A Selfish Sort Of Grief


I’ve written once or twice already about my Father dying earlier this year.  Those pieces are further back in the blog, In normal cases, I would link to them but, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I don’t want to.

I always try to make the weekly blog post about something that’s on my mind in the week it appears.  This week, the consideration of ‘grief’ has taken up some of my head-time so what I would like to be able to do is to write a dispassionate series of lines on that subject and my own personal experience of it. 

Not so easy. 

It’s like a swimming pool… when you’re in it, it’s hard to write about it.

Still I’ll give it a shot.

And these few lines will be only applicable to one particular type of grief. That odd type of grief when an elderly parent passes away. I can’t speak with any first hand knowledge about any other colours of grief and, as you can imagine, I am glad about that.

Around the time that Dad died, in March of this year, somebody wrote a good blog post about this very subject. I wish I had a link for it, someone may be able to oblige. I remember the writer vividly portraying the weight of expectation one almost places on oneself to grieve. A sort of feeling like, “here we go, the grief will be along at any moment now, ‘better brace myself.”

But the expected forms of grief haven’t really shown up and, in my writerly arrogance, I am willing to bet that it isn’t just me. I bet the ‘non-arrival of the expected manifestation of grief’ is something that many of us experience. I could be wrong, you tell me.

You read about those ‘seven stages of grief’ (to paraphrase; shock, pain, anger, depression, turnaround, reconstruction, acceptance) and it doesn’t seem to apply in this case. It seems like ‘too much’. Does this seem horribly dispassionate? Let me personalise it a bit more in order to clarify. 

Dad turned eighty on the day he died, his medical advisers would not have been terribly surprised if he had died much younger. He had a full life, saw all his children grown up and fulfilled, met and knew his grandchildren, loved and protected his wife until she went before him, laughed, suffered, went to the football, got sick, got better, was sad, was happy… He had this great big full life and it ran a good long course and he died peacefully and unexpectedly in his own bed in his sleep.

How much grief should there really be?

This is perhaps the challenge that faces me; a perceived lack of grief on my part. Am I cold and heartless to be trundling on with my life, not broken, not even bowed all that much, by my loss?

That’s one side of the coin.

The other side is that there is grief, a low-level-but-still-very-real grief, which doesn’t seem to fit tidily into any of the ‘seven stages’ guidelines.  

There are three parts to this low level grief.  Two of them are obvious.  Firstly, I miss him. I just miss him around.  We had grown to be conspirators, me and my Dad, we would hatch plans and concoct little strategies and generally think alike (and often misguidedly) about most things. We talked on the phone every evening at the same time – ten o’clock. Sometimes I will still pick up the phone, my head full of some devious plan to share. That’s grief, I think.

Secondly, there has been a small draining of colour from the world. Nothing earth-shattering or fearful but something real and tangible none the less. It’s like someone got hold of the remote control and turned the vividness down a few notches. That’s probably grief too.

But it’s the third part of this low level grief that I’m experiencing… it’s the third part that I never see discussed by anybody. That’s the part that I most wanted to write about today, mostly because I never see it mentioned anywhere else. It’s what I would call ‘the selfish grief’. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t get talked about much, because it is so damned selfish.

It’s like this.

Life is like school summer holidays. When you are young and you get your school summer holidays, it is like they will go on for ever. There is literally no end in sight because no end has ever been defined for you. You have no personal experience of it. As you get older, though, you start to learn the ways of the summer holidays, that they are sufficiently long that the end of them doesn’t have to be worried about yet but also there is a growing understanding that they are naturally finite and will run their inevitable course.

As I get older, the course of my life gets more clearly defined for me. Obviously this is partly because much more than half of it is now gone but it’s not just that. The remaining part of our lives springs more clearly into focus by the nature of the experiences we have. Things like increasing aches and pains, worsening of eyesight, hearing, and memory. All of these draw faint lines on that subconscious notepad which we use  to define our lives. It creates an ever-clearer sketch of where our life is going and where it will eventually end up.

And, on the day that Dad died, that rather abstract sketch in that mostly-filed-away mental notepad, that rough rendering in charcoal and hard pencil… well it sprang into Technicolor, Widescreen, 3D and Dolby Stereo. There, in the sight of another parental life ended, lay the clear image of how the rest of my life would be.

Does that make sense? This mysterious third part of my low-level grief, it is actually for myself. The shell that Dad left behind in his bed on that morning that he left, that’s the shell that I will leave too. I awake and find myself in the exact same position in the bed as he was when he died and I quickly re-adjust myself and try to think other thoughts. 

