Illumination

These days I am so full of feelings. It’s as if someone has turned a dial to amplify my emotions — good and bad. I feel them reverberate more deeply within myself. Moments of love and joy make me soar and tingle. Moments of pain and sorrow make my chest ache and tears pour uncontrollably. I feel my feelings more fully.

Last night I caught a ferry to Circular Quay. I saw the Vivid Sydney lights turn a city already bright and dazzling into an amplified version of itself – all colour and movement. Flickering patterns, spotlights, imagery illuminating this city on the water. I drank French champagne in a bar then went to a Sufjan Stevens gig at the Opera House – a Birthday present to myself.

I woke this morning still thinking about the music – the experience of the concert. Five musicians moving about the stage, playing an array of instruments, and Sufjan Stevens’ incredible vocals. More lights and imagery beamed onto panels hanging like stained glass windows behind the musicians, and all of it illuminating a dialogue on life and death I feel as though I have been having with myself in various guises these past ten months. It was mind-bendingly, heart-soaringly good. I feel so privileged to have been there; to have experienced this moment of internal illumination. Sometimes, when the emotions are running high, it seems it doesn’t hurt to turn the dial a little louder.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

Last night my gaze fell upon a poetry book sitting on my shelves. It’s a book a friend gave to me a couple of years ago and it’s been resting there for a while. The thing that caught my attention was a yellow post-it note sticking out from between its pages. I’m pretty sure the last time I looked at the book there was no yellow post-it note. Intrigued, I turned to the marked page and this is what I found.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above —

Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

— Vikram Seth

Thank you, my mystery post-it-note-sticking friend.

I’ve been thinking about the scheduled executions of the two Australians in Bali and about how wrong it is that we could ever find justification for taking another’s life. I believe in justice and a penal system that protects the values of our society, but knowing what death and intense grief bring, I do not understand how we could ever inflict this pain intentionally on others, no matter their wrong-doings. A death penalty forms no part of my values system. I fundamentally oppose the idea of it and would like to state that #Istandformercy. I am just one small, insignificant voice but tonight, if I could, I would tell the families of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan that I, along with the majority of the world, share their tears. And if all our small, insignificant voices could unite, perhaps our combined roar of protest would somehow reach the ears of those who need to hear it most.

Vanishing Acts

peninsula sky

peninsula sky

We performed a vanishing act a few weeks ago, leaving the house and the cat, packing the car and driving all day under a Simpsons-esque sky until we arrived, finally, at my Dad’s house.

His place sits on a peninsula of land stretching out into the Bass Strait. It feels a million miles from our life in Sydney. In this house there are no check shirts hanging in the wardrobe with sleeves still rolled, no half-read books waiting on the other side of the bed, no clippers lying redundant in the bathroom drawer, no scrawls on the calendar in my husband’s distinctive handwriting. Instead there is a big sky overhead and grass to lie on. There are cows in the field at the end of the garden and swallows nesting in the eaves of the house. There is an ocean to paddle in and a clock that ticks beside the bed – the same clock that stood beside my grandmother’s bed in a different house – in a different country. In this home we are with loved ones and connected to our family story, stretching wider and further than just the three of us. There is comfort in that.

On Christmas Eve, I check on the kids before going to bed with a sleeping pill. My grandmother’s clock ticks beside me – too fast, like my heartbeat. Time is passing. Life is passing. I turn the light back on, frightened by the darkness and the questions that occupy my mind. How does someone just vanish? How do you wake beside them in the morning, drink coffee with them in the sunshine, talk to them on the telephone at lunchtime, then … nothing. How does someone just disappear? One moment alive. The next, gone. How do we bear this life if the people we love the most can be ripped from us at any moment? One wave … one car accident … one heart attack … one bullet. How do we bear the fragile impermanence of it all?

Sometimes it feels as though Matt wasn’t the only one to vanish. Sometimes I wonder if I vanished with him that day. Sometimes I feel invisible even to myself. Who am I? It’s a question that haunts me now, along with another often repeated refrain: Where are you?

