In life if we are lucky we are sometimes fortunate in meeting people whose words and insights resonate with our own. For me one such individual was the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue who I had the good fortune to hear and meet on a number of occasions. His words both in prose and poetry speak to me with an insightfulness on the subjects which matter most in my life and with a wisdom which few have equalled since. In particular O’Donohue in his writings on grief and dying seems to reach deep into the truth of the universe. In ‘For Grief’ he writes:
“When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you becomes fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.”
Tomorrow is National Grief Awareness Day. It is also the day when I will remember the 10th anniversary of the death of someone very special in my life and to those I love. It is a day when I will reflect on my own memory and silence. A day when rushing into my heart will be all those words unsaid to all those absent from my living but not my loving. So, I hope you will forgive me if I reflect today on grief in these strange times because it has been much on my mind this week and it is something which is troubling me more and more. This is the case because virtually every day this past week I have received two or three heart-rending emails from family members of people who are living in care homes under continued restriction. We grieve not only for those who have died but sometimes for those who are living.
Over the years as I have grown to know more about dementia both professionally and personally I have understood the aching truth that even before the death of a loved one we start the walk of grief, that we acclimatise ourselves to the increasing fragments of connection as the disease turns our beloved into a shadow of themselves. It is not that we ‘lose’ the person and give up on them. They are still there, locked inside the shell of flesh which imprisons their smile and happiness. We still want to be present to re-connect, to mirror memory and to soothe distress. We never give up on the yearning and hope for that spark of the old and familiar. People have described these feelings as a waking death – witnessing our loved one slowly slip away from the grasp of your togetherness. And in such times we prepare for the parting; for the time without, for the emptiness and the ‘silence of absence’.
The peculiar sadness of these days is that because of the ravages of Covid there are countless hundreds who are not able to be close with those they love, who are shut out on the other side of doors and windows, waving at their loved ones, shouting across two metres unable to be heard and to be understood. This is heart-breaking to endure and hard to witness and watch. The sheer agony and pain I have read and heard in the weeks that have passed has changed all of us and yet I despair at the casual behaviour of others routinely returning to ‘business as usual’ without recognising the silent pain happening in our midst.
It is not that people, from clinicians to carers, from politicians to policy makers, are not sensitive to the hurt. We are all trying to feel our away through this unknown to get the balance right between protecting people and keeping them safe and restoring the relationships which are intrinsic to who we are as human beings. Personally I am convinced we must find better ways in which we can increase that togetherness, where families are not allocated slots of time to enable their love to be shown; where through the use of testing and PPE we allow people to be held, to hug and to feel love through their touch one with the other. Our detached observance of our mutual love cannot remain as the new model of our being with one another. For so many the aloneness of grief is being felt now as lives slip slowly through their fingers, as loved ones change in sight of but beyond family comfort. This is a grief made real.
But as I think about our National Day of Grief tomorrow I am also mindful not just of the pain in our care homes but the real sense of emptiness being felt by many thousands across Scotland at the present time. Yet so few are talking about this hurt – it is almost as if it is too painful for our society to talk openly about what and who we have lost.
Yet again in the past week I have heard and spoken to those doing amazing work to support others through their bereavement – this time the remarkable Macmillan supported bereavement project and work at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Bereavement support and services have always been delivered in a patchwork manner across Scotland with some astonishing work being undertaken by a range of organisations. As a society we have through Covid experienced real change and trauma and I think that urgently we need to prioritise the funding and mainstreaming of bereavement support so that it is embedded as a strategic priority for and part of who we are as a community. Sadly, not everyone can do the work of grief on their own, some of us need support to put together again the broken pieces of our heart. We need to get better as communities in ensuring that such support is there for individuals. Becoming more confident about talking about death and dying might just be one of the legacies of the pandemic age we are living in, but such articulacy must also be accompanied by a societal willingness from political leadership down to local communities to resource and prioritise the provision of bereavement care and support.
O’Donohue speaks of the way in which with time, care and compassion, after being held by others we come to live with our grief:
“Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.”
I hope on National Grief Awareness Day more and more of us will be able to wean our eyes ‘from the gap in the air’, but we also need collectively to remember, support and be present for those whose pain is raw and real and whose tears are still wet. We need to own the anger and hurt before we can change and move on. Grief is something we work at and do – it is as hard a labour as we will ever encounter but ignoring the pain will just serve to deepen the emptiness. Part of that work in the coming weeks as we move into winter planning is I am convinced the need to work collectively to reconnect people in care homes and communities, to rebuild the bonds between young and old, son and daughter, lover and beloved.
I leave you with words which remind me of all those whose lives will never be the same again:
Nobody ever told me.
Nobody ever told me
it would be this hard;
that I’d wake up in the morning
and think that you were there
lying beside me in our bed;
that I’d walk down the street
and recognise your shadow
following me in the sun;
that I’d listen to the radio
and hear your voice
inviting me to sing;
that I’d sit in the park
and watch you go by
in a group of strangers.
Nobody ever told me
it would be this hard;
that I’d wonder why I should
get up in the morning;
that I’d think making plans
was a children’s playground game;
that I’d rage with anger, red and raw,
at your leaving;
that I’d wonder was it me
who did something
that made you go away.
Nobody ever told me
it would be this hard.
Why can’t someone tell me instead
how I can stop crying
and dam the tears from soaking my pillow?
How I can start again when all I want to do
is rest in our lost togetherness?
How I can ‘move on’ when I only want to settle
in the place of our memories?
And please someone tell me
when will this time come,
the time they all talk of
in easy careless cliche,
the time which they say
will heal all things
and help me to live again?