It seems a large part of this grief is selfish. They didn’t tell me that, in their seven rules.

I’m not a great one for quoting Jesus but I think he had his finger on some kind of pulse when, on the road to his crucifixion, he told those weeping ladies, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves…” 

I could end this post there, on that rather negative tone but that would be disingenuous of me.  My self-understanding tends to come in layers (like Shrek’s Onion) and I know there is at least one more layer beyond the rather indulgent words which I have written above. 

It’s very simple. It’s this. In that list of seven stages of grief, which I so neatly disregarded, I actually reckon that I am currently residing in some low-level version of number 4 which, along with its headline also includes the words "Reflection" and "Loneliness". Perhaps there is, after all, some basic truth in the 'seven stages'.

So I know, deep down, that things will become better, as time passes, even though they’re not actually all that bad now.

I’m fine, really.

It’s just good to write about these things.

I think. 

21 comments:

Bubsy's Blog said...

As usual Ken, another wonderfully written blog. The seven stages of grief seem rather defined, but I think they are definitely there. Some people just grieve quieter than others, I lost my grandad in Feb 2010 my grief although I disguised it well, sent me on a journey that turned out to be a train wreck, I literally managed to blow my own world apart. That was my selfish grief. That was my stage 4, Thank you so much for sharing a very personal part of yourself :0)

Cellobella said...

Yeah. No. Yeah. I get it.

When my grandmother passed I kind of felt the same.

She was the last of that generation.

It brought me one generation closer to dying.

So yeah.

I get the "selfish" grief.

But I still miss her.

Sally said...

This is so touching and lovely.

I think someone has already mentioned the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem this post recalls, might be fitting to copy it out here, since I certainly can't express it better than you have.

"Spring and Fall"

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep, and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Scarie said...

Beautifully written! My grandmother is dying ( she is 84, I'm 30, lucky to have had her so long). But her imminent passing has really made me realise that my parents ( though young at 50 ad 56) are getting older too

Anonymous said...

O so true! Reminiscent of Hopkins's "Spring and Fall"--"it is Margaret you mourn for."

hope said...

My Dad had cancer. Like you, I saw his death like an odd, two sided coin: relief he no longer suffered and sadness that I could no longer call him up and ask a question.

People at his funeral looked at me oddly because I didn't cry and spent a lot of time consoling them. Well, they weren't there when I cried in the shower or by myself in the car. I'd gone through many stages of grief before Dad even died.

You two share a birthday. I remember thinking holidays would be awful after Dad died, yet amazing they were sad, but okay. Then one day, out of the blue I just burst into tears. Dad had been gone for almost 6 months when suddenly, for no apparent reason I just felt overwhelmed with sorrow. Then it hit me. It was MY birthday...half the reason I exist was now gone. That was my moment of realizing mortality...knowing everyone comes full circle some day. Understanding that made it better somehow.

Dad and I shared the same sense of humor. As I dried my tears, I heard him whisper in my head, "It's okay. But on MY birthday you get to take the day off." Made me giggle.

Memories come through at the oddest moments. You're not selfish...you're human. And a good one at that.

Ken Armstrong said...

Bubsy: Thanks. I guess everybody has to travel their own road. I hope things are better now.

Cellobella: I love it when people say, 'Yeah. No.' I know they get it then. Lovely to see you there... and Rowing!!

Sally: Glad you liked. You are among a small but much-respected cohort who had Gerard Manly Hopkins evoked for them. I didn't know the poem but I am glad to have been shown it.

Scarie: Thank you. I'll be 50 next year, that's not old at all... please? :)

Anon: As I said above, today has been worthwhile if just to find this poem, thanks.

Hope: I get the 'not crying' thing so much. I'm not really a crier myself, not at the times I am expected to be, at any rate. Thanks.

seoirse mac enri said...

Some heartfelt writing today Ken.I think you're right in what you say about the 'seven stages' Itook the call to say my Dad died and it was like nothing ever felt before grief shock sorrow like some great boulder crushing the life and will out of me.I felt the same for about 2 days 'til day of funeral when i was determined to show the face he'd want me to in public.Grief Ithink is insidious it hides in mundane places
waiting to pounce it hit so bad about 2 months ago started to get depressed thankfully after a coupleof days had that under control.Itry now to embrace grief meet it head on 'Rocky' style so to speak it won't upset me cos I want to remember my Dad.Your grief isn't selfish I know you long enough to know that apprehension about your own death is natural but ,not getting religious,I believe there is an essence in us that makes and shapes us something other than flesh bone and water,something that exists beyond death.Personally I 50 next month statistically I've lived two thirds of my life yet if Idie tomorrow of in 30 years time it's inevitable I can't change it so I don't worry.Grief I think is a strong motivation for this post I'd say every time you write about your Dad it helps because I know writing this now myself I feel so settled in myself happy in the thought that somewhere two fathers are smiling and rueing that Sligo Rovers only drew the other night

Anonymous said...

