The Great Below

living the feeling life

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The persistence of memory

Like this, only a little grander...

Like this, only a little grander…

My family used to own a caravan in Dorset which we visited every summer. It sat on its own in a woodland glade at the back of a mobile home site out in the country. Built in the fifties, it had plenty of character but few modern comforts – you had to haul water in a large barrel, and connect up the two-ring stove to a gas canister outside. It was a peaceful place to stay, even with rain drumming on the tin roof as it often did.

The last time I went there was with Ruairi, the year after Michael died. Soon afterwards we were told that the site was being sold, and the caravan must go. After fifty years sitting on its rusty wheels, moving it was out of the question even if we could have found a site to take it, so it had to be demolished.

The other day I realised that in my head, our caravan is still there. I didn’t actually witness it being broken up, but I haven’t been there in a decade and I know it’s gone. But in my mind I can see as clear as day the white and green painted exterior, the rickety steps, the tall trees all around. As if it’s all still waiting there for me any time I care to turn up.

I think this is what it’s like when someone dies. With your rational mind, you come to accept that they are no longer on this earth. But in your head, they persist as clearly as ever, albeit frozen in time. It does sometimes seem as if they could just walk back into the room and have a conversation with you – although of course if such a thing did happen you’d jump out of your skin. But the fantasy of their continuing presence is very strong.

This is why it is nonsense to talk of ‘moving on’ or ‘putting it behind you’ after bereavement. We don’t just live in the here and now – we are composed of all the memories and experiences and, above all, people who have been part of making us who we are. They’re like the many strands of fibre woven into the thickness of a large rope – they cannot be extracted and discarded as they are integral to the whole. Feeling as though a dead loved one is still around isn’t madness; it isn’t even supernatural or spiritual. It’s just being human.

mournersI’ve had some interesting conversations recently about funerals. A friend went to the funeral of a neighbour who died in his forties, and remarked how well the man’s wife ‘held it together’ – particularly since the couple’s two young children were there. This rang a bell with me – I, too, held it together when we cremated my husband Michael ten years ago. It was important to me that the event, which felt like a sort of performance I was hosting, ran smoothly and met everyone’s needs and expectations. Late in the evening of that day, sitting with close women friends, I managed to squeeze out a few tears, but even that made me feel at once terribly exposed, and at the same time almost as though I was playing a part which everyone expected of me.

Grief is complicated and unpredictable – sometimes you simply don’t feel sad when it might be ‘appropriate’ to do so, sometimes a very tiny thing can overwhelm you with a wave of blinding tears. I have tried always to be true to my feelings as I was feeling them, but now I wonder if it could have been rather different.

The friend who went to the funeral – she is Scandinavian – thought it a good thing that we manage to be composed at funerals, in order to, as it were, ‘hold the space’ for everyone there. But there are other ways of holding the space. I was talking about my book last week to a group of social work students, and a Kurdish woman told me that when someone in her home village dies, there are a group of women whose job it is to lead the mourning. They gather in the home of the bereaved, dress the windows of the house in black cloth so that passers by will know immediately that there has been a bereavement, and  then sit and cry together with the family. I saw something similar on a documentary set in Papua New Guinea – a village elder had died and women from all the surrounding villages  gathered in the family’s house, where they sobbed and wailed almost non-stop for several days. I found it very moving to watch – it made me want to cry along with them.

Imagine you had the chance to sit in a room full of people crying for you, crying with you for your loss?  It might feel embarrassing and overwhelming at first, but my goodness wouldn’t it encourage to you get all those feelings out – all the grief, the despair, the anger. And what of the women (and it is usually women) who come to cry, the emotional ‘helpers’? Seems like this would be a great cathartic opportunity to sob out their own sadness, their frustrations with life, their fear of dying.

I can’t imagine it catching on in Britain any time soon, although this article about ‘mourners-for-rent’ suggests the beginnings of a new direction (albeit as a way of padding out the genuine funeral goers to make the deceased look well-loved.) And of course I can think of many people who would shun such a public sharing of their pain, seeing it as distasteful, or simply be constitutionally unable to participate – I include myself in that latter group. But I can’t help feeling we have lost something very fundamental with our insistence on maintaining a good front, while secretly we are dying inside.

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On writing about feelings

Every time I have published an article in the past few months in which I talk about my feelings, I get a range of responses. By far the overwhelming majority say that they are glad that I have expressed my own experience of loss, grief etc so clearly and often that it resonates with what they have felt, but have either not had the words to talk about, or in some cases have felt afraid to. They thank me for opening up and discussing topics which are still little talked about in our society – Princess Diana and sobbing X-factor contestants notwithstanding, as a nation we are still very uncomfortable with the realm of difficult feelings.

