Tag Archives: loss

The final flowers

There are flowers on the brambles still, and I’ve seen ragged robin and campion in the last few days. At some point, I will have seen the last of these. There are already summer flowers I won’t see again until next year.

First appearances are easier to spot than final showings. When will I see my last bat before they go into hibernation? When will I see my last swift or swallow for this year? It’s not usually until some time after the event that having seen the last one – or the last one for this year – becomes obvious. Spring announces its new arrivals, but as the autumn moves in, those key points of final sightings just aren’t so clear. It means the letting go process is much less defined than the welcoming in.

Of course there are things to welcome in autumn – I’ve seen my first conkers. Leaves changing colour, fruits and nuts ripening, and later in the year, the arrival of winter migrants – these will all be easier to spot. But, the end of summer feels like a falling away without quite knowing what you’ve lost.

It’s useful to reflect on this and spend some time with it. In so many aspects of life, we don’t know when we’ve had the last, or the best of something. People we don’t get to say goodbye to. Things that will never come again. It means that you don’t know how important a meeting is, or a parting, because we never really know who, or what we will see again.

It’s so important not to be complacent about things – you never know when something important may leave forever. Hopefully, the swallows will be back next year, along with the wildflowers and the new leaves. Even that doesn’t feel so certain anymore.

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Grief and healing

“Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” (Wikipedia, summing up a definition I’ve seen in lots of other places.)

Grief is a process that we know about. Around matters of bereavement, people who grieve at the time of loss, cope. They may carry a lot of pain with them, they may never ‘get over it’ but they will be functional, they will find a way. Grief is an adjustment process, and while it may hurt like hell, it is the way forward. People who do not grieve at the time of bereavement will get a delayed grief experience. When it will happen, and how, and with what force is unpredictable, but it’s reliably much, much worse for delayed grief people than for people who can grieve in a timely way.

Grief is not just about death. It can be about all manner of losses and wounds, shocks and setbacks. However, what often happens when we hit a crisis, is that we get a lot of support to cope. Stiff upper lip. Soldier on. Push through. The smaller the crisis, the more pressure there is not to make a fuss about it. How many of us have working lives that are basically running low level crises? Or family lives of that shape? Or financial problems that are just small, constant nightmares. And how many of us hit bigger things and find there’s no room to do anything but keep going?

I spent years with this one, when there was always something else more important than how I was feeling. Running from one crisis to another – most of them not of my making, fire fighting, coping, keeping going, doing all the important things. The one important thing I did not do during those years, was grieve for my losses, my wounds. I spent a lot of time trying to be brave for everyone else, to keep a good face on it. I was put under pressure to be jolly and co-operative, for the good of others, at times when that was unbearable. So I smiled, and bore it as best I could.

When grief is suppressed and undealt with, there is no room to integrate the experience. There’s no time to absorb and process, to make sense of what’s happened. There’s no room to let go and put it properly behind you.

The result is that it comes out sideways, unexpectedly. There aren’t always obvious triggers, except that its more likely to happen when you feel calmer, safer, more able to accommodate it. Why there is the sudden drowning in grief may be impossible to explain, and certainly if it hits you years after the event, its much harder to get the emotional support that’s more readily available to people who have recently been hit by a thing.

When we think about trauma, we tend to think about big, dramatic events. However, the accumulation of lots of smaller, unprocessed losses also takes a toll, but leaves a person with nothing they can obviously point at.

It’s important not to rush people through grief. If you can make any space at all to deal with things as they come up, you will do better. I know it seems like helping to tell someone to keep going, chin up, smile, don’t let the bastards grind you down, but keeping going in the short term can mean really not keeping going in the long term, and its worth looking at the bigger picture.


The Tyranny of Healing

We’re all supposed to want to be perfectly functional. To be well, stable, capable, not inconvenient for others. Being well is not all peace and light.

On the New Age side there can be a lot of pressure towards wellness, with a sense that being ill represents a personal failure, a not having tried hard enough. The more extreme end of other religions will ascribe illness to being out of favour with God. Good Christians don’t get cancer, in some people’s book, therefore to get it is to have failed religiously, on top of everything else.