"Grief, I think is insidious, it hides in mundane places."

These words are so true for me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ken,
My dad is 67 years old. He has cancer and is not expected to live past the end of this year. I've been told to do and say so many things, yet none of them ring true for me. The weight of expectation to feel a certain way is incredible.
Even though common-sense tells us we're all different people with different experiences, when it comes to grief there seems to be a set course that everyone is expected to follow. If one doesn't, there's a sense of inadequacy and guilt, a feeling that maybe one didn't really love the person all that much.

I'm grateful for your post, extremely so. The telling of the selfishness in grief and accepting it as not only normal, but ok. It lightens this heavy load. Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

My whole last novel set out to tackle this question, Ken. I have never felt I grieved properly for either of my parents. I can manage to feel guilty about that—guilt comes easily so why not grief?—but I’ve never understood it. So I tried to write about it. Here’s a fairly long excerpt but it says it as best I can:


Is this grief? I wondered. There are no rules to grief. Some people say there are rules, steps, stages, five or maybe seven, like a programme. I wondered if I might get a certificate when I was done. I could bring it home and show it to the flat. Look, flat, what I did. Aren’t I a good girl?

How do you know you’re doing it properly? I imagined people in the street, strangers elbowing each other, and sniggering or tutting as I passed:

“Look Mabel, there’s that woman who doesn't know how to grieve right.”

“Oh, yeees. Sorry-looking thing, isn't she?”

“Do you think we should go over and talk to her?”

“Oh, no. It might be catching.”

I wonder how many stages there are to all the other emotions. You never hear anyone talking about the four phases to love or the three degrees of joy. Did you know there are supposedly forty-eight different emotions? I looked it up once.

I took a sip of my coffee and then decided I was hungry. It wasn’t a rational decision. I felt empty and assumed it was hunger. I expect a part of it was hunger. I'd eaten nothing since breakfast.

It’s okay to be sad
and hungry at the same time. You shouldn’t feel guilty. Life potters on, I told myself, only I wasn’t sad exactly. Sad is a child’s word and I wasn’t a child any more. I was empty and my emptiness was crying out to be filled. I found it easier to express my emotions when I was a kid. I can remember being sad as a kid and happy and angry; the whole spectrum of emotions was available to me but as I’ve grown older everything’s turned grey. I no longer feel sadness; I remember sadness and act accordingly. Have you ever watched Dexter? If you’ve not, how can I describe him? Your friendly neighbourhood serial killer I suppose. Wait, I’ve thought of a better example: Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data has no emotions and so fakes them in a bid to fit in. So does Dexter. And so do I these days.

I fixed spaghetti and toast. The spaghetti was tinned and had meatballs in it. The bread was frozen. It had to be toasted twice because the toaster doesn’t work right.

I felt something but it was something new, a guilty version of angst: guilst, maybe. Why, with so many people having experienced loss, are there so few words that made sense of this? I felt bereft of language. Is there a word for that? I bet it’s not one of the forty-eight. Speechless I suppose will have to suffice. I'm good with words most of the time but all of a sudden none of them seemed up to the task besides words-with-a-capital-w admit things and I wasn’t ready yet to let certain truths into my life.


Amanda said...

Well said Ken

Boxofficegirl said...

I was very touched by your post Ken, which prompted me to write something too. I've linked to your page, hope that's ok. You can find it on http://boxofficegirl.blogspot.co.uk The post is called, Still Here.

My warmest regards to you and your family.

Tracey Curzon-Manners

Diana said...

as always Ken, a post of soul searching depth.. I think Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief are a great guideline, but we are all individuals with unique abilities to grieve in our own way;

I think you are describing the inability to share any more as opposed to selfishness. Those secret smiles and special phrases you shared with your Dad are no longer viable on this planet.. maybe you need to work on building this special language with your children so there is a form of continuity? in which case, as 'they' say.. "As long as someone talks about a person they never die.."
Blessings to you all x

Caroline Kavanagh said...

