Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The ship sails on

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.

Still nothing.

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.


Today’s pictures:

It was a gloomy, murky day, but the hills and trees still carried a mournful beauty:

6 Nov 1

6 Nov 2

6 Nov 3

6 Nov 5

6 Nov 7

6 Nov 7-001

6 Nov 8

6 Nov 8-001

6 Nov 9-001

The white roses:

6 Nov 14

6 Nov 15

6 Nov 16

There is a lovely simplicity to equine breakfast time. They are all so happy and contented:

6 Nov 9

6 Nov 10

6 Nov 11

Pigeon, from the archive:

6 Nov Pidge 5th April

6 Nov Pidge 5th June

6 Nov Pidge 17th April 

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.

The Hill:

6 Nov 20

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.


  1. I am so glad you have a reached the conclusion that the blog without Pidge Pictures is (almost) unthinkable. I wanted to ask please never stop posting them, but felt I was being selfish, and anyhow we have the archived blogs for reference, so it was much too much to ask you. But you feel the same, her lovely face must go on...

    Today I laughed at the photos, because the first one was so SMILEY and the second one so SERIOUS that to scroll down quickly was as though her beaming mood had been switched off and she was suddenly very cross or disapproving about something. "What do you MEAN there's no time for stick-throwing?"

    The thought of Mitt Romney as President is unendurable. It cannot be allowed to happen. I hope the 47% turn out in force...

  2. Tania, you are just the bee's knees, the spider's ankles and the cat's pajamas. i couldn't exactly punch the air and shout out YES EXACTLY!!! as i read your post as am in work and that would be unseemly, not to mention indicative that i've tired of reading the endless contract in front of me....but i so completely agree on the grief stuff (and obama/romney!). and am deeply impressed that you are able to do so much more than merely cobble words together, they are eloquent, speckled with (wry) humour and above all, so very true. it is not only your sister wot is wise. innit.

  3. When my sister died twenty eight years ago, I remember two things: one, that my heart actually hurt and the other that I saw her everywhere. I also remember sitting on a train and wondering why the people around me didn't know what had happened.My heart stopped hurting and I only see her in my dreams, where she is absolutely fine.

  4. dear tania, i have been thinking of you so much since your dear sweet sweet dog and friend left...you are right. it's those little beautiful things in the passing of these grave days which keep you sailing, albeit in crooked lines sometimes...at least it's moving. sending you much love from tanzania. x j

  5. I thought of you and Pigeon and your father and the Duchess (and of my own griefs) this morning as they conducted that scratchy and sadly curtailed interview just before 9 (says a lot I think that scheduling).

    'Over it' has always seemed so redundant as a phrase - more like spreadeagled under the strange weight of the absence in my experience. Like love, it is hard to write about grief without being prescriptive or cliched and of course it is never quite the same thing twice. I know this; I don't know it all. It is a country with the same name that has suffered a different kind of devastation to the landscape every time I arrive. I think Parris made a good point: we need a different approach to loss now we are an increasingly secular society. We need an honest and clear-sighted view of the thing, those awful stages indicate some 'end' stage which just annoys me. Your posts explore the thing in an honest way. I hate that you have cause to do it, but I like that you do. It has a value of its own and no-one can interrupt and say, 'out of time. Let's go to the news.' Pffft.

  6. Although I don't "like" to feel any pain, I'm grateful that I can (and I'm definitely NOT a masochist!).
    That whole psychobabble (& rather American, I'm afraid) "idea" of closure, to put it bluntly, sucks. It's bullsh*t.
    I too appreciate your commitment to explore and, most importantly, express your feelings around, within, about grief and loss.
    My dad died, suddenly, unexpectedly, when I was 23 (and before I had had, or should I say had taken/ created the opportunity to have an "adult" relationship with him). So, I have some "experience" with this, and yet, can never really find the "words".

    You may be British and "not allowed to be serious for too long" (say what? With the Goons and Spike Milligan, the Pythons, French & Saunders, Dud & Peter, the two Ronnies, the lovely Eddie Izzard and on and on and on...?!?) You're HUMAN first. Do whatever you need to whenever you need to!!!
    XXX Pat

  7. I remember Mum saying (when we lost Dad) "you never get OVER it, you just learn to live with it" and it is oh so true.
    Here's hoping for Obama.
    Thinking of you.

  8. Tania, I've been foxed by the phone and the Wharf so I'm constantly a day behind but hopefully this will work. You are lucky that you can articulate so well and so clearly what you are feeling - I think the unknown is the really overwhelming thing, that horrible helpless feeling. Once you understand, you can start to get your head down to endure it and then come out the other side. And you have your gorgeous furry herd with you. Emily x

  9. Oh Tania I am so sorry. I just checked in after some days absence. I can't even read all your words.
    Your Pigeon was one in a million and what a long happy life she had with you and Duchess.
    I will send you a big hug every day to help you get through this fog of sadness.
    Juliana x

  10. So thankful you feel the blog needs Pigeon pictures. Would quite understand if you wanted to stop... but so pleased. :)

    Crossing everything for Obama today. If the world outside the States could vote I think he'd be win by a landslide.

    Am sorry for your friend. And thinking of you. xx

  11. you saved me today.
    you & this writing :)

  12. Oh no - I too have just checked in and am now sitting at work trying not to drip tears on the keyboard. I am so so sorry for your loss. Thinking of you very much. xxx


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin