The Great Below

living the feeling life


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The loss of keening – singing for the dead

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npx1fkeening

Good programme on Radio 4 this week, about the old Irish tradition of ‘keening’ (literally ‘crying’) for the dead. Particular local women were known for their skill in keening at funerals – a way of expressing and helping others to express their sorrow. By the mid twentieth century, it was seen as a bit primitive and had been edged out by the more ‘modern’ habits of biting back your grief and ‘bearing up’.
For me, the saddest comment in the programme was that perhaps we are no longer so affected by death in general, because of our overexposure to it at a distance in news broadcasts, films etc.
Of course, when you are deeply affected by a death close to you, it’s a different story, but it seems we no longer know how to express our feelings of grief and loss, and there is little encouragement to publicly mourn. (Or sometimes even for writing about it!).


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The Somme centenary and taking sides

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins - stretcher-bearer at the Somme

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins – stretcher-bearer at the Somme

I’ve been trying to think of a way to write about this momentous World War I centenary – a hundred years since the beginning of the disastrous battle in which more than a million young men would lose their lives.  All the British soldiers involved in the Battle of the Somme had volunteered to join up: they were fighting out of patriotic duty, for king and country – motivated by an abstract ideal of heroism which likened war to a game of sports. To die for one’s country was still seen as a glorious death.

Yet these were ordinary men, wounding and killing other ordinary men over the control of a few miles of muddy ground. Of course they fought at the behest of governments and military leaders, but also backed by a groundswell of public opinion which had roundly rejected any idea of a compromise peace with ‘the Hun’.

A hundred years later, I feel we are still being exhorted to ‘take sides’. Are you with us or against us?  is the prevailing sentiment and I have been caught up in it too – in the Brexit vote, in the realignment of political parties, even in my local neighbourhood. At times this year I have felt very angry, despairing, betrayed, fearful.

I am usually more of a fence-sitter, trying to hold onto a sense of (what I see as) the middle ground while the extremes pull in both directions. I’m often astonished by the strength, ferocity and above all certainty of other peoples’ beliefs and opinions.  Maybe I’m just woolly and indecisive, but I prefer to think of it as  a kind of noble doubt.

If I believe something passionately and you believe the opposite – where do we go from there? Am I ‘right’ and you ‘wrong’, or vice versa? When Nigel Farage (erroneously) stated that the battle for Brexit had been won ‘without a shot being fired’,  he was alluding (somewhat threateningly I think) to the violence that such passionate beliefs stir up in people, such that they might be willing to kill and inflict harm on fellow human beings for having a different opinion.

Somehow we have to find a way to work with our differences, not to get ‘entrenched’, stuck in the mud of our own side’s supposed superiority. Otherwise, how far can we really say we’ve come in the past hundred years?


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Death of a young mother

This morning another young family woke up to the sickening knowledge that they have lost a parent. My heart aches for them, for the painful and terrible journey of bereavement which is just beginning and will take them into the years ahead. I feel the same every time I hear that a mother or father of young children has died; it reverberates with my own experience twelve years ago, which while devastatingly sudden and unexpected was in no way as horrific and shocking as this senseless killing.

Jo Cox’s husband and children are beginning the journey in a glare of media and public attention. It will be a comfort to them in many ways to know that she was so loved and valued, that her short life – if not her death – was not ‘in vain.’ But it can also be extremely difficult to locate your own grief in the tsunami of everyone else’s feelings.

Grief is anyway a very complex emotional landscape – it doesn’t fall neatly into ‘stages’ as some psychologists would have us believe, but meanders and weaves and crushes and occasionally uplifts us in unexpected and often shattering ways.

One thing I’m sure of is that this poor family will remain frozen in shock for a long long time – a sudden and unexpected death, especially a brutal or shocking one, is not easily assimilated into the mind and the adrenalin of survival, which kicks in to protect us, also shields us (mercifully) from the full truth of loss for a while. Yet until the reality of a death begins to sink in a little, it is almost impossible to start mourning.

Salt will be rubbed into the wound again and again as the country debates the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this tragic  killing; there will be an inquest, a trial, a constant dredging up and rehashing of the details. The children will forever be children of a murdered mother – this is their story now, and with the resourcefulness and strength of children, and the deep love of those around them, they will make it their own.


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The first year of bereavement

I had an article in the Daily Mail today about surviving the first year after bereavement, inspired by BBC2s new comedy/drama “Mum”, about a 59-year-old woman who loses her husband. The programme, being a slightly ‘grotesque’ comedy about an askward subject, considerably overeggs the pudding. But it does get some things exactly right – the way people don’t understand what you need, feel too awkward to ask, and end up sometimes saying or doing something clumsy or unhelpful. It’s great to see a middle-aged woman as the heroine of a drama, and Leslie Manville plays the part superbly: she is the still centre of the mayhem, trying to put a brave face on things, but occasionally letting her true feelings show, especially in poignant conversations with old friend Michael who clearly carries a torch for her.


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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.