A friend sends me a text. Her father died, suddenly, last Thursday. She is not only someone I like very much, but someone I admire. She is doing good things in the world. I think of the battening down of the hatches she will have to do as the storm of sorrow hits, and grieve for her.
At least, I think, this is in my wheelhouse. I can write to her. This is something I know something about. I have words for this. I know that nothing can comfort at such a time; when people use that word, I think they fall into a category error. They are, hopefully, humanly, putting loss into the same box as the things in life which can be fixed. It cannot be fixed. It is a vast, rough thing, that goes right down into the very depths of the spirit, and can only be ridden out. (The question, I suddenly thought this morning, is not how do I make myself feel better; the question is – can I take it?) The kind words of condolence do not comfort, but they do touch the broken heart, and that is important in itself.
I sat down to write, and there was nothing. Stilted, paltry sentences fell lifeless onto the page. I stared in astonishment. But I know this, I thought; this is my damn special subject. I could win Mastermind on this.
I thought: I know what this good woman is going through, I must have the precise right thing to say. Then I realised I don’t know what she is going through at all. I have an inkling, because I lost my own father, but each bereavement is unique; there is nothing else like it. There are some coloured areas on the Venn diagram of sorrow, but each person must feel it in a different way. And the thing is so vast that however much I think I know it, my words are still tiny things in a howling gale.
In the end, I wrote what practically everyone writes. I am sending you love, you are in my thoughts, your father must have been so proud of you, my heart aches for you. It turns out that all my expertise is not quite as shiny and comprehensive as I had thought.
The comfort thing is interesting. Matthew Parris was on the Today programme this morning, talking of grief. He was quite indignant and grumpy, in a rather wonderful way, about the idea that one should get over it, that there should be healing, that loss is treated like some kind of mental sickness which may be cured.
‘You don’t get over it,’ he almost shouted at Justin Webb.
He is right. I remember being quite shocked, months after losing my father, when I thought I was rocking back to some kind of normality, to find that the Railway Children tears could still hurl me to the ground. What was that about? Was time not supposed to heal?
I worked out that it is not healing so much, as room for other things. At the beginning, the whole world shrinks to the size of the loss. Words on the radio are meaningless, food has no savour, ordinary people going about their ordinary business seem alien, even callous. (How can you be laughing when MY FATHER IS DEAD?)
Usual daily things like tidying the kitchen or washing the hair seem insurmountable. I am currently in the mad hair phase. Luckily, I discovered that vanity flees, in the face of sorrow, so at least I do not have to mind about my piggy little eyes and my whey face and my crazy-woman barnet.
What happens, or rather, what happened to me, is that I had to learn where to put the sadness, to fold it into a safe place in my heart, where it could still be felt, but would not overwhelm. That is the slow process that time allows. The problem with the instinct to comfort is that it can cramp this; it can put pressure on you to get on with it. The people who love and care for one do not like to see one in pain; of course they want to wave magic wands and make it all go away. But what I really need is the space, the permission to feel like hell for a while, until I can get things back in their proper order.
Parris says you damn well should feel the hole; that it is meet and right so to do. I remember thinking something very much the same last year. I remember suddenly thinking: how horrible it would be if there were no tears.
I miss my old girl so much that there are moments I can hardly breathe. I see little flashes of her everywhere. I remember all her sweetnesses, her kindnesses, her generosities. I remember the feel of her and the sound of her and the scent of her. She was a glorious creature, a rare spirit, and she leaves a gap behind that shall never be filled.
So, I asked myself this morning the serious question: can I take it? The answer, of course, is yes. I have to work out the balance. I have to allow the pain, which is immense, but I am aware that I must not fall into the pit of self-pity, and self-indulgence.
I think: go back to the small things. Each day, find something which is good, as well as feeling what is bad. So I made chicken soup, and rearranged the white roses sent to me by the dear old friend in California. I thought of The Playwright, who called yesterday from Manhattan and showed me his hotel room on the Skype, and made me laugh five whole times. I thought of the family. I thought of the astonishing kindness of the Dear Readers, which daily makes me smile. I thought of my mare and my funny little pony. I thought of all the lovely horses I shall watch this winter, as the National Hunt season swings into action.
These are not comforts; that is the wrong word. But they are goods which still exist, to put beside the bad. They are the small, hopeful winds which shall keep this ship sailing.
It was a gloomy, murky day, but the hills and trees still carried a mournful beauty:
The white roses:
There is a lovely simplicity to equine breakfast time. They are all so happy and contented:
Pigeon, from the archive:
It’s funny. After the Duchess died, I put some pictures of her up and then stopped. Could not bear it. Now, I can’t conceive this blog without the Pigeon on it. I think perhaps she shall stay here forever.
America goes to vote today. Normally, this would be full festival political geekery day for me. As it is, I just hope that President Obama is re-elected. I think he is a good man doing his best in a difficult season.
I never did do my promised post on Mitt Romney. My central question was this. Everyone who knows him personally says he is a good family man, who brought up fine sons, who is faithful and true to his wife, and kind and thoughtful to his friends. But on the campaign trail, he has lied and lied and lied. These are not just the usual political evasions, the small economies with the truth that almost all operatives indulge. They are proper lies.
His campaign even seemed to acknowledge this when they said they would not allow their agenda to be dictated by fact-checkers, as if people who check facts are dark and dangerous.
And then there was his searing disdain for the 47%.
I know complexity is at the heart of the human condition, but I found it hard to reconcile these two Mitt Romneys. I also found it impossible to understand how someone who could say so many provably untrue things could be taken seriously as a candidate by such a great nation.
President Obama may not be perfect, and has failed in some areas, but crucially, I think the private and the public man are the same. Unlike his opponent, he really does believe in Americans. I think it would be rather a lovely thing if they repaid the compliment.
PS. As I re-read this, looking for howlers, I realise that my brain has gone into the kind of fugue state which means I have no editing capacity. I have no idea if this makes any sense at all, or if the grammar is correct, or if the thing is littered with errors. Thank you for bearing with me. Oh, and I am aware it is all a little dark at the moment. Do not fear. The light shall come again. There shall, in the not too distant future, once again be jokes. I am British, after all. We are not allowed to be serious for too long. It is written in our DNA.