Grief isn’t about resolution

Grief isn’t about resolution

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

On the 3rd of June, just 11 days after Mum’s funeral, I wrote this one line in my journal:

“Grief is about learning to live without resolution.”

People seem to think that grief is all about closure (a vile word in this context, and impossible to say without a soupy reality TV accent). But grief isn’t about closure because closure is not possible. Life doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that.

People are messy, complex, inconsistent. It’s what makes us so full of potential and danger all at the same time. That’s why there are gangsters who love their mums, and life-saving surgeons who beat their wives. In his novel Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has his character Death, a cowled horse-riding scythe-carrying skeleton (who loves kittens), ruminate on humans and describe them as the falling angel meeting the rising ape. In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope describes humans as “darkly wise, rudely great.

We are social: all of us falling-apes—rising-angels mix constantly with other brute-divines and madness ensues, be that delightful or horrifying. After a lifetime of driving each other mad (with lust, frustration, adoration, or need?) we are then, when one of us dies, supposed to tie this all neatly off while processing some of the most challenging emotions we will ever feel while grieving. To resolve the madness. To have closure.

In a similar vein, we are supposed to brush off the termination of a job that gave us income, identity, perhaps status, perhaps the social connection of a good team of colleagues, hopefully satisfaction and an outlet for our talents and ambitions. Even if we have mixed feelings about our work, it is still a thing into which we pour time, energy, focus, goodwill, and emotion. Work is one of the things that defines our place in this world, for better or for worse, and we are supposed to just get over it when we are displaced from it?

Nuh.

This is crazy thinking. Why do we demand this of ourselves? By doing so we are demanding something unrealistic and tainting what should be a special time.

Grief is special. It’s not comfortable but it can be enriching.

I approve of it.

Even at its mankiest grief has a clear reason for happening: grief is the process by which we adjust to the reality that that person or thing just isn’t here with us anymore and won’t be ever again. That’s a stark reality. For some people it’s traumatic to come to terms with, for others it can border on relief. But whether you loved or hated the person or job you are grieving (and, yes, you can hate and grieve at the same time) the adjustment you have to make to the absence in your life is huge. Grief allows us to do that.

So, grief isn’t about resolution. It’s actually about accepting what you can’t resolve. It’s about adjusting to living with an absence…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Solitary mind: Out

Solitary mind: Out

So, this is it. After months of lockdown we are getting ready to re-join the world.

How do you feel about that? Relieved that the boredom or loneliness is over? Or are you a little pensive about what you will find?

Isolation is disorientating. Prolonged isolation affects your feelings about how your society is functioning right now, about your place in it, about your trust in it, about, perhaps, the odd ways in which your longing for it might have been manifesting. More than one person I have communicated with over the last few days has expressed some anxiety about being around people again. Many people have taken to referring to ‘old normal’ (i.e. pre-Covid) and the ‘new (emerging) normal’ as two different things.

Whatever the feelings you have about leaving isolation, they need to be taken into account as you find your way back into your post-lockdown life.

‘French window at Collioure’ by Henri Matisse

What’s waiting for you out there? Friends and family who will be happy to see you back in circulation? Do you have a workplace or business that is impatient for your return, with clients panting for your attention, or water-cooler conversations to be reheated? Are you fretting over missed opportunities? Are you one of the hard hit casual or freelance workers who has to try to find work to build up a depleted bank account?

Are you able to ease back into your life, or will you have to hit the ground running? How much agency do you have about your pace and style of re-entry?

Some of you will find the transition back easy. Some of you might be surprised at how hard it seems. Some of you know it will be an ordeal.

If you feel a bit tender or weird about getting back to ‘normal’ – if your prolonged isolation has disrupted or even recalibrated what normal means to you (for better or for worse) – then take it easy, if you can. (And I do acknowledge that some of you may have to hustle).

