The strangeness of grief

August 9, 2019

 

Today is a strange day. Two pieces of bad news hitting within minutes of each other have shaken me. Two totally unrelated people on different continents, linked for a moment by me receiving the news that neither is here any longer. Death is unique is such a deeply strange and unsettling thing. The first thing that hits me is the finality of it - I'll never see either person again. Strange that should be my first feeling when moments ago there were no plans or expectations that I would ever see either again anyway. But it was possible. Now it is not. This taking for granted that no matter how we cultivate appreciation is just a part of life we must forgive ourselves. 

 

I remember a discussion with a friend in trauma a few years ago. She had made comment on how it is that we can exist with the knowledge that death can snatch anyone away at any time. How could we not realise how close we all are to winking out of existence? I remember replying that we must wilfully blind ourselves to the fact, that at the moment the scales had fallen from her eyes but that soon they would be back again. Because we must live that way, none of us would be able to function if we realised how close to the end we might be every single breath. 

 

This far, I have always been the witness of the pain of others rather than in the thick of it myself. I wonder how this has shaped me. I know it makes me nervous for those in my life. But I think it also makes me a little more mindful too, of what I have. But still, I am human. I take life for granted until it winks out and reminds me how fragile it is. 

 

I wonder if these experiences provide my drive to experience all that life has to offer. Earlier today, bad news yet to fall, I came across a poem by Barbara Ras which seems prescient now. 

 

You can't have it all

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger 
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back. 
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look 
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite 
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August, 
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love, 
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam 
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys 
until you realize foam's twin is blood. 
You can have the skin at the center between a man's legs, 
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind, 
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness, 
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who'll tell you 
all roads narrow at the border. 
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes, 
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave 
where your father wept openly. You can't bring back the dead, 
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands 
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful 
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful 
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels 
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts, 
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream, 
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand. 
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed, 
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping 
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise. 
You can't count on grace to pick you out of a crowd 
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump, 
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards, 
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender, 
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind 
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you, 
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond 
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas 
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept. 
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother's, 
it will always whisper, you can't have it all, 
but there is this.

 

There is this. This may not make sense, may defy all logic. May lack any rational meaning when every part of you yearns for meaning but it is what it is and gratitude for what is is my defence. The scales against my eyes have faltered momentarily but I'm well practised at putting them back into place. 

 

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