Writing my way through bereavement
I don’t approve of death. I’m with Edna St Vincent Millay:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
I don’t mean my own death, but the deaths of people I love.
There have been only three significant deaths in my life so far – my father, my mother, and my best friend – so you might think that at 65 I’ve had an easy deal. Objectively I have. But there is nothing objective about bereavement.
My father died when he was 84 and I was 52. During his last illness, when we knew he was dying, I began writing a journal about losing him, charting his last days and my reaction to them. I continued it for a year after he died, to help me assimilate his death, and the fact of death itself. We write not to be understood, we write to understand (Cecil Day-Lewis.) As a former psychologist, it occurred to me as I was writing, that a contemporaneous account of grief might be a useful document – a map of grief.
Here’s an extract:
I don’t think Ma wanted to go to the hospital again, but she felt she had to go to thank the staff and take them some chocolates.
We went to the loo before going up to the ward, and Ma washed her hands and face with soap and water, and dried them with paper towels. It seemed a strange thing to do, but then I remembered how when we were little and upset, she would comfort us and then say: “Now go and wash your face, and make yourself feel better.”
We went round the corner to see Pa, and he was as far away as I’d seen him. He was like a baby. The orderly had to cut up his food, and he ate it with a spoon; great lumps of baked potato mashed up with baked beans, a meal he would have scorned a month ago.
A small part of the journal was later published in The Guardian here
I also wrote my father letters. The first was to tell him about his burial, because it was such a “good” day, and I knew that (like me) my father would have noticed every little detail, beginning with the trip up his beautiful and beloved Wensleydale to meet the hearse.
….All week there was a succession of sunshine and showers, and a gusty wind. On Saturday it was the same. We kept looking at the sky to see if there was enough blue sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers and there never was.
At half past eleven we took two cars to Bainbridge to meet you. The dale was looking lovely, and the river running a full pot. The rain on the new May leaves made their freshness glisten. There was cow parsley and sweet cicely billowing on the verges all of the way, and the may blossom coated the hawthorns with cream. Lady Hill looked its best, in your honour, with the trees silhouetted against the misty, rainy distance. On the green at Bainbridge the leaves on the big copper beech were fully out, but new enough to be at their richest intensity…
Then later, when I was writing his formal obituary and hating writing it – partly because of all the things I could not say in it – I wrote a piece for the Times about that. Here’s an extract:
I could say that he was a successful freelance writer, but make no mention of his sometimes less than happy use of words – that his criticism could be scorching, his rudeness outrageous, or that his acerbic tongue could reduce a sensitive grandchild to a pulp.
Neither could I say how fervently he loved his family, how sure they were of this, how much they valued his wit, intelligence, knowledge and affection, and how much they will miss him sitting smoking in the corner being crabby, and then at the end of the evening asking for a goodbye cuddle.
When my 91 year old mother died it was different. The whole world felt unsafe. When I tried to write in my journal about losing her I always broke down and had to stop. But I was a blogger by then, and my grief leaked into my blog:
Being bereaved is like being a walking wound. Every part of you is tender. You can’t settle to anything because nothing feels comfortable. Sometimes you forget you’re a wound and you become absorbed by something outside yourself – like cutting back the autumn garden, sweeping up the leaves, watching three hundred crows wheeling over the field at the back of the house.
Sometimes you go to a familiar place and chat to a friend and forget you’re a wound, and you laugh out loud at a shared joke and you think to yourself “I can do this. I can live without my mother and still be happy.” And then you leave your friend and walk down the street and you’re a wound again. I will know I am healed, I suppose, when all the happy interludes join up and there are no aching times in between. And it is getting better every day.
This year my friend died. She was my best friend for 30 years, my closest friend. I feel lonely without her in the world. I blogged about losing her.
…Mary could be infuriating, embarrassing, and – for the first twenty years of our friendship – invariably late. But outside of my large family [….] Mary was the person in my life I have loved the most…
Apart from the journal about my father, the ‘bereavement writing’ has not helped. It was just something I had to do. I’m a writer.
What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life. (Ted Hughes)
I know now that only time can soften the long empty ache of grief.
Sue Hepworth is the author of four novels, including But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You, one of the National Autistic Society’s favourite novels about autism. She is currently adapting it for television.
Her blog is at www.suehepworth.com
On Twitter she’s @SueHepworth