Consider:

  • Getting together with a friend to debrief. Choose someone who is a good listener, who will hear without judgement whatever it is that you have to blurt out.
  • Write down your reactions. You may have already used journaling as a strategy to survive or enrich your time alone; keep using it. When you are no longer under the pressure of supporting yourself in a bizarre situation, then looking back and reflecting on an experience when it is over can furnish a fresh perspective.
  • If your head is muddled, or your energies sapped, or your spirits depressed, then there is no shame in seeing a counselor.

We will all react differently but being compelled to live in isolation because of a global crisis is not an easy thing to last through. It may have left its mark on you. If the effect is negative, then do reach out for help. You deserve it. If the effect is ambivalent or positive, you may still need time to understand the ways in which your perspective has changed and how to come to terms with that. The special effort we have all put into caring for ourselves or each other during this time of distancing and isolation should not stop now. We need to help each other to pick up the pieces.

A reaction to absence

A reaction to absence

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Grief is the reaction to the radical absence of something that was central to your life.

Given that these notes are about grief, and given that so many of us have cruelly limited ideas as to what grief is and, therefore, how we are allowed to experience it, process it, and benefit from it, I want to define what I mean when I use the word.

Grief is not one emotion, but rather a term that covers a range of reactions we have and adjustments we make when we experience the radical absence of something central to our lives. That something could be a person, a relationship, a job, or a dream. I was inspired to write this bundle of notes when I thought about my friends and ex-colleagues who have recently not just lost jobs, but, due to sudden and devastating economic downturns caused by lockdowns, have found whole sectors closed down, subsequently downsized or compromised, and have found vocational pathways closed off to them.

Think of grief as an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural reactions to radical loss. I said in another note that people conflate grief with depression; I think that this stems from the fact that too many people conflate depression with sadness. All these things are quite different (I will touch on depression and grief elsewhere in this bundle). Certainly, people can feel sadness when someone or thing they love dies. But people can feel all sorts of other emotions too, like anger, anxiety, guilt, or resentment. Or some people can be left feeling numb.

But as well as the ‘feels’, people in grief can experience different reactions – physical, spiritual, cognitive, or behavioural. While mourning my mother, I experienced extraordinary feelings of physical fatigue that would descend on me out of the blue. My sister experienced an abnormal coldness: she couldn’t seem to get warm during the first month after mum died. Some people find they are clumsier than usual, some can’t concentrate, some question their spiritual beliefs, others become creatively prolific.

There is a great smorgasbord of ways in which grief can manifest in people’s lives, ranging from the debilitating to the irritating to the merely unusual to the liberating.

Consider:

Grief is not one constant and consistent experience.

You will probably experience different symptoms of grief at different stages. Feelings and reactions could ebb and flow, and the intensity of these feelings and reactions will fluctuate. You may have days or weeks that are harrowing followed by a time that is less intense where you feel relatively human and functional.

You can feel grief for things you had mixed feelings about, or even hated.

Oh yes, you can. When I gave up my work in the performing arts all of those years ago I quite definitely felt grief, a profound sadness – pain – at having to walk away from a dream and a vocation I had poured my heart and soul into for years. And yet I chose to give it up. I was burnt out, damaging both my physical and mental health. The lifestyle that went along with this career – financial insecurity, precarity, the emotional demands of performance, brutal politics, exposure to a sometimes bitter culture that existed within the sector – was draining the life out of me and, by the time I had given up, had long excised the joy and inspiration out of my vocation. I didn’t like who I was becoming – a meaner and more resentful version of myself – and, having struggled with clinical depression, I was also terrified for my future mental health. I have never regretted my decision to give up, and, in retrospect, see this decision as one of the healthiest things I have ever done for myself. I feel positive about that decision, and a terrible sadness arising from the sense of loss of my dream. The grieving process has allowed space for these apparently contradictory things. In my grief, I have been able to honour both.

