I went to dinner with some dear friends last night and, as we were leaving, Gary asked me when the next installment of this blog would appear. I said that I didn’t have anything to write about at the moment. As I drove home, I began to realise that it wasn’t true.
For people walking the road of grief and loss, I suspect the issue is not that there may be times when you have nothing to say, rather that you actually have a lot to say, but not the words. This surely is an aspect of the deep pain.
I went to sleep reasonably early but woke just before 2.00 a.m. This is not entirely uncommon, but I was hoping for more rest than three and a half hours. As I tried to get comfortable, I made a small, gentle movement with my hand to draw the sheet closer to my chest. I suddenly became aware of it being a “Ngaire” movement. Maybe this sounds odd, but I felt it to be one of those “the-two-shall-become-one” moments that I have talked about before. When such things happen, I find that I am instantly undone, hence sitting writing this now at 3.33 a.m., after too long of trying to get back to sleep.
You see, what I am finding about grief is more along the lines of what C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”.
In the dark hours particularly, the loss feels like a deep, penetrative disturbance in my being that has no ready connection to the rational. I become anxious, a little unsettled in the stomach – like Lewis, I keep on swallowing – I have to get up; to try to sleep is utterly pointless. I quote from my journal of September last year:
“In terms of my identity and the things that drive me, my compass has her as north. I live to please her, to make her happy, to have her respond to me. For that to be gone would be to lose my reason to exist. I suspect that that is why grief feels like fear, because it is; and it is a dark, unholy place.”
Such moments have become less over the last while. Strangely, they were more common in the year before Ngaire died. Her condition was so perpetually confronting that no matter how brave I appeared on the outside, within was a soup of confusion, dread and fear mixed with hope and, of course, love. The grieving began long before she went.
In contemplating the vast ocean of humanity that has suffered in grief as I, my boys and Ngaire’s close family and friends are now, I feel quite insignificant in the context of history. Despite what the humanistic self-theorists say, despite what the preacher may tell us about our importance, there is a vital understanding in this “insignificance.”
The reality is that, in this world of seven billion people, we are very small; beyond our family and the worlds of those who love us, we are, most of us, of little consequence. The author, Henri Nouwen calls it “smallness”. I like that because it is in this smallness that help arrives, if we ask for it. He goes on to say that only when we invite God in to the pain can we live fully through it. That is one of the reasons I write this blog: to engage with God in the pain to find the right way through it. As Nouwen says, “The way out of grief is in and through.”ı
In our western world, we have highly developed systems and processes designed to help us avoid pain. Consequently, our learned tendency is to deny, avoid, suppress and medicate. Sadly, all we have ended up with is a society that is largely unprepared for many aspects of life; unpleasantness and the tough stuff of relationships are often ignored or left unresolved until the pile of crap becomes too high. Then, we decide, it’s time to move on. “I don’t love you anymore” or “you’re not the person I married” are some of the ways we speak out our justification for not engaging in life.
We also “medicate”. Believe me, I know about this one. Sadly, we think that all we are doing when we use medication is numbing the pain. But, as social researcher and speaker, Brené Brown says, you don’t just numb the pain; you numb everything2: your ability to love, experience joy, build caring relationships and empathise. Whatever your drug of choice is, from alcohol, through to prescription drugs and even food, you numb your ability to be in life.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not being a wowser. Those of you who know me will know that’s definitely not the case. All I’m saying, from bitter experience, is when you use anything as a means of numbing the pain, you also numb your ability to engage in life, with all of its beauty and ashes.
Anyway, that was a very protracted way of saying that I am discovering that the best way out of this pain is in and through. Of course, I’ve had times of drinking too much, as a means of escape, but it is not my ongoing mode of operation. I want to get this right. Maybe what this whole thing is saying is, we only get one shot at this life, so for our sake and the sakes of those who love us, let’s do it right.
Thus endeth the sermon. One thing I wanted to add for those of you who might be going through something similar, is that because of the long period of grieving over the last couple of years, I feel that the grief itself is diminishing somewhat; the dark times are not so regular, and now the issue for me is one of loss. My precious one is gone.
I have started making a list of things that I miss about Ngaire and have found it difficult, poignant, beautiful, funny and heart-rending. I want to share some with you:
Things I miss about you
– Seeing you in the morning sun, looking out on the beauty from our bedroom window
– Watching you paint in your studio, while I write
– Making you cups of tea that you never finish
– Standing, holding you
– Finding things that you mislaid
– Making you fresh bread and mortadella sandwiches with tomato sauce and you, every time saying, “Oooh, my favourite!”
– Your beautiful thoughtfulness
– Praying for our boys together
– Ringing or texting whenever I see something that I know you would love or be interested in.
– Your cute sketches of things that you’re trying to describe.
– Sharing chocolate-covered aniseed rings
– Putting my hand on your leg while driving, and you putting your hand on mine
– Looking into your beautiful eyes
I don’t suppose the list will ever end.
ı Henri Nouwen, Turn my Mourning into Dancing
2 Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability