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.
Sincerest thoughts are with you and your partner, Colin. Such a touching, beautiful and thought-provoking post. My own “special places” are by the seaside, at Malua Bay, on the far south coast of NSW, where my parents lived for a time, and not far from where I live now. My beloved mother’s ashes, and my youngest brother’s ashes, were scattered in the ocean there. And on my daily walks, sometimes twice-daily, I am reminded of our precious time together. On the other side of the world, in Budapest, I reflect on my father’s life when I visit his memorial in a city crematorium. Grief, as you say, is always there.
Thank you, Liz. It’s very telling that you moved back to such a meaningful place. I like the idea of scattered ashes precisely for the reason you’ve given – so special to have that remembrance as part of your daily walk, the true balance of life with death. Thank you for sharing that.
Great post 🙂
I think “special places” for me are more in the mind’s eye. I find myself thinking of those lost at the oddest moments. Sometimes triggered by place or smell or a turn of phrase but more often for no perceptible reason – just a quiet knocking at memory’s door? A recently-widowed friend said she felt she “needed a place to visit” – yet to be determined.
We all have our magical places though, don’t we? Places that affect us viscerally somehow, that conjure up all sorts of feelings and stir the emotions. It can be the sun shining through a stained glass window in a long-abandoned church, or a windswept moor, or the gloaming in the Scottish Highlands. For me the sea is where I am happiest, on any continent.
Whatever/wherever brings comfort and soothes the soul.
Thanks for the post, Colin. It stirred up memories too. My sympathies to you both.
So eloquently put. I think you’re right – it’s the happenstance of being somewhere that brings about a sudden emotional response. But also being somewhere nourishing, where you feel safe to invite grief back in. Like you, I find the sea – whether Atlantic, Pacific or Mediterranean – always an emotive environment. Thank you so much!
Thank you for such a moving post, Colin.
Having suffered a particularly traumatic loss, I realised that essentially we are all on our own in grief. Despite going through the trauma with my sister, she and I had very different memories of the experience.
I think a great deal of pain comes from expecting people to be able, even if they are willing, to enter into our grief. They can’t. I think it is entirely personal and so is the way of trying to deal with it.
It’s a good question.
I suppose living by the sea helped a great deal – and I know you will understand that. There’s something about the energy of the sea, the way it is never still and the breezes that flow from it, that encouraged me to think that this too shall pass.
Grief, a part of life.
Thank you! That’s such an interesting point – the difference in perception of the same event. Being alone with the sea is always a marvellous and marvelling experience, the wilderness just there, often bordering our cities and towns, just as the unknown hovers hovers above our mindful life. Part of life, as you say.
Wow, Colin. Beautiful words, makes so much sense. Sure took me a bit to read, but well said. Love and best wishes to you and your partner at such a testing time.
With me, it is not location which brings back memories, of someone who has passed on. I recently took a trip to Northern Ireland where I spent my childhood and adolesence. We visited again, many of the important sites of important sites of my development, and yet again they did not have the impact which I felt they should have had after leaving the Emerald Usle some 57 years before.
No, with me it us ‘that inward eye ‘ or, more correctly in my case, ‘the inward ear of solitude’. Sound, and more specifically, music can be evoked anywhere and at any time. So I can hear a couple of notes of a song my mother would sing, and instantly I am transported back 60 or more years to a kitchen, or the garden of my childhod.
Or a choral piece will take me back to listening to my father conducting a choir. It is then I grieve that they will not come round the corner. Entertainment in those days was home-made and therefore stuck in the memory much more…..
Ah yes, so true – music is so evocative. Like you, I can hear the first bars of a piece and I’m with them once again. I love the idea of the inward ear!
Beautiful post, Colin, and glorious photos. It made me cry. Your observation about people needing to share their bereavement stories is spot on. I remember being quite shocked about that when my bereavement was so new. I also agree with Francesca’s comment about the different ways people grieve. That was a shock to me too. I seem to do most of my grieving in the car, usually on the way down to the coast. And I seem to be always looking for a new home now, to mirror the kind of community that my dad was part of. Much sympathy to you both. Thanks for such a lovely piece of writing.
Wow, what lovely comments. Thank you! Interesting you talk about driving down to the coast – there’s a real sea theme coming through in people’s comments, that need to be with the fluidity of nature. Although of course it may be that’s the time you sit in the car longest, forcing you to focus on your thoughts! And interesting to be seeking a new home – very Jungian, of course, the search to find a new space to house the new person we have become. It’s almost as though we are reborn after a death of someone significant to our life. Grief is an interesting journey, even if it is one we hope not to endure too often.
Oh, I didn’t know about the Jungian view of it. How interesting. Must explore further! There is definitely a rebirth of sorts, which continues to surprise me.
A Jungian treasure trove awaits!
I can well understand why people share their own stories, especially if they are among the group that got on with things before they had adequately grieved. A new death takes you back to that spot in your own life. I am grateful that, when my husband died, those around me let me babble hysterically without interrupting — or maybe they couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I don’t know.
Anyway, it’s good that you had a trip lined up that allowed you to take time for yourselves. You may have to return to work or something, I don’t know, but I hope you two are taking as much time as you can to feel your way through this. It will be time well spent.
The wisdom of experience. You’re so right that death brings people back to the point they were at when it happened for them. The best support is when people allow you to talk about it without interruption- truly a blessing, and sometimes coming from surprising sources and not the friends you’d expected it from. Thanks for your comments and I wish you well with your on-going grief.