grief & grieving

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story. (Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye)

All quotes in this post are from the source above. I wrote this earlier today and then my wifi crashed for the rest of the day.

Yup, two years down the track and the loss of my mother still hurts like fuckery. Of course it does.

The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.

Mothers and daughters always have complex and turbulent relationships with their mothers. If they don’t, they’re probably repressing something uncomfortable. Mine drove me batshit and I returned the favour. The tumult pointed to incredible closeness and likeness. Not physically, I look nothing like her, but in one of those finish each other’s sentences kind of ways. Same taste in many things too. Naturally, there were plenty of widescreen differences, some calm, some clashing. And when I wasn’t amassing troops and loading RPGs, I thought she was the best mother in all of time and space. Of course she was; she was mine.

When you lose someone you were close to, you have to reassess your picture of the world and your place in it. The more your identity is wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the mental work.

I also suddenly had nobody to ask about almost anything. The woman had a library in her cranium. There’s nobody to identify scraps of classical music for me. There’s nobody to throw tantrums at or weep all over. There’s nobody left on earth with so many of my quirks. And yes, I’m glad to hold those similarities and the bits that were carbon copies, but obviously, just like anybody else, I’d trade vital organs or my life itself to have her back. There’s nobody left who loves me as much as she did. She would have given her life for nextofkin and I.

So nextofkin and I stood in front of a specialist, in one of those hospital corridors that shift and blur and sharpen and brighten depending on your own mood. He told us that the renal failure was a result of one of the cancers and naturally, nextofkin and I volunteered kidneys immediately. And the specialist told us that all of her organs were going into failure. No dialysis, no transplant – nothing but death.

The first systematic survey of grief, I read, was conducted by Erich Lindemann. Having studied 101 people, many of them related to the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, he defined grief as “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.”

Somatic just means physical rather than mental.

I think that piece of research is absolutely spot on, for me anyway. I was relieved to read about the sighing, because I sighed and sighed and sighed.

Sighs matter. And those ones are the sound of a heart breaking.

The symptoms are all easily recognisable to anyone with PTSD or an anxiety disorder. There are times when I can’t tell the difference. Intensive subjective distress … nobody really gets all the way past that and into your consciousness at first.

Studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. In China, for instance, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study demonstrated that the bereaved there “recovered more quickly from loss” than bereaved Americans do.

That, I think, is the sort of pivotal theory that has the potential to help a hell of a lot of people. There’s a western sort of a mantra of get over it, which has always seemed harsh and insensitive to me. Personally, I reckon that all that leaping over things is nonsense and I’d rather focus on getting through them. Why on earth should anyone ever get over anyone anyway? Once you and time have held hands and navigate through loss, you can put your loss carefully somewhere and live with it quite peacefully. Some times we gotta fight and sometimes we just gotta drift.

Think about the surface tension of water a little.

I planted impepho for my mother – it’s a kind of helichrysum if I remember right, and a sangoma told me to talk to her through it. It mattered at the time and after a while, when the plants all died, that was fine too. Some people (I know it’s a Chinese thing too) write letters and burn them, letting the smoke carry the words. Some people will make a sigil, put it up somewhere obvious and when they stop noticing it, it’s time to take it down. I talk to my mother in my mind and sometimes when I am alone, aloud. It feels right.

Without death our lives would lose their shape: “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Or as a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise says, “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” It’s not clear that DeLillo means us to agree, but I think I do. I love the world more because it is transient.

Western developed cultures have mostly lost respect for death and replaced it with terror. Gotta look younger, live longer, leave something to guarantee intangible immortality. Gotta run from the jaws of death till the end. If we don’t run fast enough, unacceptable notions may creep in. Run …

Maybe life is death shaped and death is life shaped.

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

So there it is, that loss, the tree growing around a boulder and holding it tightly. It’s never alright, if we could, we would all summon our dead in a heartbeat. There’s nothing we can do to change it though; death is the coldest, hardest and most unforgiving fact of life, but a tree and a rock entwined, hold more beauty than distortion.

I miss her. Such a simple, gentle statement, cloaking the abyss. There’s no changing it. I’m trying to work on it the way I work on self harm. Because it’s a reflexive punch for me, I decided that I needed to locate the split second between trigger and reaction. To do that, I had to identify the trigger/s. Once that is done, it’s possible to work on increasing that split second space, to take back some power. So the way this all makes sense to me, is that it’s perfectly okay to grieve forever, but the spaces between bouts of grief need to grow big enough to accommodate my own life again. It can and does alter me and my perspective, but it can’t continue to define me.

Too many losses turn the world bleak and blurred. Sometimes I feel as though I’m a particularly lugubrious looking vulture, hunched over corpses, staring and shifting things about with my beak, desperately looking for life. Sometimes I just resign myself to the corpses.



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battlescarred, bright, bewildered, bent, blue & bipolar

36 thoughts on “grief & grieving”

  1. Good essay that almost not quite covers it. My losses are filled with so much confusion around the “I miss thems” (my mom and dad and brother). Also the wanting to go back and fix what was wrong, and there was a lot. I think that is part of the grief, recognizing that what was, is, and I don’t get a chance to go back. But that somehow my love will heal them over time and space. I pray so anyway. It’s funny I don’t have that need with my grandparents, somehow the purity of our love was enough so that there was only peace along with the hurt. Or maybe I knew I was forgiven the moment I erred. No confusion, no questioning.

