Grief is more than bereavement after a death. It is about significant loss, of any kind. And not only the loud losses, but also the subtle shadows that are cast over our lives. These shadows shape who we are. It is tempting to push our griefs away because, of course, they are discomforting or painful, and because they can be addictive and we rightly fear that. However in pushing them away we are pushing away parts of ourselves, which need attention if we are to bring in more light than shadow. Furthermore we lose sight of what grief is teaching us.
[NB this essay was written after my first few years of counselling practice, during my early 30s. I later removed all such writing from the web, for in time I came to feel that much of this writing reflected an younger me, and I had grown. Looking back over these pieces with even more distance, I feel that some deserve to be shared once more.]
Grief is a feeling of loss. It is the loss of contact, but also contact with what is lost. We might also say that what is lost makes contact with us, makes itself known to us. Such losses include the loss of that which we never had. That kins of loss also has a real place in our lifes, shaping who we are, but we may lack awareness of it. Its presence is implicit, like a shadow. It moves us, and we notice the surface of that movement but may not understand it, and we may not understand why it is. Perhaps we do not see the movement at all, yet as I say it shapes us.
Grief is not simply a feeling. It includes a recognition and a feeling, and more. Of course recognition is often a casualty of grief. For many people it becomes masked by anger. For some this anger leads to shame. Shame leads to further hiding: from others, but also from oneself. For others the grief becomes a depression. The depression leads to guilt. And the guilt leads to hiding. Whatsoever the case, the loss and grief become more buried, and yet more powerful. Again, these connections may be implicit, and so out of our awareness if we do not pay attention. We become the product of our grief, of our refusal to face it.
The Australian writer David Malouf captures subtle forms of our loss and grief in his beautiful novel The Great World. The novel tells in part the story of an intellectually disabled woman Jenny, and her brother Digger, and his wartime friend Vic. The story reaches a height toward the end of the novel when Jenny finds Vic, whom she has always disliked and distrusted, sprawled on the ground and dying of a stroke. She takes him awkwardly in her arms, and Malouf writes in a language that captures her childlike inner world, which is also an inner world of honesty and attention, where she is able to be with her sorrow.
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”
Here again, among the things we have lost are the things we never had. Jenny's child, removed at birth, will never know her, yet she can feel its grief. She lets herself grieve in response. This enables her to remain open, and to love, even if in the midst of her personal prejudices.
This is not how it is for all characters in the story. Jenny's mother fantasises about a heaven where her adult children are young again and sit around the table, healthy and happy. That image is in radical contrast to her actual children. Because of her own childhood loss of family, and her subsequent decision not to grieve, which later hardens into a kind of inability to grieve, Jenny's mother will not see, accept, or properly love, her own children in their reality. For she cannot stand reality itself, and so retreats into this heavenly fantasy. She loses contact with the one life she has, and the people in it. If we avoid our grief, we avoid our lives. Our contact with ourselves and others is lost also. We can later choose to pay attention to the grief, but until we do we are frozen.
It is not only the choice of denial which ossifies into an almost inability to grieve. There is another danger in our response to our existential grief, that the anger which masks it can harden and become our nature. We may become hard, cold, aloof, resentful, or bitter. Malouf explores this in his characters and shows how attention, love, and the willingness to suffer, form an antidote. Mid-way through the novel, Jenny's brother Digger returns from the Second World War where he was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway, tasked with burning the corpses of his fellow prisoners. A policeman friend asks him what he is doing in King's Cross, “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
“It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”
As Digger admits, this is impossible. Malouf recognises the tragedy of the human condition: the contradiction between the preciousness of others, and the impermanence of all things, eaten away by the flames time, destroyed by the world. Through intimate objects Malouf turns our attention to the painful meaning of this continuous passing away: a razor blade for the husband's morning ritual, making his flesh smooth to the touch, a button from a baby's bootee. This is grief. It is an existential grief which haunts many of us. And it is expressed in loving, nurturing imagery which brings us into a different relationship with life than the contempt displayed by Digger's friend. That friend refuses to accept his pain and becomes lost in hate. That hate slowly becomes his way of being. It will slowly harden into an incapacity to feel. Probably this will be a painful non-feeling. Digger accepts his pain, and so maintains his ability to feel, and his capacity to love. And the world remains for him "the great world" - a place of loss and of gain, an abundance beyond one's own ability to hold or to lose.
There is a missed opportunity in this part of the novel, for Digger and his policeman friend. Digger can face his grief and so continue to love. His friend will not, and so becomes embittered. I can't help but read the novel as a therapist. The question the policeman asks Digger should not be taken at face value. It is not simply an expression of curiosity. It is also a request. It comes from the part of him that lies beneath the bitterness. It is at the same level as the part that grieves. He is saying, I don't know how to hold this. Sadly that question is not recognised, and the request receives no answer, and the man continues to push his grief away and mask the pain with bitterness. This is all too often how it is with us. Often our instinct is to reach out to others to help us find our way. But we don't do that clearly, often because we fear - and often we are right - that if we did, we would not be answered. Of course it may be that having asked the question, and having been given the right answer, we recoil and bite before it can be received.
Grief is not a problem to be solved. It is a presence - the presence of an absence - waiting to be witnessed. It is an existential condition, for to live is to lose - to lose the things we had, and the things we never had but at some level longed for. To witness the presence of this absence is a listening, a paying of attention, an invitation to what is there, or not there, to show itself and unfold. Often in life we may, despite giving attention, continue to grieve, but there is change and difference - in it, in us. This is a solitary journey, but hopefully we do not have to do it alone. We need the witness of others, and we need their witness to help us witness ourselves. Then can there be reconnection and restoration within us, even as there is loss and absence.