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.
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.
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.
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.
Stretcher 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.
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.
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
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.