    I don’t know if I am making sense.

    I love that Sartre quote.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like this a lot. Especially struck by your contrast of “get over it” v “get through it”. The former is both cruel and unrealistic. To “get through” a loss is both more realistic, and harder. Harder because the process of getting “through” grief carries the sense of plodding, slogging, and struggling.

    I am still working through my mother’s death, five years on. But it is noticeably easier now. I find writing about her helps. I hope it is helping you.

    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not going to “like” this. But I want you to know that I read it and I am listening to you and feeling for you… and if I could I would take your pain and grief away for you… I don’t if that would help or not. I guess it wouldn’t get her back :( but… yeah, I should have stopped with listening, shouldn’t I have?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really love this:”It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.”
    And this: “There’s nothing we can do to change it though; death is the coldest, hardest and most unforgiving fact of life, but a tree and a rock entwined, hold more beauty than distortion.”

    I feel like such an ungrateful bitch next to you because both of my parents are still alive, albeit a 2hr plane ride away, and I TOTALLY take them for granted. I’m so sorry it hurts so much mssa.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well msc, I think that’s kinda what parents are for, on the whole. It isn’t purely negative – it’s also security (the fact that you can rely on their existence), and the easy familiarity of being related/connected. Blabla waffle … :)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Damn, just wrote a long comment and it disappeared! :( the gist was that, and I write this with love for you, two years is so brief a time since you lost your Mom. Please go easy on yourself….My Dad died in 2009 and it still hurts, as you know quite well, but I don’t cry that much like I used to do. Hopefully the O’Rourke book “The Long Goodbye” will help us! Xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks darlin friend; and hugs for you, and for me too. Do I seem hard on myself about it? Or do you mean it in general? I started reading TLG yesterday and so far I am v impressed. It’s almost 7am and I am late for the beach :0 catch you later and tyvm for the email xx


  6. Thank you so much! It is so accurate in so many ways. It touched me deeply. It has only been 5 months for me. I try not to think about the future. One day at a time. Have a good day. Big hug! xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tis my absolute pleasure – I’m reading the book I took those quotes from and it’s really very good. One day at a time is always an excellent strategy. Big hug to you too xxx


    1. Thank you Kitt – I’m sure you’re grieving too. So sorry to hear it’s hurting your man so hard – but of course it does … brothers are special beings. Hugs for you.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Your reflections on grief are startlingly beautiful. Would that you could gather them into one guide for others. I have been thinking about grieving lately. It need not be death. With a serious mental illness, we grieve the loss of wellness, I know I am grieving the loss of my job identity and I lately I am in a phase of grieving a life/body wholeness I sacrificed for a life/spirit wholeness. It is odd, but one can grieve the loss of one’s self as much as one grieve the loss of another. I want you to know that there is wisdom in your rambling misery that I recognize and in which I take strength.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much rg … I am beyond touched. You are so right about grieving the loss of self. I’ll write about that soon, I’m glad you talked about it. Lol @ rambling misery! Sounds kinda like a country & western song. xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As long as I get a cut of the royalties when you sell that self help book that brings fame and fortune! :) Seriously, no problem. BTW our girl Miriam is up for the Folio Prize to be announced today. Saw a nice hot shot of her on my twitter feed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Mmmmmmmmmmmiriam! <3

          She must win! ;)

          And if I ever write a self help book, please shoot me cleanly and quickly, because it'll be a sure sign that my mind has shattered irreparably.


  8. The timing of your posting this is surreal.
    It seems whenever I make peace with losing someone, death takes someone else. It started with mum at 10 and hasn’t stopped, with another friend biting the dust far too young, and me talking less to people and more to ghosts.

    Losing anyone sucks. Mums are something else again. Sending hugs your way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much … I wouldn’t wish loss and grief on anyone, but (and I’m glad to say that I find myself saying this quite a lot) it really does help to have people to relate to. So sorry about your mum and your friend and all the ghosts in between. And loads of hugs for you too.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. There is a big difference between the Western view of “getting over” death and the eastern philosophies, like Buddhism. I Buddhism they do not tell you to ignore your feelings, push them away or jump over them.

    The Buddhist monks teach accepting your thoughts and feelings and allowing them to just be. Ajahn Brahm, in several talks, has said to show kindness to your feelings. Rather than treating them like an unwanted intruder and being rude to them, be kind and care for them. It is in caring for your feelings that they can become softer.

    Any feelings you shove off and fight against, just become unsatisfied , upset and fight back against you. The Ajahn Brahm talks I have listened to during the past week have helped me to get through. I used to listen to them every night and then my time became taken up by someone…
    I have gone back to listening to them again, There is a rationality to the Buddhism, as Brahm explains it, that feels more sensible to me than the Eastern views on dealing with severe emotional and mental trauma and strong feelings.

    There is no evidence that I see, that the Western ways of dealing with mental health, have benefited any of us.

    Much love,

    Liked by 1 person

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