I have been thinking a lot about grief; 2016 having bought several doses to me reminding me of the waves of intense feelings that loss brings. I experienced loss repeatedly in my childhood as close family members died seemingly in quick succession, from natural causes. Then, I had no idea what was happening to me emotionally but this last year has felt like a reawakening of that time, as well as a response to current circumstances. I imagine I locked away much of the feeling, including the fear that comes from people suddenly disappearing from a child’s life. I was a child in England in the 1950s, when children were kept away from death in the belief that it was better for them and that ‘children aren’t that affected’ or ‘children get over things quickly if it isn’t indulged’. It was the post war generation who had seen so much death and already carried grief by the bucket load.
I came across this wonderful memorial in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where John Keats (the poet) is also buried. It is the ‘Angel of Grief’ (1840) by William X Story, an American, and ishis wife’s memorial. He is now also buried there.
It touched me deeply, the collapse of the angel, one imagines sobbing or just defeated by the loss. It must have touched others at the time too as it is replicated many times across memorials in north America. It is that inner sense of collapse of part of self, that part that was attached, and maybe identified with, the person who has died. It can crush the spirit until it finds the energy to regenerate. It is so powerful it can fragment the ‘self’ we have constructed, that ego that believed it had control over life and the future.
I felt this was expressed so valuably by David Grossman (an Israeli author in an interview with Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian) on the death of his son: “Yet, in order to do almost anything, you have to act against the gravity of grief. It is heavy, it pulls you down, and you have to make a deliberate effort to overcome it. You have to decide you won’t fall”. He said that it required a conscious decision on his part not to immerse himself in grief; that he had to decide ‘how much to insist on life’.
Clearly, each person experiences loss differently, and each loss may bring about a different grief response. We share the capacity for grief with elephants, apes, monkeys and for sure, many other species. Many of us have seen the film of elephants mourning a member of their group in a way that looks very familiar.
Dictionary definitions carry the metaphors of the heaviness of grief. Interesting to note that, according to these definitions, only women appear to experience these deep feelings. Patrick Harpur in ‘A complete guide to the soul’ (2010), talks of the ‘soul’ being expressed in metaphors of descent, depth and darkness. He implies that moving through grief is ‘soul work’ whatever that means for each of us.
Mourning (noun): the expression of sorrow for someone's death. "she's still in mourning after the death of her husband". Synonyms: grief, grieving, sorrowing, lamentation, lament, keening, wailing, weeping
Grief (noun): intense sorrow, especially caused by someone's death. "she was overcome with grief”. Synonyms: sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, heartache, heartbreak, broken-heartedness, heaviness of heart, woe, desolation, despondency, dejection, despair, angst, mortification.
With all that is known about grief and mourning it is extraordinary that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DRGs) for mental illness, used for diagnosis and prescription by psychiatrists and others, calls any grief feelings like the above, lasting longer than 2 months, to be an abnormal/chronic grief response requiring pharmaceutical intervention. The message is ‘hurry up’ don’t make your grief too visible or deep.
The loss caused by the death of someone close can be complex. It may be that there was a deeply loving and close relationship, or it could be that the relationship was a difficult and entangled one. Part of the work is to reclaim ourselves from the entanglement and to take the essence of loving and being loved. We have to let go of the ‘what might have been’ and ‘what the future held’ and remind ourselves that we only really have now, this moment.
One of the causes of grief for me this year was my own health, a loss of the certainty of immortality, which, while a delusion, is still one that helps many of us engage in life. This is a different kind of grief, but takes us into the same dark places. Loss of this certainty, and the loss of others, takes us into the territory of death anxiety. So eloquently talked about by Irvin Yalom in ‘Staring at the sun’ (2008. He says choosing life without illusion is being able both to ‘know that we all die, while living as if we will live for ever’.
David Grossman’s point about choosing life, is echoed by Miriam Greenspan in her account of her own grief in ‘Healing through dark emotions’ (2003). She talks of coming to know two ‘selves’ following the death of her infant son, “the one that urged her to follow the ghost and the other that, despite everything, was alive in a new way”. She talks of the ‘simultaneous shattering of ego and expansion of consciousness’ that comes for many through grief.
Greenspan talks of grief’s alchemy, through which there are no short cuts if we are to regenerate ourselves and chose life. It took me a long time for the penny to drop, that it wasn’t about getting back to where I was in myself and my life, ‘getting back to normal’ but of letting go and moving through a transition to a new and different, and maybe unfamiliar, place being made possible because of the grief.