There are a lot of chronic and on-going illnesses out there that can, at best, be managed well. No amount of healthy lifestyle choices or positive thinking will cure you of Multiple Sclerosis or arthritis. Then there are the psychological ailments, because it simply isn’t the case that you can positive-attitude yourself out of suffering from severe depression. There are life experience too painful and serious to heal from as well. I know people who have lost children, and who carry that grief. No one should be asked, or expected to ‘get over it’ but the pressure to be convenient to those around you, is vast. Grief is something we are supposed to knuckle down and heal from, and if we can’t or won’t, we will be treated as though we need a medical intervention. There are occasions when not healing should be a perfectly valid option.

That which seriously harms us, in body or in mind, leaves marks that endure long after the obvious damage has gone away. The damage to a rape victim’s body will heal, but the damage to self, to relationship with the world, may be there for the rest of their lives. There is no way back from certain kinds of experience, no way of unlearning it, or ceasing to be aware that it can and does happen, that it could happen again, and that it will happen to other people. Extreme pain and sickness, violence and dire accident change our relationship with the world. Afterwards, we are not the same. We can’t be. We become more cautious, more aware, and we see differently. The damage becomes a part of self, a part of life, and to be asked to heal after that is to be asked not to recognise your own harsh journey.

The pressure to heal, put upon us by well-meaning people can add insult to injury. Are we to forget, then? Are we not to learn the lessons a failing body has taught us? Are we to pretend it never happened? Those who have not been put through hell at some point, quite understandably do not want to have to think about what might be out there, waiting for them. Those who have, may not wish to be reminded by seeing it happen to someone else. But what kind of answer is that? It’s not healing that is sought here, it’s not about what the survivor may need, but abut rendering them less problematic to those around them.

Sometimes, the best you can hope for is to make peace with things. A place of acceptance that makes it possible to get by, and from which you can make something of life. Peace is not the same as healing. One can be at peace with the open wounds in the psyche, with the lost parts of self, with an innocence that can never return. One can be at peace with grief while still carrying the razor-sharp sense of loss. Healing is not always available, for body or for mind. It is not always the best response. Sometimes we have to adapt and become some new thing, and let the damage shape us. The pressure to be well, to be normal, to be convenient is of no help at all in that process. Healing people might seem universally heroic and good, but there are times when it isn’t the right answer, and where honouring the transformation and allowing the change would be a good deal more helpful.


The death of dreams

One of the hardest things to deal with in times of loss and grief, is the attendant loss of that which never was. It’s an issue when someone in our lives dies, in the breakdown of relationship, the loss of a home, a job, or any aspect of your way of life. All the things you imagined would be, all the dreams you wove around that thing have to now be dismantled, or rebuilt somewhere else. It’s a hard process, made more so by being invisible and difficult to explain. The more disproportionately you have invested in relation to what was actually there, the more it hurts, and the more silly you get to feel along the way.

I’m getting fond of blog posts with soundtracks, and for me this song encapsulates something about the secret grief that is a dead dream.

Life is not kind to dreams, and often we are not culturally kind to dreamers, either. To be a daydreamer is to be out of touch with reality, to be a fool, unrealistic and doomed to be disappointed. And yet, without dreams, without wild hopes and aspirations, without the triumph of optimism over experience, life would be thin and pale. It’s the willingness to dream that sets us on the path of new romances, takes us to new jobs, founds new organisations and groups, gets up and tries. You have to dream before you’ll make anything new. Some of those dreams are stillborn, or die young. It is part of the nature of dreams.

When pets and people die, it is obvious, and we have some idea how to grieve that. Dreams die slowly and quietly, slipping away without telling you. No one else sees their passing, there are no funerals for dreams, although plenty of poets will write them elegies. But poets are dreamers themselves, and wider culture doesn’t have much truck with that either.

There is deep, hidden personal tragedy in the death of a dream. It does not matter how large the dream was. Small dreams of days off, a little good, a small joy, are painful in their demise as well. It does not matter how crazy the dream was, all those abandoned ideas of fame, fortune, creativity and a life less ordinary. It does not matter whether you fed it with action, or cherished it as an idle thought, its death will still diminish you and take a little colour out of the world.

When enough dreams have died, it becomes easy to give up on them entirely. Dreams are foolish and ephemeral things, as the song says, ‘they just let you down’. So perhaps you stop dreaming them. Perhaps you stop hoping, daring and imagining. You don’t hold them anymore and you stop feeding the ones you were trying to make real. It is a bitter road to walk, wherever it takes you.

