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Feature RevUU Spring 2021

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade,        turning up things you had forgotten.

–Helen Macdonald

By Jane Singer

Photo by Mel Micai

They said two years, and so it was planned. My father’s death and my own grief started two and a half years before his heart stopped beating. He died by euthanasia, choosing death after being slowly broken down by the cancer and its treatment. I knew the date and the time he would die days before it happened.

I read H is for Hawk about two months after my father passed away. The book was comforting, not because of the occasional mentions of the familiar headaches and tiredness that come with mourning, but due to the recognition of the excruciating struggle that comes with the death of someone you love; one that everyone faces, sooner or later.

Macdonald provides an extraordinary account of how everyone mourns in a different way. It is a very personal story of her dealing with the death of her father. Soon after he passes away, she can’t escape the feeling that she should buy a goshawk, and so she does. Her interest in falconry then turns into an obsession with the training of the hawk.

The book and especially the title taught me that the process of recovery after you lose someone significant is like learning how to talk again.

The book and especially the title taught me that the process of recovery after you lose someone significant is like learning how to talk again.

Grief is complex, but Macdonald accurately describes instances of grief in an accessible manner. She spells out grief for people who can’t find the words, in a way that has not been done before. She provides a language for grief; a language that I used to put my own grief into words.

Below is a fragmented account of my experience with mourning, guided by Macdonald’s words.

L is for laughter. Laughter because of memories, or because of the hideous flowers your aunt sends. In the period after someone significant dies, it feels like ridiculousness is everywhere, which results in many smiles and laughter. During my father’s funeral procession I sat behind the steering wheel of his cream-white Singer roadster from the 50’s. My father was crazy about cars, especially old ones. To find an old-timer from a brand with the exact same name as our family name was the last push for him to finally let himself buy one.

In the period after someone significant dies, it feels like ridiculousness is everywhere, which results in many smiles and laughter.

That day I was following the hearse with my mother next to me in the passenger seat. Behind the hideous, colossal vehicle and our adorable little roadster were about ten other Singer old-timers. Thank God my father wasn’t able to observe that his last ride was in such an appalling car, for he would have never gotten in.

The thing with funeral processions is that they don’t go very fast, but a car from the 50’s needs to warm up its engine before it runs smoothly. So after a few minutes of pulling up and slowing down again, the engine failed. The cars following us, all driven by middle-aged male mechanics, had to stop. Before them they saw two women looking like they were at a loss, facing each other as their roadster slowly rolled on for a few more meters and finally stalled. The gap between us and the hearse was growing bigger and bigger. Just like Macdonald, unable to cope with some situations, my mother and I laughed, for there was nothing else we could do, and there was “no way of incorporating these signs of life into the fact of death.”

P is for parents. In H is for Hawk, Macdonald mistakenly mentions going to her “parents” house for a weekend: “My parentshouse. I suppose it was my mother’s house now.” Parents become mother. They become she. Their becomes her. No more his. No more he. No more him.

H is for hands. “Hands are for other humans to hold.” Macdonald realises that to flee to the wild to heal her broken heart was a big mistake, that she needs others to help her through her mourning. Being a bit of a loner myself, this reminds me of the effort it took me, and still takes (some of my friends still don’t know), to tell people my father passed away. I long to shut down, to not tell anyone. The pity and sympathy of others only make it harder, perhaps because it makes it more real. I still fight against this urge to bury the grief deep inside me. 

R is for recruiting, for I recruited the hands that held me and hold me still.

R is for recruiting, for I recruited the hands that held me and hold me still, like Macdonald recruited a man she briefly dated to “serve” her loss. I knew mourning was approaching, so I could decide whom I wanted to help me through it. Slowly the relationship with one of my friends made no more sense. She was a bit like a social butterfly, always fun to be with, but also super busy. When you would finally plan to do something with her, which was quite a task, chances were she’d cancel. One time I confronted her with this, resulting in her feeling pressured and offended, needing an apology from me in order to patch things up again. But when you enter a period in which you need friends, instead of just want friends, these shallow friendships are not worth your limited energy anymore. And so she left me, like the man Macdonald looked to for support left her, unwilling to aid my approaching loss.  

