5 years or no time at all

Writing

On 1st September this year, I happened to be in Byron Bay, a beachside location on Australia’s New South Wales eastern coast. I was sitting outside with a cup of tea, on a mild, sunny afternoon, that was not quite warm but definitely not cold, and therefore a vast improvement on Melbourne’s recent weather. From where I sat, I looked over a view of a permaculture organic garden and, beyond it, a clearing and behind that, the edges of a forest of gum trees that bordered the property I was visiting. Lucky me.

As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, I pulled out my writing journal to do my easy, never-fail, writing exercise, “Today I Noticed….”

I like this exercise because I don’t have to think about it to get started. There is always something one will have noticed in a day, and often – if you are me, anyway – this small observation acts merely as the opening of a gateway, and usually a flood of abstracted ponderings proceed to pour out, filling up a few pages in a loose, unplanned way until the timer goes off.

Did I mention that for this exercise you are meant to time yourself and only write for 10 minutes? I like that restraint as well. This means that I don’t stop to rewrite sentences to make them sound better, but just keep going to get the ideas down. So, intermittently, I end up with a few pages of blurted-out thoughts, in a non-publishable form. Of course lots of it ends up being pointless but the theory is that I can mine the pages of this journal later on when I need something to write about.

Well, I’ll mine it today, because this is how my entry began on that breezy afternoon on September 1.*

 

Journal

01.09.16

Today I noticed, as I wrote that date at the top of the page, that it’s already the 9th month of this year. That Winter has ended. That it’s Spring. That it’s September. That it’s the month that my birthday falls in. That it’s 10 days until the 5th anniversary of John’s death.

And I notice, as soon as I write that last sentence, how quickly a heaviness can land in the stomach; when it was light only a moment ago. 

Of course, I can’t recognise that it’s September without also being aware of this anniversary. It’s just there; a heavy, sad thing, that adds some weight to the start of Spring, and to September, which was always my favourite month. In fact I wouldn’t even say that I dislike September now. I still have some affection for it, which maybe goes to show just how important our own birth date is to us. Even when my birthday is weighed up against the death date of my little brother, I still can’t hate September. But I wish he had died some other time – in the middle of winter, at the start of July – that would have been more tonally appropriate than at the start of Spring, a time when we are meant to feel hopeful and optimistic because the temperature is losing its chill and the blossoms are out.

*

Anniversary

In September in 2011, the fact that my brother died was terrible and nothing else really mattered – but the terribleness of his death was still new and raw  two weeks later when it was my birthday, so that made my birthday an awful, sad affair that year. But after 2011, the closeness of this anniversary to my birthday matters very little to me.

There is a month long period where I think more frequently about John, and reminisce about the time immediately before and after his death, but that period of grieving, if that’s what it is, starts on August 13 and subsides after the anniversary of his death, which is September 11. It starts on August 13 because on that date in 2011, I was with my daughter in the Emergency ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and John phoned me to organise to come and visit us that week. In hindsight it always feels as if that day, which, at the time, was quite distressing and exhausting, was just a taster for what was to come. And John’s phone call out of the blue that day led to his visit for dinner that week, and thus to the next significant date, August 16, the last time I ever saw him, hugged him, or, for that matter, spoke to him.

In reality, I guess there is no cosmic alarm that goes off to signal that it’s time to start quietly observing that month-long period of grieving, so in fact, it starts when I remember the significance of the date. This year, I was driving to work on 18 August when the significance of the date struck me. Suddenly, with dismay, and considerable sadness, I realised that the anniversary of the very last time I ever saw my brother had come and gone, two days earlier, without me noting it.

Grief

But you know what? While feeling sad that morning, at some other level, I also felt relieved – to realise that I could still feel that sad about my brother’s death – as strange as that sounds.

Because the worst thing of all when someone you love dies, is to think that at some time in the future you might reach a point where you’d never feel any grief when you thought about their absence.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, that is the concept that is conveyed by well-meaning people who try to comfort you when you’re grieving, by offering phrases such as you’ll feel better with time. In the days and weeks after John’s death, that piece of wisdom achieved nothing more than to make me very angry. Angry at the person who said it, and angry at the very thought of it. I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that I would ever feel better.

