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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