It is like being thrown into a storm riven ocean. Powerful waves lift you and throw you and crash and roll across your head. It is next to impossible to catch your breath. The sky is dark. No land in sight. Sometimes you sink below the waves and wonder if indeed that would be a way of relief from this pain. The kind of overwhelming embodied pain that makes your throat hurt, makes the tears impossible to hold back and brings physical and mental exhaustion in its wake.
But one day, the waves will, for the briefest of moments, lift you on to a rock and there will be respite.
For a moment you will think of something else. It might only last seconds and then the waves will come and hurl you back into the water. But little by little the time spent on the rocks grows and one day there will be wooden bridges between the rocks and you will be able to walk safely from one island to another and there will be shade and grass and clear, pure water running over smooth stones and the flit of a kingfisher's blue in the corner of your eye. There can be confidence in a future again.
But equally out of a clear blue sky, the storm will gather with savage speed and you will be back in the water, struggling again to breathe.
An anniversary, shopping and seeing a loved one's favourite food, the one that always went into the basket as a treat, the smell of clothes, the fading scent of clothes, a photo at the bottom of a draw, a discovery that you can cannot share, the birth of a grandchild they will never see, simply walking down the street.
This is not the linear grieving of 'moving on'. It isn't really about phases. It is how sixteen years ago can feel like a full sixteen years and yesterday at the same time. But is also about how there can be books and friends and box sets, laughter and chocolate and wine and good food, fruit cake and coffee and walnut cake (I'm very specific about my cakes.)
It is paradoxically the sustaining confidence that comes in knowing that confidence ebbs and flows and that is simply in the nature of things, that's ok.
But there is something else in this watery world of loss and that is, I think, recognising that the pain of loss can itself be connection. Pain itself becomes a brutal kind of solace.
Desire to be back in the broiling ocean because that is where the connection feels strongest. For is the respite not somehow an acknowledgment of growing absence? And absence is hard.
But there is also connection in peace and calm and joy and pleasure in the small things you once shared.
Peace and calm and joy and pleasure and one day the simple confidence to face the day are what our loved ones, who have died, would wish for us.
In our love for us they would not wish a world drained of colour, they would not wish for an endless dark sea of small sharp rocks. They would if they could, build those bridges too in the sea of our loss, and they would wish us those moments of respite and ease and sunshine on our face and wind on our cheeks and grass under our bare feet, with all their heart.
And what of the role of those of us, when it is our turn to support through the pain of a death? How can we have the confidence to be present in the face of the grief of others? I offer a few simple things.
I think it comes down above all else to taking the cue from the person themselves. Their starting point is your starting point.
I know that people sometimes find it hard to know what to say.
Philip Larkin wrote in his brilliant short poem 'Days':
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over….
Where can we live but days?
Just ask, 'How's things today?'
If somebody wants to talk then they will, if they don't, they won't.
If they would rather talk about the situation in Syria or somebody's new kitchen or the whys and wherefores of England's failure to progress out of the knock out stages of another World Cup in another sport, then just make that space.
BUT, listen for the inflection point that might come, when they would like to talk now about the thing that looms so large in their lives. If they want to tell and retell the story of that hospital visit, the things they got to say at the end, the things they didn't, their sadness at not being there at the end, the sense of deep and comforting completion that they were, of a peaceful death that is not out of time or season, of a death that most certainly was, of a life whose final moments were shocking, of things that are now terribly strange and strangely terrible and, of pain, of overwhelming pain, then make that space too.
Leave space for fury and regret for humour and fear, for silence and relief for thankfulness and celebration for belief in an afterlife or no such belief. But force none of these things. It is their “day” and their right to swing wildly between all these things in a single conversation. In our compassion, we want those we care for to be happy again but the endless pursuit of happiness runs the risk of being endlessly disappointed too.
Be kind, be patient in the days and weeks and years ahead.
If it was the death of an elderly parent, do not let your first question be 'how old were they?'
If the death was shocking, a casual goodbye with a mouthful of toast in the morning to a loved one who never came home, if it is the searing anguish of burying a child, listen, listen to the stories, however many times they need to be told.
I would like to finish with a thought about a ubiquitous phrase – being 'dignified in grief.' If somebody finds that being dignified in grief is how he or she copes, then the last thing either I or anybody else should wish him or her is anything but their dignity.
But if your mother or your father or your brother or your sister or your son or your daughter or your friend wants to be undignified in grief, if you want to be undignified in grief, then be undignified and howl.