You never get over grief

As I wrote about my old career above, I still felt sadness even though it has been a good decade since I walked away. I always will feel sadness – a sense of grief over what was left behind and over potential unrealised. That grief no longer predominates my thinking, feeling, and reacting, as it did for the first two years when I had to go through each day staring into the hole that had once been filled by my former life. The hole is still there, but I am not compelled to look into it anymore. I have learnt to shift my gaze onto different but now equally compelling new things.

The activity generated by rehearsing, performing, researching, collaborating, producing, project managing, choreographing, networking, imagining, dreaming…. these things were suddenly gone. For three decades of my life, they had been the focus of my energy, the thing around which I had built my identity. I ripped them out of my life.

Wiser people than me have identified that you never get over grief. If, following the radical absence of something important you feel a stage of acute grief, then you may move past that (and how long this takes will vary from person to person) but you never get over the sense of loss. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. For, while you may never get over your sense of loss, you learn to live with it, or alongside it. And you can recover your capacity to experience joy, inspiration, connection. You can fall in love with someone or something else, differently but meaningfully.

Actually, I think a healthy grieving process not only does not hinder this, I think it helps you to find this renewed capacity. I think of grieving as a process of adjustment – such a prosaic word for such an intense experience. But grief is a rich experience if an uncomfortable one. In a tweet, Paula Crosby described it as “a horrible freeing experience,” and it is. The challenges and gifts of grief allow you to come to terms with how something that occupied a position of influence in your life just suddenly isn’t there anymore. It can offer you realisations and insights about what that something meant to you and, in so doing, allow you to absorb, shift, learn, reflect on, and create a new life…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

What is grief?

What is grief?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

What do you think grief is?

I think that most people have a limited idea as to what grief, exactly, is. And this makes it hard to grieve.

A lot of people out there conflate grief with depression, which it isn’t (or not necessarily). A lot of people think that you only find yourself in grief when someone you love dies. Again, this is not necessarily true.

When I lost my mother last year, I was struck – and irritated – by how many people seemed to call upon me to behave like a sentient Hallmark card, weeping decorously (but only at what they deemed to be appropriate moments) and uttering gooey platitudes in her memory. But only for a certain duration; three months seemed to be the upper limit that they would allow me to react to the sudden death of my parent. None of this aligned with how I needed to feel, when, and for how long.

Many years ago, when I gave up a career in the performing arts, no one seemed to expect me to feel grief at all. It even took me a while to figure out what was happening. The mood swings, the deep sadness over a decision that, after all, I had made and owned as healthy, the strange indecisiveness and ennui – I initially didn’t understand that all this was a sort of grief over the loss of a vocation around which I had centred my energies since my adolescence.

I have noticed, too, that when I come across other people who have had a loss and who are subscribing to that three-month limit where, apparently, there is some sort of psychic barrier beyond which grief doesn’t ‘happen’ for people, and I ask “are you in grief?” they will answer “Nope. I don’t feel grief. I’m just cranky all the time, can’t concentrate, don’t have any energy, and I can’t sleep. But I’m not feeling grief.”

Grief isn’t one emotion; it is a whole range of experiences that can permeate your life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be” ~ Joan Didion

In one of his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around.”

In her advice column, What to do when you lose a dog, Blair Braverman writes:

“When it feels too painful to exist, knowing that Kelsey is gone, all you can do is distract yourself until time passes. Watch movies. Do things that require concentration, like playing an instrument or practicing a sport. Now isn’t the time for long, silent walks—unless long, silent walks are what you need. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or you could avoid other dogs completely. Whatever you need to do, sob or paint or run, is the right thing to do.”

Both of these writers – sharing their thoughts in quite different contexts – are saying the same thing. Do what you have to do. The Beyond Blue website advises “There is no right or wrong way to grieve….” Too true, although for the sheer poetry of it I turn to Nick Cave’s words “grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world.”

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Has your sector imploded?

