The things about grief

I have a plastic A4 sized folder that sits on a shelf in my wardrobe. It contains papers that I threw together when we cleaned out my little brother’s room, after he died, 4 years ago.

Some of those papers include a signed annual leave form, for annual leave that began on 11 September, the day we found out he had passed away. There is a work review, with comments written by John and his supervisor, and incident reports John had kept copies of.

These may seem like odd things to keep, but I had a strong desire to keep these pieces of paper on which my brother had written, because I don’t have a single piece of written correspondence from John that I could treasure – no hand-written letters, no emails, not even a text message. (I got a new phone about 4 weeks before he died, and old texts did not transfer over.) He had only just set up his very first email account, a day or two before he passed away, for purposes of the course he was to start on the Monday.

I kept these pieces of paper also because of my writer’s love of the little incidental details that make up a life – again, something I have no other records of, in the life of my brother. These pieces of paper give me dates – the date he signed his leave form, the date he had his worker review.

What’s more, I can interrogate them for evidence of my brother’s personality and character. I detect these traits in the criticism he – someone who had left school at 16 – wrote in his work review (“my PD says in part exactly the opposite of what it is intended to convey”) and in the incident reports he filled out. These reports are, in my opinion, concrete evidence that my brother was a compassionate, thoughtful person with integrity and personal ethics. He took the trouble to fill out an incident report, to formally raise it as an issue that the elderly residents in his care are not given hats to keep them from being burned in the sun when taken out into the garden. And when I read his incident report outlining in great detail an event where a staff member subjected an elderly resident to taunts and humiliation, until John kicked his co-worker out of the room, I can sense his level of anger and disgust at that behaviour, as well as his determination that the elderly man be treated with dignity and respect.

There are other papers shoved into this folder: a photocopied page of the local newspaper of our home town in the late 1990s, featuring a fresh-faced John in a promotion for the business he worked in at age 17, and the obituary pages from the days following his death, torn from the same local newspaper some 16-odd years later.

In addition to papers, I collected some of his CDs and books, but I can’t name the CDs and books, because they are all still in a box in our ceiling storage. At that time, I couldn’t bear to look at that box of his things, but I didn’t want them to lose their identity as “John’s” by integrating them into our CDs and books, so up in the ceiling they remain 4 years later. Up in the ceiling also, is a bag with his work shirts in it. I took that because they smelled like John.

When you are left with so little of someone, outside of your memories, you’ll grab anything you can.

*

I have written many posts about my brother’s death, and about my thought processes when I was grieving, but when last Friday came round, and it was 4 years since he had died, I suddenly felt a strong desire to not write a thing. I just didn’t want to sit down knowing that I was going to scrutinise, analyse, and write about my grief, all over again.

Because it seems to me as if focussing on how his death made me feel requires me to actually distance myself from the immediacy of those feelings. As we know, you can’t be in the moment, and also be writing how you feel about the moment. As soon as you start observing how you feel about the moment, you are no longer in the moment.

I guess this tendency to observe and write about my feelings is probably a curse that comes with having the urge to write in the first place – because of course the flip side is, that to write about your feelings, you need to be able to take a step back and observe them! This makes me ponder what causes me to be inclined to step back and observe my own thoughts and feelings – something I’ve done since I started a diary when I was about 11. It also causes me to scrutinise my motivations when I write posts about grieving.

When my brother had just died, I constantly felt a desire to tell complete strangers – the waiter in a cafe, the client at work, any one in any trivial interaction – that my brother had just died. And on any occasion when I did tell someone, including friends who didn’t know my brother, I wanted that person to reel backwards in shock. I wanted tears to come to their eyes. I wanted them to be speechless with emotion. I wanted their eyes to well with tears. My sister expressed something similar at the time, writing in an email that she felt like she wanted to accost strangers and say “look, this is the gist of it….”

What drives that desire to scream the news to the world when someone you love dies? AT the time, I felt like I understood why people in other cultures wear black arm bands, or something to indicate to the rest of the world that they are mourning.

Back then, I definitely wanted other people to also be devastated at the loss of my beautiful brother. I wanted others to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, so that they could empathise with me. But also, I’m sorry to admit, I wanted to inflict the pain that I was going through, onto others.

Last Friday, I felt weighed down by all the posts I’ve already written about my brother’s death and my own grief. I knew the answer to what my motivation is in writing them – it is always, to try and convey the depth of the shock and grief that I felt. And, yes, there is also a desire to make the reader feel some pale imitation of that grief – at least, to make the reader feel sad, as I’ve felt moved to tears when reading others’ writing.

I would like to think that, at least as time has passed, my desire to move the reader is not motivated by anger and hurt, and a need to pass on the pain, but by the hope that my writing might occasionally be good enough to illicit an emotional response in a reader.

In any case, after 4 years, last Friday even that noble literary-minded goal did not motivate me. I decided I couldn’t sit down on the day of John’s anniversary to write about the milestone. It felt contrived – wallowing in grief for the purposes of writing a post. I decided instead, that I’d just be in the day, instead of writing about it.

(This is not to say I won’t write any more posts about grief – I suspect that I will – but for some reason, on that day, it felt important not to.)

As it happened, it was a glorious, sunny day last Friday, and that seemed to confirm that after 4 years, it was time for me to celebrate John’s life, instead of focussing on my sadness at him being gone. So that’s what I did. The day held a mixture of mundane, pre-planned chores, as well a few indulgences to mark the day (enjoying a coffee at a favourite cafe by myself, buying a bunch of flowers). Of course, there were a few moments – buying the flowers, listening to a particular song – where I choked up with tears for a few moments, but strange as it may sound, I had a lovely day, and in the back of my mind all day was John.

*

Since John died, I’ve started a new collection, based on my new interest. It’s a collection of words – words that make up lists:  lists of songs, poems, stories, and plays, with a common theme – grief.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that collection another time, but today I thought I’d end this post with some lyrics from a song from my “Grief” collection. It’s by Clare Bowditch, an Aussie singer/songwriter, who was 5 when one of her older sisters died, and it’s titled The Things About Grief.

*

The thing about grief is

It knows what I did, and it knows what I did not say

it sentenced me to a long, long life of excavating

things my little head can not yet understand

but I patch it all together with string and rubber bands……

(….)

The thing about grief is

few people know if the i comes before the e

and it’s hard to give away cos it’s the last thing you gave to me

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3 Comments

  1. weebluebirdie

     /  September 18, 2015

    I can relate to so much of this. I’ll refrain from sharing too much though, or I will take over your comments again with what really ought to be my own post! Just one thing – My Dad died suddenly, a good few years before my Mum; before I had got to an age where I wanted to know more about who he was. I had a letter he wrote me when I was thirteen, and he was in hospital. I had a couple of art books I had asked him to inscribe to me. When my Mum died, I found a shoe box of all his letters to her when they were courting. They were very chaste and spoke more of the everyday, but they gave me a glimpse into who he was, I’ve hardly read any of them; I don’t want to get to the last one, because when I do it will be the end of him. And now I have a sudden yearning to leave work to go home and delve to that box. Perhaps tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Wow – thank you for sharing that! I can fully understand the desire to spread out the reading of those letters & hope to never reach the end. What a gift it must have been to find them! I hope that your next delve into that box brings rewards. x

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      Reply
  2. Grief is the pain of the wound that is the loss of a loved one. The wound never entirely heals and at best leaves a scar that is tender to the touch. Grief evolves and changes its texture as time passes. I hope you will gradually have more good days when you remember John with the love that he surely also had for you.

    Liked by 1 person

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