Boxing Day arrives with a strange, fiery glow. It’s the sort of light that promises something special for those fitful enough to greet it. I slip out of the house and run down to meet the tide, the sky torn in two by storm clouds and shards of dazzling light. Half-way up the beach I am stopped in my tracks by a beam so bright it holds me captive. Back at the house I move down to the fence and let the air dry my skin. The wind moves the long grass in the fields beyond like a mother combing her fingers through a child’s hair. The swallows dart and swoop from swaying trees. When I turn back, three fat galahs breakfasting on the lawn take to the sky with indignant squawks. All around is movement. All around is chaos.

In these quiet days of contemplation, hiding from the violence rotating on the news, it’s hard not to feel adrift. Chaos is confronting. I’m learning to seek out the smallest anchors. Simple moments in the day to cling to, to counter the fragile impermanence: watching a boy in his pyjamas throw paper planes across a lawn still damp with early morning dew; sitting on a bench looking out over a perfect break; hurling a tennis ball over and over for an enthusiastic dog; lying in bed next to my children listening to them breathe; turning my face to the sun; watching clouds drift across an endless sky; listening to the high electric whine of a cicada; laughing with my sister in the way only she can make me laugh – with my belly aching and tears squeezing from my eyes. I find each anchor and cast it out, allowing it to tether me to this moment – to this life. Allowing the weight of it to hold me here when the alternative sometimes feels preferable.

This morning I read these words by Anne Lamott in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:

There is meaning in focus, concentration, attention. I now notice almost every single bird that flies by, as well as every single butterfly. I pay attention to most plain old butterflies, not just the ones in tiaras or argyle socks. Butterflies and birds are like one perfect teaspoon of creation.

I find my meaning now in small moments of concentration and awareness, in trying to ensure I am really present. Those early days of numb shock have faded and somehow I find my senses heightened. Close proximity to death has made me feel more alive. Odd, I know.

And yes, I also know how lucky we are. To be here in this house. To have family to nurture us. To have the option to vanish like this over the summer holidays. And it’s been good to be somewhere else – necessary even – but soon we will pack the car and drive back to Sydney. Soon I will put the key in the front door and step inside our house with all its familiar scents and furniture and books and clothes and sadness. Soon I will step back onto the streets of my old life. And soon, I hope, I might just remember the answer to that question: who am I?

Soon, I hope I might start to reappear.

peninsula sky

peninsula sky

and then …

… and then your son asks if he can visit the place ‘where daddy died’ and so you wag a morning off school and drive down to Tamarama while the rest of the city sleeps and you find the gulls lying upon the beach with their beaks tucked under their wings, and you kick off your shoes and walk down onto the sand amidst sculptures that have washed-up like treasures from the deep, and you watch as your boy scrambles onto the cliffs and picks a tiny yellow flower which he carries down carefully for you, and you attempt to answer the hardest questions, questions without answers, and you try not to cry as your daughter looks for her father’s footprints in the sand, and then you all return to the car and drive back through the city which is awake now and glittering in the mid-morning sunshine and you are all so quiet, lost in your thoughts and your love and your pain …

tamarama flower

… and then you’re sitting at home, alone, surrounded by a thousand physical reminders of your old life, struggling simply to draw breath when an envelope arrives through your door and inside is a card with a sprig of freshly-pressed thyme and a piece of feathery tissue paper which you carefully unfold to reveal a poem handprinted with painstaking care, and you read the words which speak to you in ways you had forgotten words could, and even though you can’t stop the tears you know that the sheer pointlessness-of-carrying-on that you have been wrestling with has been proven false by this simple kindness from a stranger who understands, and while you don’t know this person you want to somehow thank them for their gesture and tell them that their envelope contained so much more than a card and a poem and a sprig of green from a faraway garden; you want to tell them that their envelope contained hope …

pablo

Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCIV

… and then, when the tears have dried, you lift your gaze and look about at the vast, transparent house you now reside in and you see how many walls there are to hang pictures upon and you think about how best to honour your husband’s ‘heritage of joy’, and you wonder if you’re even brave enough to try, but you know you must, so even though you’re terrified, and even though you know you’re not the same person you were four months ago, you open your laptop and you begin to write, one word at a time, you begin to write again.

and then …

The Beast Inside

I have been wrestling with an ugly beast. For a while it bided its time, pacing behind bars, gathering strength until finally, a few days ago, it broke free.

