then, a year later, another ceremony to place the tombstone and recite eulogies.
Having some form of structure to process and manage grief collectively surely helps: as someone said to me, grief makes you a stranger to yourself.
Our culture doesn’t give us the vocabulary to talk to the grieving – we often blurt, “I don’t know what to say” – conversely we are judged to be dealing with grief based on how little emotion we express!
For me, this is how I’d like to remember my dad, my sister and my friends dad, who incidentally was also a pal to me. Not stricken by an illness that wages a remorseless war against the bodies of its victims: but as hard-working heads of a household, loving parents full of optimism, who loved to travel and to live, who sometimes told very bad jokes. Grief does go.
We just have to give it time.