Grief has wrong-footed me twice this year. And today continues the theme. It is the death day of my Seelenopa, my “soul grandpa”. His death several years ago now, like the other deaths this year, came as a shock, out of the blue. “I’ll write to you as soon as I come around from the operation!” he promised. It was a routine operation on his foot. He wrote to me as promised having begged paper off the nurse, his spidery writing even more inscrutable than ever due to the anaesthetic. A couple of days letter I received another letter – this one bordered in black. I had never received such a letter before. I saw that it was from his wife. I remember the bright curiosity that turned so rapidly into shock – dead “due to unexpected complications” – and then a wailing caw of grief. Grief is so dramatic. Like love it calls for big gestures and words that reach down into the soul, that grab the heart, cry tears of blood and wrench one from the ordinary, from the doldrums of living life one foot in front of the other. Suddenly the path is crooked – in love or in grief – and everything is questioned.
My tagline for this blog right from the start has been “A thought making crooked all that is straight”. It expresses the way I see the world – crooked, twisted, inside-out. I am not an academic thinker in spite of my academic background. I can’t quote you book, chapter and verse but once I get the scent of a thing, I can describe the essence of it in such a way that others lift their snouts to the wind and can smell it too. Not everyone. But enough people.
There was a time when I wrote out of a place of love, not just profane, although often enough that, but these days I seem stuck in a rut of grief. It catches in my throat because I like to write things that uplift others and so I censor myself and resort to silence. Absence. Which is what grief feels like – lack and loss, a negative space, an emptiness that hurts physically. Just as love flips the stomach and sight of one’s beloved clenches the heart in sweet pain, so grief cuts and grinds but without that sweetness. Lovers are happy masochists; those who grieve merely suffer.
I saw an interview the other day with a woman in her late nineties. She described how she spoke to her dead children every day. They were not absent but present. She smiled and said that others must think her “crackers”, but, she said, “I’m not. I know what I’m doing.” Yet the pain of grief still crumpled up her wrinkled face, the loss of her infant children 7 decades ago. She took obvious pleasure in her daily conversations but the pain was still there.
And perhaps that’s the point: life is not without pain. We are swamped by entertainment media that tells us life should be all hearts and flowers; anything less is failure or flawed. Can you Instagram your pain? There must be a filter for that … And so our tolerance for the hard times is worn away by an impossible expectation that turns the circuitous motions of life’s natural ups and downs into a plastic-fantastic treadmill. Worse than the straight path is the life that purports to move you forwards while tricking you into never moving from the same spot.
However, I am not glorifying pain, not saying that you are not living a true and fulsome life without a rock in your stomach, but I am suggesting that grief is to be embraced like love. Both are dramatic in their expression, and both NEED to be in order for us to bear the weight of them. A quiet, discrete love hidden under a bushel is no love at all – at most that is the scratching of an itch, the containment of a neurosis. Likewise, grief should not be shamed into silence – that cultural demand to keep a stiff upper lip, to not dwell on things or, god forbid, be a “whinger”.
And by placing love and grief side by side I do not mean to put them at opposite ends of a spectrum, just because one may appear more pleasant and desirable than the other. No. In grieving fully I give myself permission to love fully. Love in death. Death in love.
The path is never straight, it is forever crooked.