I’ve found an eighth stage of grief, called You Must Be Shagging Joking

Hilary Fannin: An MRI scan made me realise what we accept about death

No scan do: being a hypochondriacal claustrophobe, I crept around the MRI machine, sniffing at it, much as a dog might sniff a spanking new lamp post. Photograph: Darren Kemper/Corbis/VCG/Getty

I’ve been reading about the seven stages of grief. There’s shock and denial and anger and bargaining, and I can’t remember the two in the middle, but the cycle seems to end with acceptance no matter which website you’re plundering. They don’t have a stage called whimpering about your sore shoulder, which I’ve been doing since last summer, when death was still packing its scythe into its suitcase and making arrangements to visit my ailing mother.

The afternoon she died I had steroids injected into the gluey mess of my left shoulder’s musculature. “Rest will help,” said the shiny young doctor with the dashing beard. Good luck with that, I thought, picturing my waxen mother laid out on her nursing-home bed, a small yellow rose (from an exhausted bunch I’d grabbed in a German supermarket the day before) puncturing the whiteness of the preternaturally still sheet covering her corpse. Irish death, like Irish marriage, requires a fair whack of stamina.

Anyway, the young doctor scheduled an MRI for me, and the other day, rushing to make my appointment, I was deposited outside a sports-injury clinic that looked, through the biblical rain, like the Starship Enterprise. (I should say that visiting a sports-injury clinic is the nearest I've got to sport. Sport always required commitment, aptitude and a divided skirt, none of which I ever seemed to possess.)

I half-expected Lieut Uhura to appear to ask if I'd any implantable devices that might interfere with the force field

In the lobby the ping and swish of the swooping elevators barely dented the prosperous silence; the white-tiled floor leading to the reception desk was clear as virgin snow. I half-expected Lieut Uhura to appear to ask if I’d any implantable devices that might interfere with the force field. I hated myself, hated that I’d ended up here with my minor injury simply because I was able to pay for the privilege.


But after some acrobatic fun in the changing room, trying to unclasp my neck chain with my one mechanically functioning arm, I went into radiography, where a pleasantly professional woman suggested that I spend 20 long minutes lying stock-still inside a metal sarcophagus.

Being a hypochondriacal claustrophobe, I crept around the phallic machine, sniffing at it, much as a dog might sniff a spanking new lamp post. And that’s when I experienced a not terribly well documented stage of grief called You Must Be Shagging Joking.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said to the rational radiographer, in her nicely pressed tunic, “but I’m not getting into that thing. I’d sooner eat a suppurating Dalek than incarcerate myself in your bleedin’ Tardis.”

Okay, I’m mixing my sci-fi metaphors, and I didn’t actually say anything of the sort – I just snivelled around apologetically until she took pity on me – but you get the picture.

I'm terribly sorry, but I'm not getting into that thing. I'd sooner eat a suppurating Dalek than incarcerate myself in your bleedin' Tardis

“You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last,” she replied cheerfully. “I had a gentleman here recently who’d once been trapped underwater in a canoe. Couldn’t get his foot over the threshold.”

“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” I said, surveying the empty bullet that people spend months and years on waiting lists for, and which I couldn’t manage because of some primitive fear of asphyxiation or primal memory of birth.

I left, feeling ashamed and uncomfortable about my position of advantage, but also oddly liberated. I couldn’t comply, couldn’t do what was asked of me, and instead of pushing through and saving face and being a good girl, and swallowing down my tremendous anxiety like a dose of cod-liver oil, I said no. No.

I went home, watched the rain beat down from my bedroom window. I’d recently been to another funeral of someone I loved, her death occurring within weeks of my mother’s. She was buried with her beloved husband, long since departed. We stood around her grave, shoes grazing a green tarpaulin, and the solemnity of that deep open space seemed, on that pale morning, to hold the mourners in its grip.

With each passing it is as if the lesson has to be repeated and repeated: there is no way around mortality. There is no reprieve for being Miss Congeniality, Miss Compliant, Miss Self-Reliant. What’s more, I’m beginning to think that the acceptance all the grief manuals refer to is less an acceptance of the loss of a loved one than an acceptance of self – in all our flawed, neurotic, painful, messy, random, nonsensical and contradictory aspects.

We fail. We screw up. We get frightened. There you go. We’re only human after all.