Archive | August, 2011

On Grief and Caring.

6 Aug

When someone close to me found out that people were gossiping about a serious misfortune, it led to the following memorable phrase being uttered through the resultant sobs:” They care, but they don’t really care!” These people were well-meaning and DID care to a certain extant. However, they weren’t close in so the unhappy development had been relegated to an interesting topic of conversation, squashed inbetween the weather and what was on TV last night. This is perhaps a bit oversensitive and unfair, but that phrase does have a lot of truth in it I feel and keeps reverberating round my head.
When a sad or tragic event occurs, the only people who care deeply are those intimately involved. The other gradations of caring, slowly but inevitably lessen according to how close to the situation a person happens to be. A sad event is like a stone plunging into a pool. One minute the water is smooth and calm, but the next minute, the sudden, shocking arrival of the stone causes a hole to violate that serene surface. Then ripples fan out from the centre in wider and weaker circles. So it is with life. One moment everythingg is smooth, placid and happy, but the unexpected arrival of a tragic event shatters this contentment and creates a deep and painful void. Others however are merely rippled or ruffled by fleeting feelings of sadness and sympathy. The event or the person is discussed, cards, letters or emails are despatched ( all no doubt well-meaning), but then it’s only human nature for these people to want to get on with their lives.
I know we cannot care or grieve for everyone. That would leave us all exhausted, emotional wrecks! In this age of instant, world-wide communication and 24 hour, rolling news , we get to hear about all the: droughts, floods, crashes, wars, atrocities and murders. What can we do apart from talk aboutan awful event, find out about it on the news and perhaps donate to a charity which is trying to help? We care in a superficial, generalised way, but then the protective barriers slide down in our minds and we get on with our day-to-day lives rather than allowing ourselves to become paralysed with grief. I have done this filtering- out process myself. While recently looking up the details of a friend’s tragic accident on a certain stratch of road, I completely ignored other fatalities on the same stretch of road in the very same week, that were revealed in the Google search. This selectivity is understandable as it would be impoosible to properly grieve and mourn all the people who have died in our own town let alone the whole world! It would be overwhelming.
However, then come the exceptions to this rule. We do seem to care more if a lot of people perish at the same time in the same place such as on so called 9/ 11 in New York or in the terrible Asian tsunamis. These events are so shocking that they dominate our headlines and saturate out television screens until the next big event displaces them.
The other exception is when a “Royal” or a “Celeb” dies. For some reason, probably because of our all pervasive and persuasive media, these deaths are deemed more important than those of “ordinary” folk. I felt sorry for the friends and family of the singer Amy Winehouse after it was discovered that she had died alone aged only 27. But was this more tragic than the sudden death of my dear friend, C, on the same weekend? There will be no outpouring of public grief for C, no headlines and public tributes, no turning of his home or grave into a “shrine.” Again, maybe I’m being a bit unfair and irrational, but it seems that there is inequality in death as well as in life.
The vicarious grieving for deceased Royals or celebrities,or for the victims of dramatic, newsworthy events, is at first difficult to fathom. I was flabbergasted to learn that a colleague at my school had spent her entire weekend travelling down to London from the North-East, to deposit flowers at Princess Diana’s “shrine” after that tragic Parisian car crash. Maybe my colleague was genuinely shocked and saddened, as were thousands of others up and down the country, but maybe also, she wanted to be part of a “national” and so-called “historical” event.
Vicarious grieving probably performs an important function in our society. It acts as a safety valve. As we cannot grieve for everybody without breakiing down, we instead grieve for certain “chosen ones” who are the representatives of everybody. It’s practical and understandable, but it can get pretty ridiculous in my view. I have heard of people who grieved for The Archers’ character Nigel, who fatally fell off a roof, and who then tuned into his “funeral” in hushed silence.

