Wednesday, 8 June 2011

In which I find a list

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This morning, on my lovely walk, in this lovely place, with the sun gentle on my back, I felt sad. I had read something yesterday in Scientific American about pining being an acknowledged part of grief. I loved that. I thought pining was such an unscientific word, more of a nineteenth century word, a novelist’s or poet’s word. Today, it turned out, I seemed to be pining for my dog.

I felt the sadness moving through my body, like a living organism. It pushed up against my left shoulder blade; it ran down my right arm; it traced its way down my back. I felt a vague sense of reassurance that it was moving; the emotional state I dread most is that of being stuck. I reassured myself, as I always do, that this is right and to be expected and part of life.

I ate a last breakfast with the dear visiting relatives, who are leaving, walked with the Man in the Hat and his dog, who made me laugh, went home, did some work, read a bit of a book, attempted unsuccessfully to stake up one of my poor leaning rowan trees, talked to the window cleaners, who must be the nicest, most cheerful men in Scotland, and gazed for a while at the forty-seven different shades of green in my garden.

Then I went inside and for the first time typed the word grief into the Google.

Even though I have been going on about wanting a manual, I have not looked anything up before now. I think I thought I could write my own manual. Of course I know about this, I have spent my life studying the human condition, dammit. Also, I have an odd reluctance to ask for direct help. I like working things out on my own.

I read many interesting things. I read about the revisiting of the famous Kubler-Ross scale, and how people now think it is wrong. I read about Freud’s idea of sorrow. I read about new research which shows the startling resilience of humans. (I could have told them that.) I read that six months is about the accepted time; it is after that that the grief settles. The loss does not go away, but the acute sorrow softens. I’m not sure how anyone came to this conclusion; it appeared to come from a study of widows. I cannot tell whether it is true or not, although I like the idea of six months. It feels about right for me.

Then I found this, on the website of the dear old BBC, and all the bells went off:

Physical symptoms may include: hollowness in the stomach, over-sensitivity to noise, tightness in the chest or throat, weakness in muscles, lack of energy, a dry mouth, fatigue and breathlessness.

Feelings may include: sadness, anger, guilt, self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, shock, emancipation, relief, numbness and yearning for the dead person.

Behavioural changes may include: insomnia and sleep interruption, appetite disturbances, absent-minded behaviour, social withdrawal, dreams of the deceased, avoiding reminders of the deceased, sighing, restless overactivity, crying, visiting places or treasuring objects that are reminders of the lost loved one.

Thoughts may include: disbelief, confusion, preoccupation with the deceased, a sense of presence of the deceased, auditory and visual hallucinations.

I have almost all the physical symptoms. I have the hollowness, and tiredness, and tightness in the throat. My startle reflex is off the scale.

Of the list of feelings, I have about half. I do not have loneliness, anxiety, or emancipation. I have the very opposite of numbness; I am keenly alive to the physical sense of the world. I feel the wind on my face, the warmth of the sun, the solidity of the earth more than I ever did. I am acutely alive to the beauty of the trees and the garden and the colour green. I hear the birdsong as if someone put it into stereo. I have had anger, but that has passed. I have also had self-reproach: why did I not see my old dad more? Did I look after my dear dog well enough? There was terrible shock at the beginning, which seemed odd, since both Dad and Duchess were old, and coming to their time. I am left now with the big two: sadness, and yearning.

Of the behavioural changes, I have a few. My sleep patterns are disturbed. Last night I actually slept with the light on, because I was suddenly afraid of the dark. My appetite is erratic. I am hysterically absent-minded, but then I am always quite absent-minded. I have moments of restless overactivity: sudden mad weeding sessions, occasional relentless cleaning, one day, a vain attempt to reorganise my entire computer. There is a degree of social withdrawal, in that I only want to be with my family, just now. Crying, obviously. My favourite in that list is sighing, which both The Pigeon and I do, sometimes in unison. It sounds like something from a Victorian penny novel, but that is what we do. I look at the Pidge, as she makes her little murmuring sighs, and I know she is missing her sister, and I say, out loud, as if she could speak English and would understand: Yes, I miss her too.