I’ve always thought of myself as a relatively calm, mild-mannered person, but this week my anger was unleashed. I have wanted to hurl plates, kick the cat and find a tall lonely spot to scream at the sky. No one has been safe from my rage. Not the call centre workers I am endlessly on hold to, nor the friends and loved ones dipping in and out of our pain. Not even Matt. Quite frankly, I have been angry at the world and raging at the seeming unfairness of this situation: it just wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last week I read On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, which details the author’s infamous ‘five stages’ model of grief. Anger is one of Kübler’s stages, and while I welcome the idea of ‘progression’, I do not find the emotion an easy companion. Anger feels like a misdirection of my energy – a negative descent into the realms of self-pity. I am horrible to be around. My broken heart is leaking venom. I am no longer the wise old lady tending her garden that I wrote about a few weeks ago, but rather a petulant, self-absorbed teenager, stomping resentfully through this new life. Or, in my lowest moments, I’m an embittered old crone sitting alone in the twilight of her life, muttering profanities at the universe. Whoever told me it would get worse before it gets better was right. Dammit.

The counsellor who teaches me about mindfulness tells me that anger is a valid emotion. Who wouldn’t be angry? She reminds me to be gentle with myself – to be self-compassionate and kind. And frankly, even while I rage and berate the unfairness of Matt’s death and its impact upon our family, there is still the small, defeated voice in my head whispering: Why not us? Why not Matt’s death?  We were not so very special … and the only thing we can be certain of in this life is that death will claim us all, at some point. Perhaps it was better this way – to lose love while it was still whole and beautiful – before damage could be done – before we could hurt or disappoint each other?

Still, when the red haze descends, it fills me up. It threatens to pull me apart at the seams and it needs release. Writing helps a little. I am filling pages of my journal with scrawled words, my hand cramping around the pen. And I think that’s why I keep posting here, too. At other times the urge to flee the house is overwhelming. I put my trainers and headphones on and head outside to stimulate some serotonin. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Running was something Matt loved and so it brings its own kind of pain – not just the pain of physical exertion but an emotional response too. To feel my heart pounding in my chest and my lungs burning can serve as a reminder of how alive I am when Matt is not. So when the running fails, I sit instead. I have a secret spot, a sheltered slab of sandstone positioned beside the harbour where I can watch the sunlight playing upon the water, the ferries navigating their way between stops and the dragonflies skimming the waves. It’s hard to appreciate beauty when you long to share it with someone whom you no longer can; but it’s still beauty, and the tears always dry – eventually.

Then, unexpectedly, a moment arrives as it did yesterday morning: my children sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, me packing my son’s lunchbox and trying to hold back the tears that had begun to flow. I’d thought I was being discrete, but the kids must have noticed my distress because, wordlessly, they left the table and came to hug me; and for just a minute we were a three, adrift on the kitchen floor, clinging to each other in a fierce bundle. It was quite a moment. Powerful not only for the fact it reminded me how amazing they are – so young and yet so full of empathy – so full of their father’s love – but also because it felt for a fleeting second or two that we were no longer a three – but a four again, wrapped in Matt’s strong arms. And let me tell you, it’s hard to sustain the anger when a moment like that comes along and melts you to your hard, bitter core.

 

dragonfly

 

Books for the Broken-Hearted

It is not my intention for this blog to become a ‘grief blog’. Back when life felt ‘normal’, I used to post here about books I’d read and the process of writing my novels, as well as new experiences I’d enjoyed or things I felt passionately about. Right now, however, my life feels stranger than fiction — writing novels is proving difficult — and most books don’t speak to me as they used to. There isn’t much in my heart or my head right now other than profound sadness.

But, in a faint attempt to strive for something familiar, I thought I’d post about the books I have been reading over the past two months. It’s surprised me that I have turned to non-fiction, and in particular those texts that reflect the shock that comes with the sudden loss of a loved one and the ensuing deep grief. The truth is that I am finding comfort in reading words written by people who have been there too. Their writing seems to normalise the extreme emotions I am feeling and somehow makes me feel a little less freakishly alone. So while I don’t intend for every blog post I write from here on to focus on the theme of grief, it is my hope that the list of books I’ve compiled below (for both adults and children) might offer comfort to one or two of you who have found my blog since Matt’s death and who share a similar journey to me.

photo-106

 

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

I bought this book before Matt died. It sat on our bookshelf collecting dust and for some unexplained reason I never reached for it. Not long after his death in July, I was gazing at Facebook seeking some kind of inane distraction from my pain when a post from the brain pickings site popped up into my feed. It was these words, from The Year of Magical Thinking, that leapt out at me:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

Reading that paragraph was like two charged wires connecting in my foggy brain. Yes. Here was someone who had walked my path. Here was someone who understood.