Has your sector imploded?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Ruins prove, at the least, that someone has been there. When your life is in ruins, look for yourself among them. Then restore yourself.” ~ JD Landis

“The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together.” ~ Art Markman and Michelle Jack

Has your sector imploded? Did you lose access to it, or your place in it, due to lockdown or redundancy? Are there widespread job cuts, not just in your organisation, but sector-wide?

Have you lost your place in the world?

If you work in the arts sector you may have seen your entire industry enter a shut down that may last months or years. You may be one of many thousands of arts workers who is not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy; you may be wondering how on earth you are going to make a living.

The university sector is also struggling. If you work in that sector you may have seen your future possible career path disappear. I know researchers or sessional teachers who believe that they may never work in academia again. Professional staff have also been adversely affected.

Perhaps you work in another sector that has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates, leaving you either out of work or in fear of that.

Losing a job is bad enough; people struggle with loss of income, identity, purpose, and opportunity. But in this recession, and with the challenge of living with the coronavirus for an indeterminate amount of time, people are dealing with an economy that is shifting and changing. Some people are dealing with not just a loss of a role, but with the loss of a career, a vocational pathway, or access to a sector.

How this affects people will vary depending on the individual, their temperament, their levels of resilience, and the conditions to which they are responding. Some may be devastated. Some may be resigned. Some may even be liberated. Some may be feeling a mixture of things or may be too shocked or numb to know how to think and feel about this unprecedented change right now.

People are in grief.

Many people will be feeling overwhelmed. Many people will be craving the opportunity to make sense of all this.

Sense-making can take time and reflection…

Do you have that?

Or is life crowding in: your kids need you; your ageing parents need you; your co-workers who have also lost their jobs keep talking at you; you have to find a way of paying the rent next month.

Our government keeps urging us all to ‘snap back’ to ‘normal’, whatever the hell normal is these days. Do you feel like snapping back? Or do you feel like hiding under a doona?

If people are dealing with overwhelming reactions to the grief or fear of losing a vocation then their need to process this will be out of alignment with the demands of an economy and societal culture that insists that they get on and earn some money.

People are being placed in a position where they urgently need to make big, far-reaching decisions about how they use their time, energies, and skills to earn a living; they may not be in a state of mind that lends itself to making snap decisions.

The need to grieve versus the need to pursue revenue: These things require different energies and could conflict. This may well be irresolvable; there is no magic bullet. But I think it helps to be mindful of your state of grief, and how it might be informing the way you are thinking about your future relationship to work…

 

N.B. This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

I am about to start posting blogs about grief, how it affects people who have lost their streams of income, and how they might go about dealing with the pressure to survive day-to-day.

Called The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless, this ‘thing’ – shorter than a book but much longer than an essay – is one of my lockdown projects. I was prompted to write it out of concern for friends and ex-colleagues who have suddenly found themselves out of work due to Covid-19 lockdowns, be that as small traders, contractors, or (formerly) permanent employees. What is unique about this situation is that people are not just losing jobs or businesses, but access to whole sectors that are locking down or downsizing. I used to work in both the university and arts sectors, which have been particularly badly hit not just by the lockdowns but have also found themselves on the wrong side of federal government policy in regards to wage subsidies or future funding arrangements. But I believe that anyone who has lost their work could relate to what I have written.

The loss of work is a cause of grief and shock. It also brings about a mad scramble for material survival in the newly jobless. But the volatile energies and complex emotions of grief work to completely different rhythms in comparison to the process of job-search and / or saving a business. People who are dealing with grief are currently being asked to make big decisions about how they are going to get the rent paid. These two dynamics may be in conflict.