Last night, I went to see One More Time With Feeling, the film commissioned by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave on the release of his latest album, basically to fill the role of publicity for the album. The artist doesn’t wish to do media rounds and answer questions about the album’s relationship to the tragic death of his 15 year old son just over a year ago. In the film, Cave remarks on the meaningless platitudes offered by others, who say things like he lives on in your heart. No he doesn’t, says Cave to the interviewer, He is in my heart, of course, but he doesn’t live anywhere. 

I am mindful of what I say to someone who is grieving. I refuse to buy sympathy cards that offers these kinds of cliched phrases. Grieving is important. It’s honouring the beloved person who has died. It ties you to the person who has died. Why would you offer comfort to someone recently bereaved by telling them that eventually they will lose that too, the grief that binds them to the person they loved?

Better, surely, to say what a wise friend who had lost both her sisters, said to me at the time: grieve for your brother!

Death

I’ve written a lot about the death of my brother – there are plenty of posts on this blog about John, and my grief when he died. There is one specific post that, due to the specificity of its title, must come up in search results when people search relevant terms, and every now and then on that post, I receive a comment from someone whose brother has recently died; quite often, in a similar way – in his sleep, from no known cause. Every time, it breaks my heart to hear this person struggling with immense sadness, pain and confusion about why this has happened. I received another such comment only a few weeks ago, and it was long, and filled with confusion, pain, and anger. My heart broke all over again. I read this young man’s comment and cried for him, and his younger brother.

And when I read his comment, I was reminded again, that all around the world people are dying. Someone dies every moment of every day. And that each time, other people are left behind, confused, angry, distraught, distressed, and anguished at their loss.

When I was a kid, my religious parents said a prayer (they probably still do) in which the world was referred to as a valley of tears. If I dwell for very long on the idea of death, I can see how someone came up with that poetic description for a place that, I now realise, is full to the brim with sadness. It becomes apparent that at any moment, there are so many people in the world either dying, or deeply affected forever by the death of someone they loved, that those innocent few who do not yet know how it feels to deal with the death someone they loved are in a distinct minority. I was one of those lucky few until September 11, 2011.

 

 

 

 

*Journal entry slightly edited.

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11 Comments

  1. Many and varied are the ways we humans respond to the death of a loved one. The collective term ‘grief’ covers a multiplicity of nuances. Those we love become a part of ourselves and so, in one sense, we never entirely ‘lose’ them for they are ever present within us but their disappearance leaves an emptiness, a void, the emotional equivalent of losing a limb.

    As you say, we never ‘get over’ the loss. We carry it with us forever, though the grief may change with time and become a little softer. When it does, we are apt to blame ourselves for being uncaring, adding guilt to the mix of emotions.

    Death is a topic we find hard to talk about. Faced with the grief of a friend, people generally do not know how to behave, what to say. They want to help but are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Unsurprisingly, they have recourse to cliché as they do in all other circumstances of life. They mean well but their clumsiness may not be appreciated.

    You and I share a birthday month though not a birthday day: I’m early in the month (a classic Virgo), you are later (Libra?). I don’t believe in astrology any more than I believe in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy but the similarities between people born at the same time in the year often gives me pause for thought. For example, a friend whose birthday falls within a few days of mine is an aspiring writer and imposes upon himself the duty to write a Daily Page. I thought of this when reading about your ‘Today I noticed…’ The two are not so very different. Of course, in the UK in September we are looking forward to autumn and winter whereas in the Antipodes you are thinking of spring and summer. Our respective outlooks perhaps reflect this too.

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    • Thank you Silver Tiger. I appreciated that people meant well at the time – the anger was a response that rose up in relation to the sentiment they had unwittingly described, it was instinctive, like the urge I had to scream when I first looked at photos of my brother after he had died. I know that people struggle with what to say, and I appreciate those who made an attempt. By way of proof that I didn’t hold it against them, I can remember that friend who said “grieve for your brother!” but I don’t recall specifically, who said something that made me feel more distress. But I DO remember the colleague with whom I shared a tiny little office, so small our chairs were in danger of hitting one another when we pushed them back to leave our desks – who never said anything at all. Yes, I remember that. So saying something is better than not saying anything.

