November 17, 2017

Observed by Grief

I have been reading CS Lewis’s little tome, A Grief Observed, and it is simultaneously wounding and healing.  Like his great contemporary George Orwell, Lewis’ brevity is his  strength.  I read some to my daughter last night. We marvelled.  The plethora of periods.  So many brave full stops!  A man writing with confidence and elan even in grief.

There is too much of the book to like.  So much I cannot quote any of it here.  If you don’t have a copy, buy one.  Read it as soon as possible.  Read it in your grief.


But read it in your joyous non-grief to prepare you for your grief to come.  For come it surely will.  Non-grief is a neologism demanding the removal of the hyphen. Demanding to be a thing defined by its true, and polar opposite – grief.

Non-grief is neither truly the thing nor the place, merely the absence of the thing or the place; much in the way  darkness is not the thing, but the absence of the true thing – the light.

Or perhaps I have it the wrong way around.  Perhaps joy is the place and grief is the absence, the non-place.  Yet there is something about the grief that feels far more urgent, more real. Indeed far more the town we live, in which we pore over our holiday shots.  Joy is the far off land experienced. Was it just last month? Why the memories are already fading along with that suntan I had!

Yes, in the absence of grief it is easy to feel, indeed to say of joy; “This is a true place.  Here where I am.  Grief is the place that is not real.”

Yet for all my substandard observations on grief thus far, compared with Lewis’ weight of glory on the subject, I will make one distinction: In this year of my father’s death grief has observed me far more often than I have observed it.  Perhaps that is what Lewis meant.  It certainly felt more that way around reading him.

Yes, grief has spent the best part of the year observing me.  Quietly, slowly, for sure,  but measured and with intent nonetheless.

So I have been standing at the bench top preparing dinner; peeling potatoes, washing rice, cutting up bread, when I have felt grief sidle up to me.  Standing there just at my ear.  It felt like grief was watching from the slightly ajar pantry behind me all that time.  Perhaps even while I was preparing dinner yesterday, but I got distracted and walked off to get something from my room, and the moment was gone.  There was grief waiting for me to relax; to settle into mindlessness before approaching.

And the gentle shock when it did was such that often I would stand there, look up from what I was doing and just say, quite loudly, “He’s dead!  How can than have happened?”

And my son seated in the wing-backed chair in the corner, watching something on the iPad, or drawing a cartoon figure would look up startled. “What did you say?” he’d ask?

Or, if he got it, heard it and understand it, might even come over and give me the kind of hug that nine year old boys give when they see their fathers in distress. Sort of to the side, with his head pressed in just below my sternum.  “Love you dad” he would say, before wandering back to his favourite Youtuber.

And I would catch myself saying it again – even louder actually -, driving home after the school drop off in the mornings. So loudly the dog on the back seat would jump.

Perhaps grief had slipped into the car undetected in the mix and muddle of school bags and forgotten water bottles and signed permission slips.  But grief was there in the back, just out of my clear line of vision. But having a clear view of me.  Waiting – like that accursed devil – for an opportune time.  “Fancy  thinking I’d left you for good,” grief  seemed to be saying., “More fool you.”

But in a sense, I don’t want grief to leave.  And even as it softens I feel the pang of the loss of is potent muscles. This observant grief is not like the wracking self-pitying tears I shed as Dad lay dying in that locked ward.  Nothing can compare to that.

And goodness knows I’ve tried to compare it.  Tried to recreate it.  You find that odd? The attempt to summon up the depth of that grief like the witch of Endor summoning up Samuel?

I scratch around looking for that rich vein to tap, but come up empty handed.  Fancy that!  Why do I want that grief in particular?  Because it’s so visceral, so vital, so urgent.  It’s the deepest level of emotion I have ever felt. About anything. Ever.

Why is my highest joy not the place I wish to return to?  Partly because I do not know what it was.  I have not put down a marker.  My wedding day?  The birth of my first child?  The moment I heard my daughter sing in public for the first time in that perfect soprano?   Why did I not sit in those moments and think “Ah, this is my greatest moment, the pinnacle of my elation.”?

And partly because I know that my highest joy is ahead of me. Fulness of joy, pleasures for evermore are there for me at God’s right hand.  But only at his right hand, and woe betide the one who seeks that fullness and pleasure somewhere other. He or she will be gravely disappointed.

But my deepest grief?  There has been no getting around what that was.  It’s pegged off like a newly discovered tenement waiting to be mined.  My only horror is knowing that there may be another tenement for me, somewhere else with an even deeper level of grief.  I watched, grieving by proxy, as a Facebook friend lost his young son to a pool drowning.  I am scared of going there. I watch him vent his grief and wonder at its mournful ferocity. I  am scared of that particular motherlode. I pray that it may never be.

I am not alone in this grief.  By that I don’t mean that others grieve with me for my father.  The love and care of a compassionate wife have meant the world to me.  But I have three friends whose fathers have also died this year.  What is it like for O?  For V? For P”? For these my middle-aged friends whose fathers have just died?

It is the same as for me.  O spoke to me just yesterday of having a dream of his father as a young man; a dream so vivid that upon waking he had to convince himself that he had not been there, that that had not happened.

In his dream is father was of such a young age that it was not possible that O had yet been born.  Yet it must have happened. How could something more vivid than the most recent sighting of his father not be?  Where does that come from? Why does it come?

And then, most worryingly, or perhaps most reassuringly – I cannot tell – there is my running acquaintance, C.   I told him of my grief as we gathered our wits  and our breath after a muggy spring Parkrun.

He told me of his own grief. Six years ago his mother died, and still now grief jumps out at him. He finds himself asking in sober astonishment “Where is mum now? How did that happen to her?” And I see the same look in his face that I know, without ever seeing it, I have in mine..

Six years later! Just as much of a jolt. Not as often, but just as startling. Perhaps grief is less observant, more distracted over time.  Or perhaps C is less observant, more distracted over time.  Yes, that’s it.  Grief observes us – constantly – we just learn to shrug it away more effectively.

Perhaps grief is like one’s nose.  We hear people say “It’s as plain as the nose on his face.”  Yet our nose is also plain to us.  Without a mirror we can see our nose as plain as others can.  So why don’t we?  Because our brains block it out.  Who could live – sanely – with the constant sight of one’s nose? Who could live with that protuberance constantly filling our vision?

Or is grief like my tinnitus which, after a hectic tiring year, is back in full, whining swing?  I cannot block it out.  Goodness knows I try.  I attempt to shut it down. I refocus on other things.  But to no avail.  Until I stop trying. Until I stop refocussing on other things, and just focus on other things. And then it dulls and disappears – or it must do because it’s gone.  Until, foolishly, I say “Yes, I’ve done it.  I’ve beaten it.  My tinnitus is gone!”  Then suddenly it’s there again,  as if it’s never been away, driving me to distraction.

Yes, grief is like my nose and my tinnitus.  Always there.  Always observing me.  Always allowing me to think I am observing it, that I am the master, until, like a wrestler thinking he has pinned his opponent , finds at the very last to his dismay and shame, that he himself is suddenly pinned and must yield.

And perhaps that is my hope with grief. The yielding. Why wrestle a stronger opponent?  Why not yield instead?  Once you yield, your opponent relaxes, is no longer your opponent.  Perhaps it will be then that I can begin to observe grief in the way it has observed me.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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