I read an article last week, on the subject of bereavement. One of the points made was that, in our everything-must-happen-now society, we are expected to get over loss in a fingersnap – just like we’re supposed to get over every other big life-changing event. Get Divorced – well heck, hit match.com, and you’ll be up the aisle again just like that! Give birth to a child after Lord knows how many hours in labor, and you’d better be thin enough for spandex before anyone sees you again, and with a svelte figure and doing Bikram yoga lickety-split. And if you’re in a state of grief because someone you love dearly has died, well, just grab one of the few hundred books out there with seven steps of grieving, twelve steps to get over it, so many days for this to happen and then that, because heaven forbid you linger over the “bereavement process.” And don’t get me wrong, some of those books are balm for the aching soul. But what is the rush to get people through the most important transitions of life? And when did we forget that bereavement isn’t just a useful term, but is to do with the desolate feeling of being bereft.
As some of you know, last year my lovely father passed away. But it wasn’t the only loss – some four months before he was diagnosed with a serious blood disorder, one of my cousins died, and as fate would have it, my father’s diagnosis came just after another much-loved cousin passed away following a year in hospital undergoing treatment for leukemia. Then, thirty-six hours after my father passed away, my husband’s mother died.
So I’ve had a lot of time to think about grief, and to think about this process we call bereavement, and I think we have to find a way between “Just get over it” and the Victorian way of mourning. You see, you don’t hear that word so much any more, that someone is in mourning. Yet even the tone of the word seems to describe that pull on the heart. I’m not suggesting we go back to a time when one wore widow’s weeds, but it was once the protocol – if that is the right word – that when you were in mourning you wore black for a year. This told people you were bereaved, so they understood. There have been times when I would have liked a bit of understanding – for example, the time I was a bit tardy getting my things together in the line at the grocery store because the sneaker wave of grief had just hit me when I noticed a big bag of liquorice allsorts, and my dad loved liquorice allsorts. I was remembering the day I came home with a massive jar of them, and he laughed and wondered how many would be left for him, because, in truth, he didn’t eat many candies, but liked to have them in the cupboard to pick at one now and again, though in the meantime my Mum and my brother and I worked our way through that jar in next to no time. Suddenly a very cross voice behind me in the line was telling me to get on because he didn't have all day.
A memory can come back to you unbidden, and suddenly your eyes are filling with tears and you’re fumbling around and you wish that someone would realize that you’re just remembering and hurting and you want to howl with the pain of missing that person. Instead people are looking at you as if you’ve been on the bottle since you got up this morning. But how would they know? In my grandmother’s day, after the bereaved had worn black for a year, they wore something purple each day - it was the shade that told the world you were coming out of it, that you had managed to weather a year of anniversaries, and you were ready for society again.
And I think it does take a year, for that first dreadful grief to lift. There’s been the anniversary of the day I decided to call his doctor one week into my book tour last year (while at Left Coast Crime) – I just knew it was more serious than my mother was letting on, and in one conversation had scribbled the name of his doctor, who spent 45 minutes on the 'phone telling me everything I needed to know. I asked him “how long” and with his response ringing in my ears, I was back in the UK a week later – this time last year. Another anniversary. Then there was the first major emergency room rush in the middle of the night, and then the second, and then the hospice, but in the midst of that there were the days when I would take my parents in the car for a drive, just to get us all out of the house – and a month ago, when I was doing my taxes I found receipts from the last two times I was able to take my mum and dad out for dinner. And it hit me again – the sneaker wave of grief.
So, I think whoever wrote that article has a point. A time of mourning is not prescriptive. Another friend’s father died at the end of last year, and a couple of weeks ago she shared with me that one of her friends expressed surprise that she was not “over” it yet. What is happening when we expect to be over everything so quickly? Strangely enough, I see a parallel in the way we treat newborns. So often I see parents in a restaurant - a noisy place with bright lights and people everywhere – and they have a baby with them who is clearly only a week or two old. It’s not going to kill the child, but there is something that doesn’t sit well with me, as if everyone is so keen to just get going with life again, that respect for the beginning of life is given the same short shrift as a time of mourning at the end.
This is a year of anniversaries, and by the end of the summer my family will have weathered many firsts. But in the meantime, if I linger in the line at Safeway, it could be because I can hear my Dad saying, “Ain’t it great over here, Jack - they’ve even got a bloke who puts your groceries in a bag for you.” I’ll try not to hold up the line, I’ll do my best not to snivel as I’m paying – but the sneaker wave just hit me again.
That's my favorite photo of me and my dad.
And today is Good Friday, heralding the start of my favorite holiday - Easter. It's a time of new life, new beginnings, and with the promise of spring, even though many of you are snowed in. Me? Well on Sunday I'm heading out to Chicago (brrrr), on the next leg of my book tour - hope to see you along the way if I'm in your neck of the woods (www.jacquelinewinspear.com/appearances). Have a lovely weekend,