I am grieving at the moment. A very close friend has died. He has been abruptly snatched away from me and the others who loved, like and respected him. I know my grief is real and not vicarious.
My loss has revealed that I don’t really have have any religious belief. My lost friend probably agreed with me as he was given a Humanist funeral ceremony. I don’t think he is in heaven, where I can join him later. To me, he has just disappeared into a black hole.
I am going through all the usual emotions of: shock, disbelief, denial, anger and most of all, a deep lingering sadness. Once again, the range of people’s reactions to the news has been very revealing. When I told a mutual friend about the loss of a very special person, he was in tears. That upset me as it replicated how I felt inside. The pop lyric: “Raining in My Heart” now has a potent new significance. On the other hand, when my wife told one of her friends about our loss, the friend automatically expressed sympathy but then quickly changed the subject. She cared , but she didn’t really care!
When i was just 17, my dear Grandma Alice died. I was very close to her. We had a special bond. Even though I was supposed to be a rebellious teenager, I still visited Grandme most weekends, usually staying over on both Friday and Saturday nights. One weekend I couldn’t stay through to the Sunday and during the night, Grandma passed away in her sleep. Back then, I had a completey different reaction and coping mechanism. I was shielded from seeing her body and then I refused to go to the funeral. I explained that in my view, it would be full of mourners who did not know real Alice, as I did. I refused to subject myself to such “hypocracy.” This I suppose was an extreme reaction. I was shocked and distressed by the sudden loss of my Grandma, but dealt with it by burying the grief deep inside me. I then vented irrational fury at the poor people who were turning up to respect and remember her! In other words, I never got past the “head-in-the-sand” denial stage, my surface thoughts and feelings being taken over by a warped and unfair anger.
Only 20 years later, while talking to a friend who had been through a similar experience, did I finally release the feelings that were trapped inside me. My heart opened and an endless torrent of love poured out, connecting me once again to my long-lost grandma. Amidst the tears I felt she was back with me again and it made the “loss” easier to bear. I still feel connected today and often think of her.
That was over 40 years ago. In the interim period I have been lucky in that I have not suffered much loss of loved ones in my life. I was shaken up a few years ago by the premature death of a friend on a Lakeside fell. I went to his funeral and joined the choir that we had both been members of, in singing 2 of his favourite songs. I did some writing about him and thought about him a lot. I’m pleased that this time, I didn’t go into denial and pretend, like a child might pretend, that he had just moved away.
Now comes the loss of an even closer friend, C. We did lots of things together, supported each other through thick and thin, and even lived at each other’s homes in periods of traumatic marital and relationship breakdown. It’s hard to accept that C has suddenly died. But I know he will no longer ring, write or turn up at the door. He has disappeared into the void. That’s how I see it — it’s just a vast nothingness that has suddenly swallowed up my dear friend.
Buddhists must laugh at us for getting so upset about a death. Why get worked up by the one thing in life that is inevitable? Some cultures view death as a happy event as it has released the deceased from the trials and tribulations of life. I think of the joyous, jazzy funeral processions in New Orleans. A friend has suggested that death is like a door that opens to let one through but which then slams shut on all the problems and worries that have been plagueing one through life. In other words : death can be seen as both a release and a relief. This is a comforting notion. Hindus and Sikhs believe in re-incarnation and that if a person is really good, he or she will eventually merge with the “Divine Being” or whatever they call god. I’m not sure sure about Muslims, but I think that like Christians, they believe in Heaven and Hell. The native Americans believed in the after-life of the “Happy hunting grounds” so were not frightened about the prospect of getting killed in battle against the invading whites. Just about everyone seems to agree that death is NOT the end.It is really a new beginning they say. So why are many people in the “West” so distraught when a loved one dies? Could it be that like me, they don’t REALLY believe? It is difficult contemplating oblivion, so we invent all these screens — religion, spiritualism, ghosts etc — to distract ( or delude) ourselves and hide its finality away from our minds.( or we just keep being “busy.”)
So, I am grieving and doesn’t everyone know about it? I have been accused of self- indulgence to which I plead “guilty.” But what I’m trying to do is to buck the trend. I don’t want to avoid thinking, talking or writing about death because it is a “depressing” subject.( as I did back when I was 17.) Neither do I wish to put my head in the sand about my own mortality, as I have done for most of my life.
In a way, I believe that my lost friends and relatives have not really gone because they live on in my memories of them. That’s why I think a funeral should be about the celebration of a life rather than wallowing in misery about a death. One’s loved ones are vitally important in death as well as life. For it is through them and their memories that one lives on — even after death! To them you are much more than a fading photograph or a name and some dates on a family tree.
That is why LOVE, in my opinion, is the most important thing in the World. It sustains us in life and it sustains us in death. Earlier I was very unfair about those whom I said “didn’t care”. When a person dies, it is the people who love him/her who really care. The rest are just getting on with their hectic lives. But one day, they will genuinely care and grieve too. It comes to us all!