This was the holiday we didn’t think would happen. It had been booked many months before, with flexible airfares and internet hotel bookings that could easily be cancelled. The reason for that was the failing health of my partner’s elderly mother, Irene. After a tumultuous start to the year, suffering numerous small strokes (TIAs), she seemed to recover, returning as bright and cheerful as ever with only a mildly hampered memory noticeable. She celebrated her 97th birthday at our house in May, enjoying the usual things – avocado and good ham on a crusty roll, a cream cake and her favourite cappuccino, and being in the company of her son. But then her vitality seemed to fade. We were on the brink of cancelling the trip when she died, on a sunny morning, sitting in her armchair after breakfast at the retirement home, having just moments before made a funny quip to a friend passing her open doorway.
A week after the funeral we were en route for Britain. Our trip was mainly to the raw edge of the British Isles, the Outer Hebrides, followed by a week in Switzerland. They seemed like the perfect places for grieving, with space to walk and time to think. A death always evokes memories and Irene’s had brought up much of my own grief for my mother, who died in 2010. One of the remarkable things about having someone close to you die is how others volunteer their own stories so freely, almost as though they’ve been given permission to talk about it. While it’s intended to be helpful and empathetic, it can feel invasive and flattening for the person whose grief is still fresh. I remember how I only wanted to talk about my mother, not to hear tales from others about their experiences, especially when they seemed so different from mine. And yet, while I was mindful of that with my partner, I just couldn’t seem to help myself from chipping in with my own memories of how I’d felt.
Grief is so strong and yet we get precious little space in which to express it. It comes with its own etiquette, which differs across cultures. The Anglo way is to give the newly-grieved – the grief-stricken, as we say – some space for a limited time and then we expect them, quite soon after, to be ready to face the world again, to have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, to have in some way got over it. But grief lasts eternally. I still grieve for my closest friend who died in 1989, just as I do for my parents. But that grief is different from the shock that immediately follows a death, even when that death has been in some way expected, thanks to age or illness. For me, it always felt as though the world clanged with the silence of the loss. Years later it still catches me out – a sudden reference (a blue teapot, the smell of peonies), a particular sight (autumn leaves), or being in a certain place can trigger an intense feeling of loss that, at first, I think, “This again? I thought I was done with that.” It’s always there. The trick is to accommodate it, to let it flow through you.
While my grief at the loss of Irene is only a fraction of that experienced by my partner, I felt the need to breathe fresh air and have space to reflect. Being among pure nature seemed like the perfect setting for it. Our time in Britain was predominantly social, even on the windswept Hebridean coast, but there were moments that sparkled with special brilliance. Like a particularly beautiful day on Lewis, when we walked along rocky beaches and through flower-filled meadows, the air heavy with the scent of clover, and then sat silently to eat a simple lunch while seals basked on rocks nearby. Later, in Switzerland, we climbed the steep slope above Wengen, with the Jungfrau looming nearby, through a landscape so filled with wild flowers that it seemed almost overkill. Those days felt particularly special, as though we were being invited, even urged to connect with nature. By being so aware of such riches – the abundant wildlife, the beautiful flowers, the breathtaking landscape – then we were also witnessing the pulse of the earth, and even the meaning of life itself, the truism that everything has its season, that life comes and goes. Such banality can resonate loudly at certain times. Even sentiments have a season, I suppose.
We were lucky to be in such beautiful places but in the end I think grief is felt most when life continues in its ordinary way. It doesn’t need a special setting with our feelings cushioned and our minds diverted by new things, although many novels use that as a premise, the bereaved setting out for a new life. Being within a familiar setting gives us the opportunity to see how the loss will change our life. It’s that other banality, of just getting on with things – chopping wood and carrying water – even though there is one less of your tribe. I felt the power of normality when we returned to our house in Sydney this last week, just as I felt it when I returned home after the long weeks spent at my parents’ house after my mother’s death.
At home, in our familiar space, we are forced to deal with a life that continues regardless. Home is where we can grieve and from there we can begin to face the new world again. But I still wonder if we first need special spaces in which we can dwell and ponder and cry before we settle again into our new domesticity.