Joan Didion’s words reminded me of the strange, mechanical being I was at the celebration of Matt’s life just nine days after his accident. It felt like I was navigating my way through a terribly polite industry event – and I suppose in some ways I was. I stood at a podium. I read some words. ‘Hello, hello’. Hug. Hug. ‘A glass of champagne?’ ‘Why, thank you.’ I kept expecting to find Matt at my shoulder – see him appearing through the crowds. A shared smile, a knowing wink – just for me. But he never appeared. And in the midst of a polite conversation, I would suddenly remember with soul-searing pain why I was there. Funny how social mores can keep you in check, even in the most extreme or surreal situations. Didion is right about the ‘narcotic regression’ of the occasion, and how we have no idea until we are there, that the worst days are yet to come.

After reading Didion’s words online, I found The Year of Magical Thinking on our bookshelf and started to read. This is the book that first drew me back to the comfort of words and encouraged me to reach out for other books about grief and loss.

A Grief Observed – C. S. Lewis

This is a slim volume by C. S. Lewis and an honest exploration of his pain after losing his wife to cancer. It was passed to me by a good friend and I read it in one evening – gobbled it up – and copied out particularly meaningful passages into my journal. It really struck a chord. I particularly related to the comments he makes about suddenly feeling desperately self-conscious in social situations – for me it’s the school gates or bumping into people on my local shopping strip.

‘I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t … Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.”

It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy – Benjamin Brooks-Dutton

In the earliest days after Matt’s death, three different people suggested I read this recently-published memoir, written by Benjamin Brooks-Dutton whose wife, Desreen, was killed by a car while walking home from an afternoon with friends in West Hampstead. Brooks-Dutton writes about his love for his wife and the painful first year that followed her death. It’s also him capturing their family memories onto the page for their young son, Jackson, who was just two-years-old when his mum died. There are many differences in our situations, and yet so many pages had me nodding my head in recognition at his experience and some sentences offered great comfort:

‘I was told by someone who worked at the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, ‘He might forget the memories but he’ll never forget the love.’ What a wonderful thought to hang on to when a child loses a parent.’

‘Naturally, loved ones feel the need to be there when tragedy strikes, but when they arrive it must be impossible for them to know what to do. I imagine everyone who came to visit me felt useless. And the truth is that most people were. All anyone seemed to want to do was put things right or take away my pain, and those things just aren’t possible when you lose someone you love.’

Of particular help to me was the list of ‘Dos and ‘Don’ts’ the author has included at the back of the book that outline how to help those widowed young. I shared these with family and friends when they asked what they could do or say to help.

The Grief of Our Children – Dianne McKissock

Given to me by a children’s psychologist, this book has helped me to understand the profound sadness my children are experiencing and the different ways this manifests itself. It’s been helpful to have a guide through the maze of their experience and suggestions for things I can do to help them, even while coping with my own heartbreak. Particularly helpful were the three pages offering a ‘summary of strategies that can help a grieving child’, including simple tips such as:

– Talk about everything that is happening in simple language so the child can understand and not feel dumb or patronised. Tell them the truth.

– Talk openly about the person who has died, but don’t be surprised if the child doesn’t say much in the beginning, particularly about feelings.

– Continue to make the child feel special and loved.

– Let children help plan the funeral and participate in the service if that is important to them. Build in the right to change their mind.

– Help the child plan simple things to look forward to, so they can reassure themselves that life will go on, that there is a future, albeit a different future.

These are just a few suggestions taken from a long and helpful list. Most of them are quite obvious, but it’s amazing how even the obvious can seem elusive when your world is turned upside down.

Tiny, Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

I’ve been a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed’s writing since I first discovered her anonymous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns on the Rumpus website. She is about to explode onto the big screen with the film adaptation of her moving memoir Wild, starring Reece Witherspoon – another excellent read – but for me, it’s Tiny, Beautiful Things that displays her beautiful, humane writing at its best. Several people reminded me to read Cheryl Strayed after Matt’s death, and I have returned to this volume and found solace in it since. These words are from her column entitled The Obliterated Place, in which she offers advice to a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver:

‘Small things such as this have saved me: How much I love my mother – even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.’