But here is the really interesting thing, to me at least. I do not have any of those listed thoughts, in the final paragraph. There was a bit of disbelief, but none of the others. My thoughts are all about the fleeting nature of life, the importance of love, the amazing profundity of kindness, the importance of natural beauty, the desire for authenticity. I think about how it is that we humans learn to face mortality. I think about stoicism. I think about the crucial importance of the small things, something I always dwelt on, but now find almost an obsession. I think about friendship, and the ones who get us through. I think about the comfort of cooking. I think about all the people in the world who know only too well about sorrow. I think about why it is that I come here and write all this down.

I am not sure I have the answer to that last question. All I do know is that I am keenly grateful that you continue to come here to read. Someone once said that we all need witnesses to our lives. Perhaps that is one of the things that this new medium does. It gives us witnesses. And jokes and unexpected information and kindness and sharing with the group, obviously. But maybe the witnessing thing is what it is really for.


Pictures today are of the garden.

Another new tree. This one is a cotinus, and I love it:

7 June 1

The peony has reached its blowsy stage. There is an interesting thing about photographing peonies, and roses too, and, to a lesser extent, the poppies. The colour saturation appears to be too much for the camera, so they always come out looking rather strange and artificial. It does not matter what adjustments I make with my excellent Picasa software - ironically trying to make the flowers look more natural than they have come out by using entirely unnatural means - it always appears slightly odd. I don't altogether mind this effect, but I do wonder why it happens. No doubt those of you who understand about cameras and light will know:

7 June 2

I sometimes think I love my brave little salix almost more than any other plant in the garden. Pictures do not do it full justice. In life, it has a delicacy of texture, its slender leaves the colour of verdigris, its elegant bark speckled with tiny white marks, as if some master craftsman has painted them on, that astonishes me each time I look at it:

7 June 3

I love the way the lavender leans, like a languid lady in a Lartigue portrait:

7 June 4

And how its colour changes as the light moves:

7 June 6

It looks well with the sage:

7 June 5

An amazing thing has happened to my favourite apple tree since the new compost arrived and I watered it in. These branches usually droop, in the curving manner of a willow. Today they are standing up straight like soldiers on parade:

7 June 7

The white lilac is exhibiting a similar effect:

7 June 9

The astrantias go on looking marvellous, day after miraculous day:

7 June 10

7 June 11

The colours of the salix and the new acer are a match made in heaven:

7 June 13-4

My dad's little tree is looking happy:

7 June 14-4

The poppy is so bonkers that I can hardly believe such an extraordinary thing exists in nature:

7 June 15-5

Oh, the face on that Pigeon:

7 June 15

7 June 16-4

She looks so wistful in these photographs, and she is wistful. However, she has started wagging her tail again when we go for a walk, and she will jump up and down in excitement when I throw her a stick, and there is a spring in her step when I take her to see the Mother and the dear Stepfather, whom she adores. Then, in the evening, when we are sitting on the sofa, she gazes at me and does her little sighing noise, her yearning sound. We are at very similar stages, like that. I can wag my tail, but I may also sigh.

The hill, very blue today:

7 June 17-4

The funny thing is that I thought I had no heart for writing today. I was going to put up some pictures and be done with it. In the end, I have given you an awfully long post. I know that I do not have to apologise for that, but all the same, I do, just a little bit. I feel that this is a medium for pith, even though I do not manage that every day.


  1. Did you listen to the In Our Time episode on Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy? if you didn't catch it, do, it's still available on podcast

    It made me wonder if we have gone terribly backwards in our thinking since the seventeenth century - post enlightenment, we seem so intent on separating mind and body and spirit and treating them as if they're three different things entirely.