I cannot suggest an easy resolution to this tension; it may well be irresolvable for many people. And yet these people must live with this. I wrote The next day to acknowledge what people may be going through. In the writing I drew heavily on two episodes of grief during my life. One was the death of my mother, suddenly, to cancer last year. The other was the death of my first vocation – as an arts worker (performer, choreographer, arts administrator). I chose, myself, to euthanise this way of life but, even so, I felt a profound sense of grief. I know that these experiences are not the same as what people are going through this year; indeed, I believe the experience of loss of work in 2020 will be unique to this time. But I still felt a profound empathy, and this prompted me to write.

Even though I don’t have pat solutions to suggest, I thought that I could at least posit some ideas and provocations that may provide context or open some lines of thinking for people. I hope these notes are of some support to someone out there.

I am making this bundle of notes available for free, being mindful of the fact that some people who might like to read them will now be short of money. I will be offering them in two formats. You can either download the whole bundle in PDF format HERE, or you can wait and read each note posted separately and weekly in this blog starting from 7 October. I will be posting each one at 9am every Wednesday for the next 20 or so weeks.

Solitary mind: The company I keep

Solitary mind: The company I keep

Another day in lockdown.

Recently, I changed from my ‘around-the-house’ tracksuit pants into my ‘good’ tracksuit pants and put on a bra beneath my top and ambled off to the supermarket, incorporating my permitted hour of daily exercise with some essential shopping.

The little pot plant I bought, alongside the bread and juice, was not essential. Nor was it particularly beautiful or glamorous or exotic. It was small – easy to carry home – and affordable. It was nice.

I bore it back to my place in triumph and wondered why I felt so pleased with it. Was my life now so lacking in novelty that a cheap pot plant stood out as the highlight of my month?

The little green thing sits in front of me at my table while I write this. I still like it. I think it looks cheerful. My landlords are nice people, but they won’t allow me to keep a pet. That’s a shame because – oh! – how I long for a cat right now.

I live alone, which I treasure for its quiet and autonomy, but I always knew that lockdown would be a challenge for those of us living alone. The only other humans I see every day are those at a distance, masked, on my daily walk. For the other 23 hours I must content myself with pixelated images on a few Zoom calls for work or voices piping out of a phone. My bungalow does not have a socket for my TV aerial to plug into, so I can’t even access the outside world on the small screen. My remaining connection to the community is via Twitter, along with the odd work email. And while Twitter certainly giveth in the form of gifs, images, links to articles, and threads – ranging from the nerdy to the erudite – it taketh away in the form of snark and wild-eyed misinformation campaigns against the public health messages that are keeping most of us safe and driving the numbers of infections down. I don’t know which is more shocking – the recklessness, bordering on nihilism, with which some people want us to fling open our doors, tear off our masks, and cram ourselves back into malls and shopping centres, or the fact that this is being driven by an unholy union of the lunatic fringe, some parts of the mainstream media, and the major political party in opposition. So, right now, my connection into a world of digitised chatter and current updates comes at the cost of me feeling safe.

So, it’s just me, my lonely and alone mind, and my little plant. In the absence of cats and people, I think I just bought it to have another living thing with me in my home.

Pot of Geraniums Paul Cezanne
Pot of Geraniums by Paul Cezanne

But at least I support lockdown and feel I understand the rationale behind it. I wonder what drives the loonies, the intemperate trolls railing against lockdown rules. I mean, why throw a tantrum over wearing a mask? I suspect that what is confronting for people right now is the idea that while ‘risk’ is out there in the form of the virus, every single individual one of us is also a risk factor, a potential source of contagion – resulting in damage or death – for others. While the more sober thinkers in our society undertake to mitigate themselves as a walking-talking source of risk, weaker minds choose to be offended at the idea that they are the yuck factor and, subsequently, project and perform.

As the weight of my solitude presses in on my mind – sometimes enjoyed, sometimes dreaded, often just tolerated – I wonder how peculiar have I become in the last few months? Lockdown has constrained my physical ability to roam, and my solitary existence means that I have almost complete freedom to indulge my whims in the privacy of the home in which I must stay put.