Afterwards, when you have buried the dream and grieved its death, the trick is to start over, to dream something new, to make hope out of whatever threads are left. So I’ll leave you with a second song, one that reliably makes me cry.

Don’t be misled by the first verse, this is not *just* a song about a ship. This is a song about not quitting, about love and determination, and refusing to give up on dreams and passions… though your heart it be broken and life about to end… no matter what you’ve lost, be it a home a love a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.


Speaking of the dead

For many of us in Western cultures, it can be the case that we get into our thirties before even losing grandparents. We’re a long way from the ancestors who would have lost siblings and friends as a normal part of growing up, and from a world in which death was a normal part of life. The Victorians had a huge culture around the etiquette of mourning. So many older cultures had complex rituals of death and grief, but we’ve lost that. And so, when death comes into our homes, it comes as a shock, with little framework to support you and little information about how to cope.

My friendship circles have always extended well beyond my age group, and I’ve always had a lot of people in my life – at least as casual acquaintances, which I think is part of why I’ve had more contact with death than many people my age. There are a number of things that can be surprising in the aftermath of losing someone, but which are entirely normal. If you can think of more, please do put them in the comments.

Shock and disbelief are very normal reactions, and they can come and go. You think you’ve got to grips with the idea of the person being gone, and then you imagine telling them about something, and the enormity of grasping that you can’t have that conversation, comes back. This just takes time, unpicking your life from the life that is over, and rebuilding a sense of reality in which the lost one is no longer a physical presence. There can be a sense of guilt, sometimes especially when a younger person dies. There can also be a sense of being abandoned or in some way betrayed. This is really hard to acknowledge because, suicide cases aside, it seems irrational. The person did not choose to die and leave you, and yet it can so often feel as though they did. Why couldn’t they wait for you? Why couldn’t they still be there when you need them? It’s part of what death does to us, and the best advice I have is work it through, and don’t beat yourself up for feeling it.

Somewhere after the bereavement, you may start thinking about the future, all the things you won’t get to do, or share, all the things they will never see. These hurt, and again, there is a process of reconciliation to go through. I’ve found I also think about the past, the things I got wrong, the things I never thought to ask about. All the stories, knowledge and life history that I didn’t absorb, gone forever now, lost to me. I regret the things I never said, and never did, and I think we all do. Death tends to bring that into focus. The best thing to do with that focus is not to obsess over what cannot be changed, but to look to the living, to the people you still have and those other lives where there is room to do more. Older relatives, the ones who were always there, are easily taken for granted, death can teach us to do differently and view the time we have as precious.

When a younger person dies, the sense of unfairness is crippling. All the things they will never do, and the sheer lack of justice in it can make you question everything. For people who believe in benevolent deity, this can make for a very testing time. Why did it happen? Why did the benevolent deity not prevent it? People have been facing this one since the dawn of humanity. Standard answers include the gods having a plan we do not know about, the gods gathering the best ones to them, and so forth. Deep grief is probably not a good time for this kind of soul searching. Try and hold a space in which you can grieve, do whatever it takes to get you through and consider your relationship with reality later, if you can.

It can be hard to know how you are ever going to laugh, or smile, or feel good about anything, ever again. The idea of even being happy can feel like a betrayal of the dead one. Looking around, you see the potential for death in everybody else, and the certainty of loss. The world is terrifying when you can see death in everyone’s eyes. In many ways, this is a good sort of fear. It makes us hold more tightly and love harder. Take that fear and turn it into love, because that really is the only thing you can wield against death. Love survives, and what we carry of a person within us survives, and something goes on.

Tell stories. When you are in pain, tell stories about the person you lost. Find other people with stories and get them to share. Keep telling those stories. Even if you do it with tears streaming down your face and a lump in your throat so big you can hardly speak, keep talking. You honour the dead by remembering them, and you will ease your own heart by speaking in this way.

The most important thing to remember is that it is a process. It’s often not a coherent process, it seems to throw you back and forth. Grief is something that happens to your body and your mind, and that needs to be allowed to work through. Fighting it makes it worse. The deaths of people we care for are an inevitable part of life, and we do not talk enough about what happens to the living at that point.