The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Thanks for the memory

I haven’t been writing any kind of ‘coronavirus diary’ but I’m glad that some people are. It’s important to keep a record of how it feels to live through such an extraordinary event – like the Mass Observation diaries during and after the Second World War, which are being revived for our times. From my mother’s schoolgirl diaries, I get a strong sense of what it was like being in London during the Blitz.

For many years I wrote an occasional diary of my thoughts and feelings, rather than of external events, but I haven’t done so for a long time now. The last time I kept any regular account was after my husband Michael Donaghy died in 2004 – it was a terrible and confusing time, and I knew that I would not remember clearly how it felt later on, as even at the time it was hard to pin down the ever-changing emotional landscape.

I started it in a brand new notebook, which I originally titled the Book of Unacceptable Feelings. In it, I wanted to be completely honest, day by day, about how things truly felt – not how I was expected (or expecting) to feel, or how various ‘psychologies of grieving’ laid out that it should proceed. I didn’t intend for it to be read by anyone else, except perhaps hoping that one day it might serve as an account for my son, who was eight at the time, of what it had been like when his father died.

That diary eventually became a book about grief, and about my relationship with Michael, called The Great Below. The book in turn gave birth to this blog, which has now become a place to put down my reflections as I write a new and different book, the one about my mother. Different – but also a book about memory, about loss, about love and its challenges.

I used to write a lot of letters – we all did. It was the main way that friends and family who were separated stayed in communication, before the internet and cheap telephone calls. In particular, I wrote long letters home when, in my late teens and twenties, I was travelling around the world or living abroad for periods of time, in France and the USA. In these I freely poured out my feelings, experiences, relationships, philosophical and political musings, and observations of the places I visited, using them in much the same way as a diary.

My mother – always the hoarder – kept every single one of my letters home, sometimes making multiple copies. She apparently used to read out passages or pass them on to friends and family, hopefully leaving out some of the more personal details. So I still have all of those letters, and my mother also somehow managed to retrieve all the letters she had written to me, which I am now using as material for my book.

When my parents were moving out of our family home and I had to retrieve all my stuff from their loft, I remember sitting down and systematically throwing away all the letters I had kept over the years from friends and family. At the time, I thought that it would have been more interesting to see my own part of the correspondence. Now I rather wish I had kept some of those testaments of friendship, the kind of which we no longer send each other. Like many things in our youth, letter-writing seemed something that would go on forever.

In one of my mother’s letters to me, she urged me to start writing in my diary again because “The memory is much more frail for feelings and detail than you ever think it will be at the time. The essence has a habit of paling.” And yet her letters to me, written by hand without corrections or edits; by turns absorbing, funny, prosaic, perceptive, rambling ; all signed and sealed with love – these strongly conjure the essence of her, and of our relationship.

I had to look out a couple of my own letters this week, to check the details of something my mother had referred to in hers. They are up in my loft, awaiting re-reading. But I resisted diving too deeply into that particular Pandora’s box right now, because I knew it would swallow me up for the duration; it’s a journey into the past which I’ll save for another day – or maybe never.


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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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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.

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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Remembrance

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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On expressing feelings

Notes for an apocalypse D.Tanning

“Notes for an apocaypse” Dorothea Tanning

Like many people, I find it very hard to feel my feelings – this despite many years of psychotherapy, and working with mind-body connections as an Alexander Technique teacher.

What I tend to do is ‘put’ them somewhere in my body where they will eventually cause trouble, but at the time cannot be consciously accessed: it’s called somatising.  I learned this about myself  at the age of eighteen when I had to leave my job as an au pair in Paris at very short notice, with nowhere else to live. I felt perfectly calm and breezy about it in my mind, but woke up on the morning of the move vomiting non-stop.

I’m sure it’s part of a very deep-seated, and quite possibly inherited, pattern of survival from growing up in a family and a culture where expressing feelings was (and still is) discouraged, if not forbidden. If you can’t express feelings safely, without other people getting upset or angry rather than just acknowledging how you feel – witnessing, if you like – then they must be shut off and dealt with another way. This is very often through disrupting the functions of the body: breath-holding, muscle-tightening, gut-churning etc. These patterns become so much a part of us we cease to notice the effects, let alone understand the underlying emotional stimulus.

A couple of weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death – a momentous day which I negotiated in a mood of gentle wistfulness. I visited his grave with a friend, then we had lunch and a walk in the sunshine. I didn’t feel particularly sad. But that night I began to feel quite sick, and by the next morning had bad diarrhea, stomach cramps and a feeling of exhaustion. Now, I know from other people that there was a bug ‘going around’, but I also know that my body tends to react to anything it perceives as stress (including, sometimes, excitement) with an illness response. I spent most of the next day lying in bed and in the afternoon I deliberately watched a sad film to try and bring myself to tears, feeling that letting them out might help. But it didn’t work: I remained strangely unmoved.

What finally brought me to tears was, to my astonishment, the announcement of the outcome of the Scottish Referendum a couple of days later. I held no particularly allegiance in the debate – indeed I secretly rooted for both sides, on different grounds. But something about it being “all over”, the sudden release of tension, moving from uncertainty to certainty, the bitter disappointment of those on the losing side, the anticlimax that there would be no momentous change  – all of this combined to keep me in a high state of emotion throughout the day. I could not tell you what part of the mix relates to my grief, or how, but I’m perfectly sure that it does.

 

 


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The first ten years

Michael-Donaghy-005I love this photo of Michael, taken by Claire Macnamee outside Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation’s Yorkshire writing centre. Apart from his beauty, I think it also shows his kindness, intelligence, warmth and sparkle (no mean feat as he most likely had a hangover from the previous night!)

