I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about loss lately. It is just over a year since my maternal grandmother died and that was my first concrete experience of death as an adult. The significance of it rippled far and wide through my life. Also, it is two years this month since I finalised a divorce from my ex-husband, another life event heavily weighted with loss.
The major difficulty I have with loss is the confusion and disarray it causes. Mourning and feelings of sadness are one thing. Not pleasant by any means, but strangely familiar all the same and serve to remind me I am human. What I really struggle with (and what seems to occupy more of my mental and emotional energy) is reconciling the upset and inner turmoil that a major loss sparks with the relative constancy of the world outside. In a sense, the hours I spent at the hospital waiting for my Nan to leave us were easier than going back home and returning to life and work. Sickening as the time spent waiting was, it was supposed to be sickening and gut wrenching. Having to figure out how to fit my new internal landscape of grief and anger with living was far more difficult and prompted far more self doubt and questioning than her death in itself.
I wondered how I should react and what I should be feeling. Waves of strong grief and sadness hit me unexpectedly. At other times I felt I was watching the rest of the world go by from behind a glass wall. I could see what was going on, but couldn’t reach out to touch any of it. I worried about behaving normally and I couldn’t decide or figure out what that would be. On reflection, of course, there was no normal in that situation. A life in which my Nan was no longer physically with us was completely new and something fundamental had shifted in my mental landscape. It was like having the rug pulled out from under my feet except that, in the real world where I lived 2 hours drive away from her anyway, very little seemed to have really changed. But what do you do when you find yourself in a situation where structures of fundamental importance are shaken? I usually try and think my way out which is exhausting.
I read Nicholas Royle’s novel, Quilt, last year, which opened up an interesting way for me to think about loss and grief. I enjoyed the book even though I was expecting it to mostly go over my head. One thing I really liked was the way he conveyed something that was surprisingly similar to my experiences of grief. The slippage of words and meaning in the narrative, the way they tumble in to one another and make chains of association that seem muddled, untidy and almost with a life of their own resonated very strongly with me. That is how my thoughts are and feel when I am dislocated, when I am experiencing grief and I don’t know what to do with it. I have watched it happen in my mind and been beside myself, thinking things will never make linear sense again.
For me, Quilt is quite clearly about grief (regarding death of the narrator’s father) and also about the necessary loss inscribed within language. The thing about language is that for it to work the words have to be held at a distance from their meanings. Only if this is the case can words be used flexibly enough to convey the complexity that communicating ideas to another requires. So words and meanings shift, words acquire new connotations while still being able to hark back to almost forgotten uses (a tendency which I suspect is particularly evident in English with its multiplicity of divergent influences). There is always a blank, a potential of meaning to be filled in later when the message reaches a recipient. Bringing this back to grief (specifically my grief, because I can’t talk about anyone else’s as I haven’t experienced it) that is where the difficulty lies. Whatever it is that ties thoughts, meanings and words together has some fragility about it and the sense of calling things in to question that comes with loss and the ensuing dislocation is enough to unsettle it for me. Loss challenges the holding on to of the things we hold dear and when I think about it like that, it is not so surprising that the tried and tested patterns of thinking (and meaning) might be called into doubt a little. Or even that calling such things in to doubt a little might result in such mental upheaval. But again, this ability to call things in to question and (to some degree) challenge our own assumptions/foundational beliefs is a really valuable thing. It is just that it can also be a source of great discomfort.
On a more mundane note, in conversation with a friend recently I described how difficult I found it to go food shopping immediately after the break up of my marriage. Ridiculous as it sounds I found myself, aged 25 having been married and a responsible adult for 7 years, wandering around a supermarket feeling utterly overwhelmed by the task of doing a weekly food shop. She didn’t find this as absurd as I did and suggested that is was more about the discomfort of a task deeply embedded within my married life being wrenched in to a different context. As she rightly pointed out, food and eating is so very much an integral part of domestic life that there was good reason for the change in context to throw me. It felt like having to learn to do it all over again, which I suppose I did. I learned to do it according to my rules and values rather than those of our married life.
I have learned a lot from my experiences of loss and grief and I am fascinated by the way human beings deal with fulfilling their needs, creating platforms of stability in order to run further with chain of actions/ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible and having to repair or abandon those platforms because life happens. I am becoming more comfortable with my own experiences of loss and am learning to ride them out without panicking quite so much. I would rather experience the discomfort and be able to learn and grow as a result than bury it so deeply I am unable to acknowledge it. I am just grateful I have never yet had more of my life than I can cope with change around my (vision of my)self.