Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stuck at Stage Three

 A short piece on the radio this morning in reaction to this article about Maurice Saatchi had me furiously nodding my head in agreement. Actual air-punching would have been inappropriate, as the discussion was about grief. Specifically, about how you don't 'get over it' or 'move on'. You learn to live with it, but one of the great lies about the seven stages of grief is that everyone moves through them to arrive at 'acceptance'. Me, I'm pretty much still going with anger (stage three, apparently). And you know what? That's okay. I'm okay.

It's nineteen years since my mother died, followed by my father less than a year later. I was in my mid-twenties, newly-married, younger than I knew. Raw grief is a devilishly difficult emotion to live with. It takes your guts and twists them so you can barely stand. It fills your head with the incomprehensible that makes your brain buck and reel away from believing something that Just Cannot Be. And that's when you cry - you howl out loud so you can't hear the howling in your head.

But you can't live like that for long - it's exhausting and debilitating. So you learn to quiet that part of your mind, you fill your time with the relentless stuff of life that insists on being attended to, even when all you want to do is live under your duvet. Until you appear almost normal again. But you have a secret, a dirty little secret - the grief is still there. Always there.

It doesn't take much, nearly two decades later, to bring my grief back to the fore. I'm not good with funerals, either real or fictional. An unexpected glimpse of my father in a family video, a photograph of my mother that I haven't seen before spied on a mantlepiece, the opening bars of the Schubert Cello Quintet in C Major that I played over and over at a deafening volume on the day I heard that my mother's illness was terminal, these things remind me that I haven't 'dealt' with my grief, if dealing with it means neutralising it. I still feel it, and what I mostly feel, still, is angry at the unfairness of it all. But anger is not a productive emotion, so I feel it, and then I put it away.

It's not something I talk about much these days, partly because I don't think people want to hear that it never goes away, that the 'seven stages of grief' are a fallacy. So I was pleased to hear Matthew Parris talking on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning about how he still grieves for his father five years after his death, and how he thinks that is perfectly okay. To paraphrase, he said that when someone you love dies, they leave a space that cannot be filled, and that's as it should be. I couldn't agree more. Sometimes you have to look into the hole, into the blackness, acknowledge it, give it the respect it deserves, then continue your life walking around its edges.


  1. This is such a well-written and moving post, Rachel. I am lucky enough to have never had to deal with the sort of grief you are talking about but I know I will at some point soon and it fills me with dread.

  2. When Dylan Thomas wrote 'Rage, rage, against the dying of the light', he was talking about real rage. Grief is when you have to sit through the unbearable. It's a terrible design, that we all have to go through it.