Tuesday 16th September 2014, was ten years since his death, and there have been some lovely tributes to him, notably one from Katy Evans-Bush, a former student and friend who blogs about literature at Baroque in Hackney

So I won’t add to the memorialising here, but consider instead what it is like when someone you love has been dead for a whole decade. That’s almost a fifth of my life, and over half of our son’s. Despite that, and the knowledge that we have not just survived, but changed and grown over that time, there is still a big part of me that refuses to believe or accept that he is gone from our lives. Just looking at the photo of his smiling face, I still wonder – ‘But where is he?’ No matter what else is happening in life, he is never really out of my mind for long, and I can’t see that changing.

The mistake we make with grieving is to think that our memories of people will fade with time, recede into the past to be replaced by the more vivid experience of the present. In fact, I think the opposite happens – it seems like the longer it is since someone died, the more they are missed, the more their loss resonates with those of us who knew them. Maybe it’s that we now have the responsibility for keeping them alive in our heads – and also, as it were, keeping them up to date, since a person is almost frozen in time at the age of their death. I think about what Michael would have made of Facebook, for example, which didn’t exist at the time he died  – he’d surely have had a million ‘friends’. More poignantly, how would he have felt about seeing his little son grown up into a young man? And how would his continuing existence have made a difference in Ruairi’s life? All these questions are of course unanswerable, and by that very fact continue to be asked.

People we have loved or were related to are bound up with our selves like the fibres of a thick rope which can’t be unwoven. They are part of who we are, and our relationship with them continues developing – whether or not you believe that the dead live on in some other realm, or simply inside the heads and hearts of those who knew them in life, I don’t think matters.


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“My last summer” – talking about death and grief.

355Z6271last_summer_sI’ve just watched a Channel 4 series called My Last Summer in which five people who are terminally ill come together over the course of a year to share their experiences of facing death. It’s not an easy watch, but like every programme in which people speak honestly and openly about their feelings, it’s compelling and important. The saddest thing is that, having forged deep new friendships and given each other the kind of support that only someone in the same situation is able to offer, they have to face the deaths of three of the group over the course of the filming. In some ways their grief is stronger for each other than for themselves.

Each of them is dealing with their situation differently –  Ben has cut himself off from all his friends and is waiting out his time alone in his flat, while Jane stoically refuses to let her poor health get the better of her, and clings to her dignity and good cheer with an iron grip. The one who really seems to have it sorted is Lou, who has Motor Neurone disease; she faces death with a clear-eyed realism that in no way diminishes her ability to live life in the moment.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to know that you will be gone very soon, perhaps leaving behind young children and grieving spouses. We see the participants’ families coping with their immintent bereavement – some with clarity and practicality, some with denial. How on earth do you explain to young children that mummy or daddy is going to die soon? Should you?

Sonja, the girlfriend/wife (they married 3 hours before his death) of one of the participants, Junior, expresses her raw unmitigated grief at his death straight to the camera, to us, in a very moving way. It made me realise how rare it is to see someone genuinely ‘feeling’ in public. Of course there are more tears on TV than there used to be, but still  people break down in the middle of an unbearably sad story about their lives and then apologise for welling up. Is it just their own embarassment or are they afraid of making others uncomfortable?

Programmes like My Last Summer play an important role in showing us the feeling side of life – how complex it is, how little understood, how hard to express in a world that sees vulnerability as weakness. But there was nothing weak about Sonja’s grief, or about any of the participants’ experience – it was powerful and illuminating, and I’m deeply grateful to them for sharing it.


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“The Visitors”

It’s funny how often a novel I’m reading turns out to reflect my current preoccupations – after Michael died it seemed every single book I picked up had a death in it, even if not flagged on the cover. I’ve just finished “The Visitors” by Sally Beauman, a long novel about the discovery of Tutenkhamun’s tomb in Egypt in the 1920s, as witnessed by a ten-yeat-old girl who finds herself on the periphery of the community of archeologists working on the dig. This is the main ‘story’, but the overarching theme of the book is loss and grief – the narrative moves back and forth from then to the present, where the young girl is now an old woman of ninety and mourning the ghosts of that time. Without giving too much of the plot away (it’s a long book) she has lost her mother, her baby, her lover, and her best friend – and though many years have passed, these beloved dead still have “their sharp presence, their terrible absence” in her life.


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On speaking out

Germaine Greer, in The Change, describes how over time “grief became first a private thing, veiled and silent, then a secret thing, and then a shameful thing.” From the flood of responses to my article in the Daily Mail, it’s clear that many people feel unable to freely speak about grief; perhaps they fear being misunderstood, or even ignored, or they simply don’t have the language for the complicated, confusing world of feelings they’ve been thrust into. To have someone else talk about it openly is a tremendous relief. Of course we are all different, but as one person said: “All griefs are personal but seem to contain many parallel experiences.” The thing I have heard most often in the past week is that something I’ve said resonates with another person’s feelings or experience: “You have told it like it is for me.”

Several people have said I am brave for speaking out, which is interesting. I don’t feel particularly brave, but I did find it harder than I expected to have my private thoughts broadcast so widely and publicly – even though that is exactly my point, that more of us need to feel free to “tell it like it is” for us. That until we express our feelings and experiences more clearly, we will continue to misunderstand each other and not know how to give support.

I’ve also worried about appearing critical of people for not knowing what to say, or how to support a grieving person; for being clumsy, or frightened of saying the wrong thing. But people do the best they can, given what they have been taught, and our society does not teach us emotional intelligence. So each of us meets grief (our own or another’s) totally unprepared for the depth and power of it, and often without the tools to cope. How can we learn to deal better with the world of such feelings except by speaking out? It feels vulnerable and yes, occasionally shameful, to talk so personally about painful emotions (and I’ve had a lot of practice with various therapists!) but the more we do it, the better we’ll get.