‘Grief is a braggart, a blatherskite, a blustering egomaniac refusing to be ignored’

Hilary Fannin: All around you there are people carrying the shock and disbelief of death

‘Remember me?’ grief asks in the wind rushing through the naked trees. Photograph: iStock

‘Remember me?’ grief asks in the wind rushing through the naked trees. Photograph: iStock

 

Over the last 10 months we have had many conversations, she and I, about grief. She has described it as another country, a territory unmarked by borders or oceans, an invisible subterranean landmass populated by swathes of silent mourners. She has likened it to a cat burglar, a noiseless interloper waiting to pounce when you least expect it; there when you open the bedroom door or reach for the lamp switch. There, too, when you search the wardrobe for a winter coat or are trying to figure out which drill bit to use to assemble your visiting grandchild’s cot. 

All around you, she once explained, looking squarely at me across her kitchen table, there are people grieving

Grief is endlessly patient, she has warned, biding its time, picking at its fingernails, whistling a soundless tune, waiting to tap you on the shoulder when you stoop to feed the cat or make yourself iron a shirt or finally book a haircut.

“Remember me?” grief asks in the wind rushing through the naked trees, in the rain and the sleet, in the suck of your boot in the sodden grass.  

In her experience, grief is a braggart, a blatherskite, a swashbuckling windbag unwilling to take a back seat, a blustering egomaniac refusing to be ignored, insistent on infiltrating every action, every plan, every pore. 

All around you, she once explained, looking squarely at me across her kitchen table, there are people grieving. They are carrying around the shock and disbelief, the enormity and exhaustion of death. They have become unwilling passport holders to that other country, a place once invisible to them. They, too, used to walk the earth without realising what was underfoot. They, too, failed to notice the signs to that other place of loss. 

I lifted her teapot, poured myself another cup. 

And we can’t tell by looking, she pointed out. There are no visible identifiers of grief on that washed-out woman in the supermarket queue who’s forgotten her shopping bags, or the person in the packed waiting room who doesn’t hear their name being called, or the figure you notice from your car window, walking the wet roads in the dusk. There is no blazing arrow over their heads or signs on their backs.

“Should there be?” I asked. “Would it help if grief was conspicuous? Would it make things easier if you were to don widow’s weeds or shave your hair off?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe I do want an outward sign. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to explain it all over again to someone in the frozen-food aisle. Maybe they’d just clock my naked scalp, murmur something sympathetic and walk on by.”

“Leave you alone with your frozen cod?”

“Something like that.”

We drank our tea. Beyond her kitchen window, the garden he planted was blooming. Flaming orchids reached skywards from terracotta pots, flowering jasmine wound around a wooden terrace, purple irises held themselves diligently upright, heads bowed like courtiers. 

“He is dead,” she said simply, “and that is the only word that makes any sense to me. He has not passed, like some interminable winter. He is not lost, like a pair of gloves or a kitten or your reading glasses. Lost things – a straying dog, a bus pass, a favourite scarf – can be returned. Neither has he gone. Going somewhere, to get petrol or pick up a newspaper or buy a stamp, implies volition, choice. He did not choose this. And if he has gone, as some people say – kindly, I know – then where has he gone to and why can’t he return?” 

“The word,” she added, leaning towards me, “the word I need to understand, to speak, to hear and to accept, is death.”

Outside, in the wet garden, the cat jumped up on the windowsill, stared at us through the glass, eyes darting. What were we doing, two women sitting across a wooden table, the clock on the wall beating out time? I stood, took our cups to the sink. I didn’t find it easy to leave her and return to the city. 

A few days ago, we spoke again on the phone.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, one day at a time. The usual old guff.”

She has, she said, come to understand something about grief in more recent weeks. It is not, as she previously understood, a state that she must pass through to get to the other side. It is, she now realises, something to be absorbed, a molecular shift. Grief becomes a part of you, she said, an internal change that you grow to accommodate, a silent knowledge to carry forward into a new reality.

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