I think it’s fair to say that there have been other books about grief that really haven’t worked for me. I threw one across the room the other day when it suggested comfort could be found in making a nice ‘Oxtail Stew with Madeira’. ‘Serve with mashed potatoes and peas and drink with a big, bold red wine,’ the author helpfully suggests, as if I were about to host a fancy ‘Nigella’ style dinner party. (Only three and a half hours cooking time required!). Each to their own, but that book definitely wasn’t for me.

Books for Young Children …

We are a very bookish family, but having a stockpile of children’s books about death wasn’t something I’d ever considered needing before. Luckily, in those earliest days after Matt’s accident, very kind friends sent me books to read with the kids. Some have been more successful than others in opening up a dialogue about what happened to Dad, or offering comforting messages about death and grief. Here are the ones that have proved particularly helpful to us, amidst the usual escapist books we still enjoy each night. (For the record, my son is six and my daughter is four.)

tough

Tough Boris – Mem Fox & Kathryn Brown

This is a simple picture book about a rough and tough pirate. When we got to the page where the pirate’s parrot dies my son hesitated. ‘Can we play ‘I Spy’ on this page?’ he asked. We spent ten minutes talking about the pictures showing the pirate putting his beloved parrot in a violin case and floating him out to sea, before we turned back to the beginning, at Jude’s request, to read it again. He’d been in emotional lock-down since I’d broken the news about Matt. This was the story that got him talking.
 
 
always

 

Always and Forever – Debbie Gliori & Alan Durant

Four animals live as a happy family in a house in the woods until one day Fox goes out and doesn’t come back. Through the gentle words and sweet illustrations, we see the three remaining animals grieve and cry and slowly come to terms with Fox’s death. This is particularly popular with my daughter. Every time we get to the page where Fox dies, Gracie sighs: ‘Like Daddy.’

heart

The Heart and the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers

We love books by Oliver Jeffers in our house – particularly Lost & Found. This one arrived in the mail from one of my husband’s work friends not long after his death. It’s the story of a little girl filled with wonder and curiosity. But one day, when someone she loves dies, she puts her heart in a safe place … until she decides one day that she’d like it back again … It’s a lovely metaphor which perhaps went a little over my children’s heads, but a very sweet and moving story, nonetheless.

invisible

The Invisible String – Patrice Karst & Geoff Stevenson

A thoughtful friend sent me this book and carefully changed the names of the characters to our own family names – even the cat’s! We read it in bed early one morning together. The kids got such a kick out of seeing it was about ‘them’. The message that we are all connected by invisible strings and that no one is ever really alone is a simple and beautiful one. We all went quiet for a little while after we’d finished reading it, thinking about the invisible string that still connects us to Matt.

paperdolls

The Paper Dolls – Julia Donaldson & Rebecca Cobb

While not specifically a book about grief, this lovely story was familiar to my children before Matt died, and we have returned to it since, for it’s wonderful and comforting message about how things that disappear from your life can still live on in your memory.

lifetimes

Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes In Between – Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen

My son is bug and animal mad and this simple, beautifully-illustrated book offers a no-nonsense, practical explanation to the inevitable rise and fall of all living things. There is no sugar-coating. It just tells it like it is, using clear examples from the natural world.

‘There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.’

muddles

Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – Diana Crossley & Kate Sheppard

This is an activity book for children who have lost a loved one. It offers all sorts of practical support and projects for bereaved children to complete, to help them express their feelings around the loss of a someone special. We haven’t begun to use it yet, but I think we’ll spend a little time this Father’s Day filling in a couple of pages and recording some memories of Matt.

bear

The Bear and the Wildcat – Kazumi Yumoto & Komako Sakai

This is a really beautiful picture book about a bear whose best friend, a little bird, dies. Bear is bereft, but gradually, through the help of a new wildcat friend, he finds a way to live with his loss.

“This little bird must have been a very special friend of yours,’ he said. “You must miss him a lot.”

Bear looked up in surprise. No one had ever said that before.

The wildcat opened his box. Inside was a violin. He took it out and said, “Let me play a song for you and your little friend.”

So these are the books we have discovered to date. I’m wondering … are there any books that have helped you or your families cope with your own experiences of losing a loved one? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Thanks.