Hi Ken,
I consider it a privilege to read your blog. Your writing is always sincere and heartfelt. This piece made me well up and I still have both my parents for which I am thankful. When I moved to Norwich 5years ago now, I cried for the full six months before I started the post and those tears were for me. I knew that I was going to miss my parents who I saw almost everyday and also for the fear that perhaps some day they wouldn't be there anymore. You have written this piece so eloquently, it addresses all that I felt and still do feel.
Your dad sounded like a lovely man and you are a reflection of this kindness.
Keep writing, put all your blogs in a book, I'll buy it and then when I want to reread bits I'll know where to find them. I read the responses too, as they too are good . Many thanks
Caroline


Fin Keegan said...

Thank you, Ken. Both my parents are younger and still alive but I know exactly what you mean about that that "subconscious notepad".

Nicky T said...

Ken, what a beautiful post. I really do understand what you mean by selfish grief.

My dad died, aged 85, a year ago after many years of having a heart condition that left him housebound. My mum did a brilliant job caring for him in the final 3 years of his life.

I never cried at his funeral and so many friends and family, said how strong I was. In my mind, I figured that my dad had had a rich and happy life, so it didn't figure that I should grieve in the way other people would expect.

There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about my dad. Personality-wise I am just like him as is my seven year old nephew. A turn of phrase, a corny joke, a favourite meal, a radio show.....all the things that I love too and remind me of him.

I think I got my grieving over and done with during the 3-4 years his illness got progressively worse.

Some of us just don't fit into the prescribed stages and that's absolutely fine. Thank you for such a beautiful and poignant post.

Julie S. said...

Hi Ken,

My dad, partner in ornery shenanigans and my best friend died on his Birthday as well, his name was Ken, he was 76 and died from complications of lung cancer. Thank you for your post. It makes total sense to me. The stages seem so cut and dry, I am all over the place. I feel like I am bouncing back and forth through these "stages". I am definitely selfish, I want him back, but I am happy he can breathe again and he is free of pain. He was in my life for 36 years and it has only been 3 1/2 months since his death. I feel like writing my own stages...I get to write how I live my life...I don't get to choose how or when I die. Watching and holding my dad as he died was a surreal experience, so real, but I can't believe he's gone. Thank you for sharing a part of your story and your thoughts. -Julie

shinester said...

Ken, by some kin of strange synchronicity, I read this just now whilst in a vague sense of shocked sadness and joy intertwined after seeing my brother in the US post a photo of Dad on Facebook (1926-2010) in his final year in honour of his birthday today. That inspired me to post a pic of him as a young man and publicly wish him a happy birthday. This last week some wonderful things happened and as I was wishing all to go well, despite my normal lack of "devout spirituality", my sister suggested I "talk" or pray to Dad as this works for her - I did and am blown away by the comfort and bittersweet joy I've felt since. The hardest part though is my 90 year old wonderful mother's utter loneliness and how bereft she is. They are both from typically large rural families and she, being the "mammy" to us, her nieces and nephews when they moved to Dublin to study, work, etc and finally to her now grown-up grandsons who lived in the same house as them. Mam and Dad were wed for 61 years and she was probably never alone for even one day in her entire life until November 2010. I feel grateful that my now 10 year old son will always remember his Grandad, they were great pals.

sianyshoeshine said...

Ken, I completely identify with your blog. You put your feelings into words in a wonderfully clear and concise way, so perfectly described. I also lost my Dad in March of this year and am still ploughing through the 'grieving process'. I am blogging my progress, which I find strangely cathartic - http://sianyshoeshine.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/diary-of-a-daddys-girl-part-4/

I send you my best wishes and look forward to your next blog

Sian x

Megan said...

Brilliant, insightful post. I have lost too many people in my life and grief for me, at this point, is a comfortable old friend.

With older folks who passed at the end of long, full lives, my grief was very much as you describe. The selfish part had more to do with lost recipes than the facing of my own mortality.

With younger folks, depending on how closely related or befriended we were, I moved in and about those 7 steps. The selfish parts of those were the memories that died with them, parts of me that I will never get back. They were there when I was 15 and stupid and boy-crazy. They could fill in the details of our story--my story--when I forgot them. They were the keepers of secrets.

I miss them all at different times--sometimes a smell or sound triggers a longing for their presence. But sometimes the grief is for the uncertainty of my own time here, the realization that I will join them on the other side soon enough.

I am sorry for the loss of your co-conspirator.