Monday 16 January 2012

Why does grief come in waves?

Upholding the principal of "everything is relevant" which I always emphasise with my students, I want to write about my experience now at a very difficult time. There's too much to say about my dad so soon after he has gone - I will do that another time when things have settled down. Right now, it is my experience of grieving (which I have not really had since I was a child) that is dominating my thoughts.

Grief is a strange phenomenon. No-one can really know what the experience might be until they are experiencing it. That is because it is hard to get a feel for an experience where the meaning of the world is transformed in ways which are outside our current comprehension. For the person experiencing it, the world is transformed. For those who sympathise with that person, things are 'as normal', although most people recognise the impact of the loss and offer condolences which serve to acknowledge the fact that there has indeed been a transformation. For myself when this happens, the impact is very emotional: "Did I imagine that the world just changed? No, the world has really changed." - and it hurts.

So the pain, the condolences, the tears and the transformation go hand-in-hand. The sense of identity which I had, having become certain of its security, is challenged by something that happens in my environment. The inter-dependence, history and togetherness which my independence often tries so hard to escape, returns to remind me of my own dependence, history and the need to be together. On the one hand, it is comforting; but on the other, I know it is reminder of what is true, what relates to the primeval existence of the species, and it is a challenge to reflect; more importantly it is a challenge to reflect on that which is universally recognised by all other human beings.

So why the 'waves'? Maybe it's a kind of oscillation between two forms of life: the old one, of known habits, and the new one where those same habits reveal their entwinedness with the person who has died and consequently show the world as transformed. The pain of grief marks the difference between the two: it causes a breakdown. In doing so, it also starts the healing. Slowly life, death, history, togetherness and inter-dependence are reconciled: the oscillations lessen as time passes. What I am left with is a deepened sense of the wonder, beauty and sacredness of life and a love for the world which is more profound, and certainly more keenly felt, than it was before.

But as I think about that, I think my dad would like this: in the entry on 'Algebra' in W.H. Auden's 'commonplace' book "A certain world", Auden wrote:

David Hartley offered a vest-pocket edition of his moral and religious philosophy in the formula
where W is the love of the world, F is the  fear of God, and L is the love of God. It is necessary to add only this. Hartley said that as one grows older, L increases and indeed becomes infinite. It follows then that W, the love of the world, decreases and approaches zero.


Astrid Johnson said...

My love, I lost my parents too early to make the kind of observations you put do beautifully. But you help me to catch up.

I am looking forward though to grow old together with you according to the formula you quote.

I am glad that I was able to meet your father a little bit.

My heart and thoughts are with you, Astrid

Simon Grant said...

My father died 4 1/2 years ago now. At the time, as I follow the releases of the Finnish vocal ensemble Rajaton, I had been listening to the newish at the time album, "Out of Bounds". One track that particularly struck me was the sweet, simple but deep "How Little", by Mia Makaroff. The image there of lying on the floor reminded me of the many times, often around Christmas, with endless intellectual arguments about - whatever. The last verse goes:
"You will hear this song
Long, long after I'm gone
Does it make you feel
How little you knew of me before"
That still has the power to bring back a wave of grief, perhaps not only for him, but for all those lost.
The other thing, recently, was our little one, Elsa, who was still very small when he died, too young to remember him clearly. We occasionally visit his grave on Arran. She obviously has some imaginative conception of him and would have liked to meet him. Her expressing that brings back the sense of loss, even though when he died it was no great surprise, and our relationship when alive was to say the least problematic.

So, why, I don't know, but the waves seem anchored in memories, associations, and patterns of thought.

This I offer in condolence. By strange coincidence, the word verification I have to fill in here is "conledn" - just add o, c, e and rearrange...

Sarah Bambridge said...

I do not often read your blog, actually I never have! But this is quite beautiful and comforting. For one with a far simpler mind than her brother's I just miss Dad, far more than I could have ever imgained and now realise that I shall be without him far longer than I had him. Love Sarah

Mark Johnson said...

Sarah - I think you put it rather better than I did!
Lots of love