    Anyway, I'm so sorry, this didn't seem like such a non sequiteur when I started to write it... Courage, it's early days. You're doing awfully well. xx

  2. Your blog, just by virtue of being there and having gorgeously calming photographs of nature and your dogs, not to mention your words, has been an almost daily refuge for me through difficult times. I hope this makes you smile, if even just a fraction.

  3. Mrs T - always so lovely to hear from you. Going straight to podcast now. And thank you so much for kind words.

    Imogene - the nicest thing to say. It is making me smile a lot. :)

  4. Tania...I was interested in your list - my father lost his wife three years ago this week and certainly he seemed to followed the accepted 'curve' of grief. I am sure everyone has some elements that differ but the universal truth is that (cliche) time heals. I am sure the pigeon is now able to enjoy her walks with less heart ache at missing her sister, as after all in dog years she has passed more time. You can take some comfort that she will be ahead of you in the missing and the yearning...relatively speaking. Making no sense atall but somehow knowing she is tail-wagging is heartening to me. Thinking of you as ever. Lou x

  5. "We need to have witnesses to our lives". What an interesting thought with so many implications to ponder. We all need a sense of significance--is the need for witnesses part of the meeting of that need. We also need to know those we love are significant, and that their significance does not die with them. Through this comes some small measure of peace.

  6. Lou - what a lovely comment. You are so sweet as always to consider the Pigeon. And right about time.

    Vivian - you are so right about the thing of significance. I think the feeling of that, however small, is a vital human need.

  7. I find being a witness to this blog, gives me more than it could ever take. It's a priviledge, and a joy (if one can be said to feel joy at such sadness) to read your words every day.

  8. Jen - what a very lovely thing to say. Thank you.

  9. I recently wrote to a friend who had lost a beloved brother and I used one of my favourite quotes from Shakespeare:

    "Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak knits up the o'erwrought heart and bids it break."

    I find this so comforting. Another quote I read (which I think is anon.) is:

    "Life isn't about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."

    Keep dancing and writing and thank you for sharing it with us.

    Warmest good wishes Sue

  10. Leo Buscaglia on Love and Death

    "I know for certain that we never lose the people we love, even to death. They continue to participate in every act, thought and decision we make. Their love leaves an indelible imprint in our memories. We find comfort in knowing that our lives have been enriched by having shared their love.

    "Though some day we all have to part with those we love, they are not lost. We are always better for having loved. In this way, love transcends even death.

    "To quote Thomas Campbell [and a version of one of my favorite quotes]

    " "To live in the hearts we leave behind, is not to die." ".

  11. Suee - you are clever. That Shakespeare quote is one of my favourites, but I had quite forgotten about it. Thank you so much for reminding me.

    Goldenoldldady - I love that. Thank you so much. It made me a bit teary, but in a good way.

  12. You probably will not believe this, not from a ditsy American, but your blog is the first place I come every morning...with my coffee and the occasional Egg McMuffin. In dealing with your own overload of grief, you have inspired us all to pay closer attention to the people and things closest to us, to take nothing for granted and to absorb every lovely...and sometimes not so lovely...thing we encounter. I'll witness you if you'll witness me. A ton of thanks, lovely Tania.

  13. Jean - the thought that this blog is your first port of call each morning is quite enchanting to me. And never say ditsy American; America fascinates me almost more than any other country. You may have noticed my intense interest in your wild, dramatic politics. I love cultural exchange; the idea that I have dear readers across the pond affords me immense delight. So, thank you. :)

  14. Oh Tania, that was such a beautiful post. So true about the yearning and the sadness. I'm glad that you seem to be finding solace in your glorious garden; I always find things don't seem quite so bad after a spell gardening.
    The Pigeon looks absolutely heartbreaking in that second picture of her. My thoughts are with you both, Kx

  15. Kate - what a lovely, lovely comment. Thank you so much.


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