How strange have I become? There’s no one around to tell me, except for my little plant, and it does not do feedback well.

The hug

The hug

leonardo_da_vinci_studies of hands
‘Studies of hands’ by Leonard Da Vinci

I just want to record this one thing I saw.

Maybe I need to do this because, on the day I reconstruct this description out of notes I took on the day I actually saw this thing, I am sitting at home complying with the severest lockdown rules yet imposed anywhere in Australia. I live alone and have been in locked-down solitude for weeks, and will be for more still. So maybe witnessing a hug constitutes a major event in a life lived, for the time being, without touch.

Perhaps it is a reflection on how weird and shifting our behaviours are due to lockdown, too, that I stared so unashamedly at someone else’s intimate moment. The lives of other humans are not readily available to me up close right now. Intimacy is a novelty.

But I feel that I also need to record this because I feel almost a duty – a human gesture that needs to be made – to record a sighting of a particular stranger. Because I suspect – I might be catastrophizing here, but maybe not (given the urgency of the moment I witnessed and clues in her appearance) – that she might not be seen – by anyone – for much longer.

So, this is what I saw.

A few weeks ago, I went to Austin Hospital to see my poor, desperately ill nephew. And, because of the Coronavirus, hospital regulations required me to queue up to have my temperature taken and to answer questions before I could go to his ward. Although fast moving, the queue was enormous which meant that I had a few minutes wait before it was my turn to get screened.

By the lift to the car park in the foyer of the hospital, I saw two women saying goodbye. One – evidently the visitor – was dressed in jeans and a top. The other was the patient and wore a faded pink dressing gown, with black velour pyjama pants encasing unnaturally skinny legs. She had short, patchy, oddly stiff hair sticking out in tufts from her head with some bald spots showing. She was pale. Deathly pale. She held what looked like an envelope – I’m guessing for a card – and a small decorative bunch of Blue Gum twigs in one hand.

She and her friend suddenly hugged in farewell, desperate and close. And the hug went on, and on. And on.

They were so still.

The hardness of the hug claimed the little sphere of space they stood in and shut the busy foyer out of a part of their world that was momentarily charged by their need to collapse onto the other. The patient was the one facing me, her chin locked on her friend’s shoulder, and her eyes were closed; she couldn’t see me staring at their intense knot of bodies while I and about 100 queuing people were socially distancing by marching from one marked cross to the next on the floor, carefully and gauchely like kids at some strange debutante ball.

Her eyes and mouth were squeezed shut, hard slits in her wan face. The muscles of that face, and in her pink dressing-gowned arms and shoulders, and in the back and torso they were embracing, were tense with visceral concentration.

And the hug went on.

I could sense them drinking in the warmth, the intimacy, greedily absorbing the physical knowledge of each other in one drawn out moment before the lady in the jeans left. Which she finally did after one parting look. The patient turned on her heel, having waved off her friend, and went threading her way back through the indifferent crowds in the foyer to her white-sheeted hospital bed.

I need to record this because, whoever that patient is, and whatever non-plague ailment she has, I need to record that – yes – she was here, with us for a while. Yes, whoever she was, she lived, loved, had friends. That hug was a marker in a sea of plague, a snatch of existence while she still had it.

I saw it, lady. I saw you. I know.

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

“No man is an island”, John Donne famously wrote.

When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin  insula, which meant ‘island’.

Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.

The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:

“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”

(From etymonline.com)

Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.

All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.

Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.

Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:

“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?

Involved in mankind.

Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.

3ef79fcb549aaa050368fc6d1481dc52

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.

(Donne’s original spelling and punctuation)

Kindness to a stranger

Kindness to a stranger

This week – 24-30 May – is Palliative Care Week. As a family member of someone who received palliative care, I have written this blog in tribute to palliative care professionals.

unnamed

They put her in her prettiest nightie, the palliative care nurses, even though I had told them that the body would not be viewed. They took off the nightie she had died in, washed her, and re-dressed her in the one with the little flowers around the neck, and brushed her grey wavy hair into neatness.