      On astrology, I take it with a grain of salt, but I do have a noticeable pattern with friends: the largest portion are Virgos, next in volume are probably Taurus, another Earth sign, and the remainder are Capricorns, and Fire and Air signs. So it seems I easily connect with Virgos and Taureans, and rarely develop a strong connection with Water signs. This could relate to family dynamics and who in my family was what sign, (eg the females in my childhood family are a Virgo and a Taurean) but you’d still have to give some credibility to the idea of astrology in the first place, to examine that theory in any depth, which I have not done!

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  2. weebluebirdie

     /  November 11, 2016

    Ah, I meant to dip in for a few short minutes, yet here I am still here, lurching across a gamut of emotions. I will try that writing tip – fits well with my previous comment! And perhaps it can be an excuse to purchase yet another notebook, 10 minutes of writing will use up quite a bit of paper.

    More sombrely, my Mum died three days before my birthday. And in the days between I went to my uncle’s funeral. I spent that birthday choosing her funeral flowers. Your Spring is our Autumn, and I have a season of loss and last times. Because of my inclinations to suppress, I feel an emptiness during this time, but I spend a lot of time trying not to think too closely – even though I know that’s the wrong thing to do. At least it gave one blog post, owing only a little to WH Auden.

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    • PS maybe if you can make the effort to write your blog once a week I could try and make the effort to go running once a week. Going running is something I imagine in my head that I’m about to take up, any day now, but so far, 40-something years have gone by and I’ve always got something better to do right at the moment.

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      • weebluebirdie

         /  November 14, 2016

        Look up Couch25K – you get to do lots of walking; a much easier way to actually run. Before you know it you will be running for half a hour 🙂

        I will pick up that velvet gauntlet and start writing Something!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve heard of it, I might *look* at it. When it comes to running I can’t promise more than that. Yes come on, you can do it! 😀

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    • Oh, I’m so sorry to hear about your Mum. How long ago was this? Having lost a brother I wonder sometimes how it will feel when my parents go. Not as deeply shocking, nor quite as sad in some ways, I think, but I imagine the gaping absence will be far greater than I can ever picture. But to have someone you love die right before your birthday – well I thought 2 weeks was bad, but that is awful. Different things work for different people of course but for me, writing about it did help and does continue to help, I think.

      PS – thanks for continuing to read when you were intending to leave, that’s very gratifying! x

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      • weebluebirdie

         /  November 14, 2016

        It will be 9 years in a couple of weeks or so. She was ill, and it was expected – just not then. My Dad was sudden, almost 20 years ago. By a curious quirk, I had visited them the day before, and that has always helped with my Dad. And I was there with my Mum. I often wonder if there is something different about being an only child. You grow up with a natural inclination to be self-sufficient – and of course, that was a different generation of parenting; self-sufficiency was expected in your offspring. Maybe there is less surprise in finding yourself alone. But that doesn’t mean the void is less.

        I confess, I slipped out of even reading other blogs – but some are worth reading the back issues! But I have been reading more books – Alice Munro has become a re-discovery. I’m also thinking of getting back into my Faulkner. Words don’t come by themselves, they need nourishment and coaxing.

        Shall I do a post comparing running and words? Tags of ‘running’ and ‘reading’ should garner at least a couple of disgruntled readers who don’t feel what they got what they came for!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well if you can’t write then reading is definitely a good way to fill the time. My favourite recent read was On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Someone just gave me a book by Faulkner for my birthday! That’s interesting to hear about being an only child as I guess that’s how it will be for my daughter. I’m glad you were with your mum, & had visited your dad. When my brother died I was glad he’d been over for dinner within the last month. Maybe it’s all relative…my sister who lives in Ireland was glad that she’d spent lots of time with him when she’d been out here 4 months earlier. That’s the spirit, I’m sure that running & reading could be combined in many ways. I still haven’t gone running but I did go to yoga twice in the week!!

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      • PS how about a post telling us what you liked about the Alice Munro book/books? I think I’ve only read some short stories. I could be convinced to give a novel a go.

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