One of the first times I cried after he died was while peeling onions, although it felt more like the onion was peeling me.

M is for messy. In her book, Macdonald casually sits on her sofa watching television when suddenly she notices tears running from her eyes and dropping into her tea mug. This reminds me of how messy grief can be. I am what you can call an opportunistic crier. After my father died I didn’t cry very often. One of the first times I cried after he died was while peeling onions, although it felt more like the onion was peeling me. The more I peeled, the more I felt like I was peeling away my own thick skin. When it came to chopping them, my eyes were already wet. My sight became blurry, but I just cut through. The tears came and I went with them. I liberated my sorrow.

This week, the tears also came. I went to get a Hepatitis B shot. The nurse sat me down in a white, sterile room, the only colour coming from a poster on the wall with an animated world map on it, clearly placed there to distract children. I sat down on the bench, holding it with two sweaty hands. I’ve always been afraid of needles; even thinking about it now turns my stomach. However, it was not panic I was trying to control, it was misery. I told her needles always stress me out. She told me to look at the poster. I tried to sit still as the tension was building up inside of me, and as I was looking at that stupid poster I could only think about my father. When the needle pierced through my skin it hit a nerve. I still sat like a statue after the needle had left my body.

“Breathe,” the nurse ordered.

I drew a deep breath. I sobbed. While trying to catch my breath, she looked at me with sorry eyes and asked if I liked chocolate. Surprised at the offer, and already feeling like a child, I nodded yes and optimistically expected her to open a drawer full of little chocolates in colourful shiny wrappers. Maybe she has dark chocolate. Oh, how I love dark chocolate. I was already beginning to feel a little bit better. In a second she would present me a chocolate in a golden wrapper shining like the sun, and everything would be okay again.

“There’s a coffee machine outside that offers hot chocolate. You can sit in the hall and take a minute to collect yourself,” she said as she opened the door for me to leave.

D is for dont forget, because that is what you want to do. When Macdonald leans towards forgetting “darkness”, “death” and “all things that had been before”, she reminds herself that she “must fight, always, against forgetting”. I too desperately wanted to forget my father’s death, but I cannot forget it without forgetting him. So I won’t forget his laugh, his love, his positivity, and our rides together in the roadster. When we took it to south England, rolled off the boat in Dover, its headlights like two big wide eyes, having no idea of where to go. Mum was more of a planner than we were. We drove on over the cliffs, let the coast guide us. The road before us was as grey as the sky. The wind, the tires on the road, and the occasional passing car were our only music. The wooden dashboard only held a glove compartment with some liquorice, and, behind the steering wheel, a spastic speedometer that looked more like the pendulum of a clock. I knew you could fix it. Hell, you could fix anything, built an entire new engine for this car from scratch. It just didn’t matter. Speed didn’t matter. Don’t forget that speed doesn’t matter.

G is for gap. In one passage Macdonald perfectly describes the shape of grief:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

It’s easier to walk past them, jump over these holes, but, for the sake of remembering, we should look into them.

In order to not forget my father, I have to visit these holes, even though their depth can be intimidating. When I visit my mother’s house the holes are more prominent. The sight of the empty couch, the empty bed, the roadster, all cause a stinging pain in my heart. It’s easier to walk past them, jump over these holes, but, for the sake of remembering, we should look into them.

L is for love. At the end of the book Macdonald realises that “all the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.” This reads like light at the end of the tunnel. I am not there yet, and right now I don’t know if I will be, or if I want to be, for the grief also reminds me of my father. It feels like it intensifies my love for him, and I don’t know if I am willing to give this up (yet). For now I am somewhere between grief and love.


Jane Singer is the Managing Editor of RevUU. She works as a student assistant for the department of Literary Studies at Utrecht University, as well as a freelance journalist for the university’s independent news platform DUB. She completed an MA in contemporary literature at UU and is currently doing an MA in South Asian Studies at Leiden University, specialising in contemporary South Asian literature.

Photo by Jane Singer


Reference:
Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

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