One of my oldest and dearest friends sends a short message. His sister has died. His words break my heart. My heart breaks for his broken heart, for the broken hearts of all her beautiful family, for the broken hearts of all the people she touched in her life, which was not long enough.
I cry for the unfairness of it all. So many human beings adored her. She was always smiling. She was endlessly kind, gently funny, always hopeful. You felt happier when you were with her. She was one of those people who made things better. She had something gloriously reassuring about her. She was a complete person and now she has gone.
I always feel strange when I write about these kind of losses. They are not my loss, not immediately. I had the same thing when a very dear friend died suddenly at the end of 2019. He was my compadre, I’d known him since I was fifteen, but he did not belong to me. He belonged to his wife and his two boys and his brother and sister. They were the ones who had the right to write about him. I think of this brilliant, beaming woman and know that the words for her are not mine to write. But I always have to write. Give sorrow words, Shakespeare said, and he knew what he was talking about. Grief, loss, the stupid unfairness of a bright spirit gone too soon – they must have words. If I can type it all, then the world might steady and come back to itself; all the things that make no sense might make sense.
I think of all the work they will have to do, those lost people she has left behind. Grieving is like having a job. It’s a horrible, bitter, hard job. You have to do it every day. You can’t shirk it, or give yourself time off, or pretend it is not happening. You have to step into the land of the bereaved, and they do things differently there.
It can be like carrying a weight, and at the same time you feel hollowed out. There is an air of unreality, and yet everything is so brutally, vividly real. Sometimes, there is a sense of panic. This is too big, too vast, too terrifying; this will be the wave that takes me down.
I think, suddenly, violently, of the lines at the end of Prufrock:
‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’
I think of all those long, slow days when I had to move forward, as if I were wading through a bog of mud. I would know what to do, and I would not know what to do. I would feel ultimately human, as every emotion roared through me, and I would feel utterly lost, as if I did not know who I was or where I was or what I was here for.
I remember the brief, light moments of forgetting, when I would wake up in the morning and not know, for a few seconds, that the loved one was gone. And then I would remember, and the crush of missing would smash over me.
I remember having to breathe and breathe and breathe, as if I could let out the pain on long breaths. I remember finding ordinary daily tasks ridiculously difficult. I remember going to the shop and thinking it almost unbelievable that everyone was just going about their business. I wanted to shake them sometimes. I wanted to say, ‘Don’t you know what has just happened?’
I remember thinking that there must be something I could do, and knowing there was nothing I could do.
I remember thinking, ‘There must be people who understand about grief.’ I wondered who those people were and where I could find them.
And in the end, I came to the conclusion – with all the deaths, one after the other – that the only thing that works, in the end, is time. Time gentles it, that tearing, rupturing loss. Time takes away the terror and the fury and the agony.
You never stop missing the person. But as the weeks and the months go by, you learn to put them somewhere, in a safe place, deep in your heart and your mind. (I put mine in physical places too. My mum is in the stars, my dad is in a little Japanese cherry in my garden. My dear friend got the whole sky, so I look up and talk to him in the evenings when I take the dogs out. My beloved bay mare is in an ancient chestnut tree outside my back door and my stepfather is in an elegant granite building across the way, because he loved elegant, formal things.)
You learn, at last, to remember the Dear Departeds with more smiles than tears. That’s the change that time brings. The ratio shifts; the perspective moves. You learn to feel grateful that they were here, rather than desolated that they are gone.
But oh, that is the thing that takes the work. And they’ll all be starting to do that now, all those good, kind people who loved her so much. It’s a long and melancholy road they have to walk, and I wish they did not have to walk it now.
It’s a year of lockdown today, and I’m tired. I’ve been thinking of that too, a lot. I have many good days and I’m so lucky compared to so many people. I can get outside and see the hills and I have my two laughing, sweet girls in my bubble, so I get the warmth of their company every single day. I can do my work at home and I have my dogs and my mares. I have an incredible group of friends, so that every single day there is a wise, warm, laughing voice on the telephone. There was one this morning. She said something so reassuring and sage about the wheel of history and how it turns that I felt all the turmoil in me unloose itself and grow calm. ‘Thank you for that,’ I said, in passionate gratitude. She’s done this for me for thirty-five years, and she never fails.
I have all that, and I wonder why there have been times in this endless year when I have struggled. And I think it is because of John Donne, whose lines always stay with me. I write them often, in books and blogs, and they are one of the central truths of my life.
‘…..any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
So, it doesn’t matter how much I decide to step away from the news, or to focus on the positive, or to devote myself to gratitude. The losses are there, in this island nation, all around the world. We are a human family, after all, and our sisters and brothers are grieving for the thousands and millions of losses. So many people are walking that long road of grief. The bell is tolling. And you can’t escape that, however much you might try. It presses on the spirits and bruises the heart. I’ve found myself crying for strangers, on and off, since this thing started, and I’m crying now for someone I did know, for someone who left so many cherished memories behind her, for someone who added to the sum total of human happiness.
My room is very silent now. I sit in the quiet, as I did a year ago, and I feel all the losses settle in me. It is humanity’s last and first bargain, I think; all of us love and so all of us grieve. What do I do with that? What does any of us do?
I think – ‘I choose.’
I choose. I choose love, and I choose to pay its fee. I choose hope. I choose the light. I choose to go through the dark and not shy away from its shadows and its ghosts. I chose the opening of the heart, not the snapping shut in defensiveness and fear.
I choose to remember them well, the ones had to leave the party before the music stopped. I choose to give thanks that they were here at all.