So far, so good, but there is often – and especially online where people seem to pounce with bitterness and anger on anything that seems ‘personal’ – a contingent who express their discomfort at my writing in terms such as “Get a life!” or “Don’t fill up my newspaper with your emotional ranting.” I do wonder why they bother to read articles with words such as ‘grief’ in the title, and then get angry when it talks about…well, grief. But what is clear to me is that there are still many people who think we should not talk about our feelings publicly – that to do so is to show weakness and self-obsession, is even shameful.

So is it ‘selfish’ to talk about your own feelings? True – there are terrible things happening to people in the world wherever you look. Surely the thing to do is feel compassion for them and just put up with your own pain in private? But what I’m afraid of is that ultimately, if we don’t have compassion for ourselves, if we don’t have respect for the depth and power of feelings, we lessen our ability to empathise and feel compassion for others.

When I write about grief, loss, an unhappy childhood, I am not soliciting attention for myself, nor pity. I am saying ‘Look, this is what it was like for me. How about you?’ I want to start a discussion which I hope will make it easier for everyone to express their feeling experience openly, and for others to be able to witness compassionately and kindly, without needing to rush in and try and ‘fix’ things, or turn their backs in discomfort and disgust. I think this might be what’s called ’emotional intelligence’, but I think of it as a kind of wholeness.

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To Stretcher Bearers

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins, signed up to the Second London Field Ambulance during World War One because he wanted to do his part, but not to fight. He became a stretcher bearer and served in Northern France between 1916-18, assisting at many of the worst and most bloody battles including the Somme and Ypres.

Pop in uniformStretcher bearers are the unsung heroes of that disastrous war. They saw more death and damage to human flesh than probably anyone else, literally wading through it day after day to collect and carry back the wounded from No Man’s Land. It was heavy physical work, taking sometimes eight bearers to a single stretcher, in testing conditions. With no weapons to protect themselves, they were exposed to constant danger from shelling, lung damage from poison gas (my grandfather had to spend time in a sanatorium after the war), not to mention the soul-destroying work of trying to keep a wounded man alive long enough to get him to where he could receive proper treatment, sometimes carrying him for hours over impossibly rough and treacherous ground only to find that he had died from his wounds.

Other soldiers looked down on the stretcher bearers, calling them cowardly for not fighting. Very few were decorated despite their many acts of bravery, and for a long time their contribution was forgotten, even when that of the nurses, ambulance drivers and other medical personnel began to receive (well-deserved) attention. But without the bearers, the first link in the well-organised ‘chain of evacuation’ of wounded from the battlefield, many fewer men would have survived.

The irony, of course, is that the Field Ambulance’s objective was to restore as many soldiers as possible to fighting fitness, so that they could be sent back into battle. It was an efficient management of resources, as much as a humanitarian service.

Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, a marvellous and immensely readable story of all the medical personnel involved in World War One , brings to life the difficult and dangerous work of the bearers, and their indomitable spirit. She includes this moving poem written by padre Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, composed from all the things a bearer might have said to one of his charges in order to keep up morale as they made the tortuous journey back to safety. The last two lines are very poignant.

To Stretcher Bearers

Easy does it — bit o’ trench ‘ere,
Mind that blinkin’ bit o’ wire,
There’s a shell ‘ole on your left there,
Lift ‘im up a little ‘igher.
Stick it, lad, ye’ll soon be there now,
Want to rest ‘ere for a while?
Let ‘im dahn then — gently — gently,
There ye are, lad. That’s the style.
Want a drink, mate? ‘Ere’s my bottle,
Lift ‘is ‘ead up for ‘im, Jack,
Put my tunic underneath ‘im,
‘Ow’s that, chummy? That’s the tack!
Guess we’d better make a start now,
Ready for another spell?
Best be goin’, we won’t ‘urt ye,
But ‘e might just start to shell.
Are ye right, mate? Off we goes then.
That’s well over on the right,
Gawd Almighty, that’s a near ‘un!
‘Old your end up good and tight,
Never mind, lad, you’re for Blighty,
Mind this rotten bit o’ board.
We’ll soon ‘ave ye tucked in bed, lad,
‘Opes ye gets to my old ward.
No more war for you, my ‘earty,
This’ll get ye well away,
Twelve good months in dear old Blighty,
Twelve good months if you’re a day,
M.O.’s got a bit o’ something
What’ll stop that blarsted pain.
‘Ere’s a rotten bit o’ ground, mate,
Lift up ‘igher — up again,
Wish ‘e’d stop ‘is blarsted shellin’
Makes it rotten for the lad.
When a feller’s been and got it,
It affec’s ‘im twice as bad.
‘Ow’s it goin’ now then, sonny?
‘Ere’s that narrow bit o’ trench,
Careful, mate, there’s some dead Jerries,
Lawd Almighty, what a stench!
‘Ere we are now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!
Inasmuch as ye have done it
Ye have done it unto Me.


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Today is All Souls Day and next weekend is Remembrance Sunday. Despite the unseasonably warm weather this year, there is always something about this time that brings our dead closer: damp mistiness in the mornings, smoke in the darkening evenings, the slow dying back of the year.