“We couldn’t do anything about the mouth,” they said, and we all fell silent for a moment while regarding it gaping open, displaying old teeth and gums for all the world to see. “That’s OK, “I said, because all the world wasn’t going to see it, just me and those two nurses, and a few other people. According to her wishes, Mum’s corpse was to be afforded privacy – no viewings at the funeral – only to be briefly touched by the unavoidable utility of being examined by her GP in order to pronounce death, and readying for cremation by the funeral directors. The fact that the nurses had washed her, dressed her in her best nightie, and brushed her hair would’ve meant a lot to a woman who had always been insecure about her looks and who, correspondingly, took refuge in little harmless physical vanities. Not that the nurses knew that; they never really got a chance to talk to her.

Mum died sometime in the evening of Friday 19th May 2019, having spent 3 days in the palliative care ward at Mercy Health in Albury. I had chosen to camp out by her bedside, for my own sake as much as hers, while other close family members visited or rang. We had briefly tried nursing her at home, but the awful symptoms of a person dying simultaneously of kidney failure and Leukaemia – both physically and psychologically distressing – had defeated us. We could not make her comfortable. Palliative care had always been Plan B, and Mum was able to confirm, in one of her last few episodes of lucidity during that final dreadful week, that she was ready to go into the ward.

I was fully confident of Mum receiving efficient and appropriate medical care, and further impressed by the combination of kindness and expertise shown by the visiting nurse from the community palliative care program, who coached us in nursing her at home. So I was reassured by our joint decision to move her into palliative care, expecting that she would be more comfortable there.

And she was. The drugs they gave her took the pain, nausea, restlessness, and hallucinations right away. Too weak to even talk on her last Friday morning ever, she soon slipped into a sleep that was complete in its stillness. She died, peacefully – and I was there to see her last quiet breath – on Sunday evening.

So, medical efficiency I expected. But what struck me, and what I am profoundly grateful for, was the gentleness and dignity with which the nurses treated her poor dying body and, therefore and by extension, our poor frazzled minds. Such was the insensibility of Mum in her last prolonged sleep, such was her utter inability to be roused, that anyone could’ve played noughts and crosses on her bare naked flesh and she would never have known or stirred. But the nurses explained gently to her unresponsive form what they were doing as they cleaned and medicated her, and touched her tenderly in their ministrations.

In her article The inconvenient truth about dying, Sarah Malik explains that not everyone gets to die peacefully; some poor people’s symptoms are such that a complete absence of suffering is just not achievable. We were very lucky that Mum’s symptoms were able to be mitigated by the massive cocktail of drugs administered in palliative care. We knew that she was not suffering in any way. But we were also able to witness a level of care that not only tackled physical anguish, but also manifested a compassionate regard of the person Mum had been while alive. The nurses didn’t know this person at all, but they accorded this rapidly dying piece of flesh the dignity and consideration that every human being wants while they are alive.

In the absence of having to nurse Mum ourselves, we were free to adjust to the idea that she was soon to be gone, to start to grieve, to talk to her silent form one last time, to just be there.

After Mum exhaled her last ever breath, I sat there in disbelief, waiting for the next one. I waited for minutes. Finally, I rang for the nurses. They explained what was going to happen next, then the three of us stood looking at the poor body. One of the nurses reached out and squeezed Mum’s dead knee underneath its white hospital blanket. “Aw, Jenny,” she murmured. We a conferred about practicalities a little more. And then she did it again. “Aw. Jenny.”

We left Mum’s remaining clean nighties at the palliative care ward, and dropped off a few more: the nurses had mentioned that some patients did not have families to launder and bring in fresh sleepwear for them. I don’t know if this was a helpful thing for us to do or not. I felt like making a gesture, but I knew not what. Not that any was ever expected.