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.