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

For the fallen, Marion Coutts

I’m reading Marion Coutts’ memoir, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from a brain tumour – a long poem of love and loss, a beautifully written lament for ‘the obliteration of a person’. Her book tells the ‘before death’ story whereas I had to write of the aftermath, because of Michael’s so sudden death, but I sense that we trod much of the same path.

At one point, she imagines fashioning an outlandish costume that would be an outward display of her new role in life: wearing her emotional journey for all to see. In a way, by writing the book, she has done this – made visible what is so often invisible in our world.

Coutts is an artist and this piece of hers, For the Fallen is from 2001, before either of our lives were touched by the brutality of death. It speaks to me because I, too, am fallen – as is anyone who has walked the path of grief. We vaulted into the air, tried to defy gravity, but were brought crashing hard to the ground by the reality of our mortality and that of those we love. That is why Remembrance touches us so deeply, I think – we are perhaps not mourning so much for the lives of others, as for the loss of our own blissful ignorance of  how fragile life is.

The Iceberg Marion Coutts, Atlantic Books 2014

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Women and wounds

Bronze age petroglyph in Tanum, Sweden, showing woman weeping.

Bronze age petroglyph of weeping woman – Tanum, Sweden.

A friend who had a mastectomy a few years ago due to breast cancer told me a story: she had visited another friend’s mother, who’d had the same operation and then reconstructive surgery. They sat together on the bed and talked about it , and then, my friend said, “We took off our bras and showed each other our scars.” I thought at the time, how good women are at this – showing each other our wounds, sharing our pain openly with one another.

This is not a small thing in a society like ours that values the outward gloss of perfection, and consequently  brands illness, sadness or loss as somehow shameful. Maybe it’s because women are more intimately concerned with the body throughout our lives – with our hormonal cycles, pregnancy and childbirth etc – that we find it easier to connect with the things that go wrong, both physically and psychically. Or maybe we don’t feel we have so much to protect, which makes exposing our weaknesses easier .

My husband Michael once overheard me talking on the phone to someone I didn’t know, and telling her about a miscarriage I had had the year before. He commented that I must have been talking to a woman, as men simply didn’t share that kind of personal story, often even with friends, let alone with a total stranger. I’m not a man, so I don’t know the truth of this, but it does seem that men  – certainly of my generation – more often relate to each other through competitive humour or fact-sharing, rather than personal revelation.

When I’ve published articles about feelings in the newspaper, I get a range of responses in the comments section: the majority saying that they are grateful that I brought up the subject and was able to speak so honestly about it, or that I have resonated with something they also feel or have experienced. But there’s also a proportion of comments (from both men and women) along the lines of “Stop moaning and get a life.” or even reacting with real anger that I have taken up space in ‘their’ newspaper with my personal expression.

In writing these articles, and my book, I have showed my wounds publicly, and for some people this is clearly both threatening and shameful. (Of course, they’re not obliged to read what I write, nor to do anything about it!) But I actually think being able to display vulnerability is a strength and I wish we felt freer to do it more, both men and women. Perhaps then we’d realise that to suffer is human, and feel able to show more compassion in our lives.


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My first book tour

Last weekend I was invited to Birmingham and Ilkley Literature Festivals.  In Birmingham, I was on a panel with three novelists, and we were asked to reflect on how our reading and writing lives were linked. I was struck by how diligently these other authors work at their fiction, making reading-lists and doing extensive background research to get the setting of their books authentic. As my book was about me, in my own life, I had none of these issues; I didn’t even read other memoirs while I was writing it, to avoid getting confused about style and structure.

Which is not to say that my reading hasn’t had a big influence on my writing. I read a large amount of fiction, as well as the occasional memoir or biography, and mostly I am looking for an emotional connection to the characters and an absorbing, well-told story. A reflection of life, through the eyes of another, which somehow teaches me more about myself. In writing my book, I hoped that by speaking very clearly and honestly in my own voice, I would both draw readers into my story and be able to support them in theirs.

In Ilkley, I was reading with Don Paterson, who has just published a book about Michael’s poems, called Smith, in which he gives a close reading of fifty poems and tries to unpack the layers of meaning, allusion, worlds-within-worlds, that make these poems so incredible, and yet often still so accessible on a simple reading. Like a beautiful tune with a complex harmonic structure and many hidden counter-melodies.

The audience was an interesting mix of poetry fans and people who were there because they were interested in my subject, grief. A woman who had recently lost a partner said during the question time that she thought my book ought to be ‘required reading.’  Later I chatted with her and others about how important it is for the emotional truths of our lives to be spoken  about openly, alongside their fictional expression. I think this is more and more understood – there have been five memoirs of widowhood published this year that I know about – although it still hasn’t really translated into being comfortable with each others’ emotional expression face to face.

But the reactions to my book give me the feeling that I have managed to do what I wanted – reached out and touched people in their hearts, from my heart. It’s one of the things I am most proud of in my whole life.



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