‘Yes, we were very close. We spoke often and easily. I love him. It was sudden – we think a heart attack.’
Suddenly something drops down a deep, long, vertical tunnel with no apparent sides. It takes its time until it hits the floor of the echo chamber and an ageless pain radiates outward in concentric circles. Other times an old man’s boot thrashes against the inside of my cavernous chest, bruising the ribs and sending a heat, with sound, that carries on traveling, as if forever, back to a place in the future where an old man sits and remembers he has been waiting a long time for it to arrive.
There is no satisfaction when it does, the door is already open, and he sits in his armchair, alone, lonely. That ache knows this place – a quiet museum of empty space where everything you look at activates in isolation, emitting a painful sound. Hollow. Dark. Crowded. Aching. This aching is professional, unpredictable, and relentless. Bringing with it a nausea that snakes its way through my chest and stomach. More caverns, more forest floors, more silence. Everything slows down, breathing becomes a task.
This, my unplanned companion, is trying to set up home but cannot find any comfortable seats. Nothing permanent. Yet nothing leaves, it just gets more and more relaxed about being there – the inside of my ribs become used to the bruising. The whole of my back curved and stiff. Every muscle knows its name and the fascia frozen. The just boot is relentless, thundering aginst my chest, trying to break my ribs with insistent repetition ‘let me out’ it cries ‘I don’t like the dark. I didn’t ask to be here.’
Sometimes I think he’s gone, the boot, and I peer quietly into the dark ahead of me, straining my eyes, daring to hope this might be over and, like someone tapping on a labyrinth of metal pipes, the dull thud starts up again. If I follow it will I find him again? Can I let him out? I’m not sure which of us is more lost. But I do understand a need to escape. Breathing is a sometimes guilty luxury.
There are conversations.
When I talk with it, it gets distracted from trying to escape. It becomes softer, and looks expectantly as if I have some answers. My unplanned companion knows every step I will take, before I do. He is actually trying to help. Waking up already tired, body aching, eyes blinking. Some silences are as big as oceans and as old as time, and some you can feel the moisture breathing in your face, so close it’s clammy and insistent… personal.
When I talk with him, my brother, he is the same as he was; funny, insistent, quirky, incredulous, complaining. He makes me laugh out loud in the forest, on the beach, in my kitchen, writing this.
I don’t want to go to his funeral.
This is a different kind of silence… a different kind of grief – it’s traveling closely with me and I feel it breathing closer to my skin. I feel vulnerable, isolated, yet not quite alone.
Sometimes I am a tiny, exposed, element inside a cavern, a wind tunnel of pain that touches my raw skin, lemon to a cut. My skin is being peeled off from the inside, thin as old wallpaper and excruciatingly adhered… at one with its surface. Peeling it off is meticulous and brittle. So thin you can barely get between it and the glue keeping it there, and yet it pulls off in sometimes long, microscopic, threads like a medical drain being removed by dragging it across your internal organs, millimeter by millimeter, deliberately, slowly.
It’s a silence of a certain kind of passivity and powerlessness… inevitability… ants working on the bark of a tall tree, meticulous, tidy, singular. I stand inside the cavern watching it, unable to intervene, exhausted, participating by watching as my insides expand whilst caving inward. There is bruising and there are echoes that pass down the deepest well I have ever encountered. This silence is isolating. It cares, but has a job to do so it is not as much affectionate, as focused.
There is an old relationship necrotizing my insides of old karma and deep love, asking me to relinquish my need for attachment, into a larger relationship, into a process that has been going on for millennia; adaptation and letting go. People weave themselves inside of us, into our biology, cell by cell. When they go, so does the old skin. And it hurts. Cavernous silence, excruciatingly audible, careful fingers removing everything. This silence is the witness of everything you love, and loved, peeling away and all you can do is watch, and listen, and feel the rips occurring.
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Changing moments – messages to some of my friends.
‘I know you know what this feels like – in a river that turns and turns. Feelings changing – occasional highs of a fun memory that reach like an arm that has managed to cling onto a passing branch before having to let go again. And then just emptiness or despair.’
‘My friendships are my glue right now. And talking with family. I am feeling the love and grief you are each carrying with & for me. Sharing the burden. Each of you are present with me. Thank you for that. For this deep empathy. It helps.’
‘I am climbing out of my skin when I’m in my body enough to want to. He was my best friend. I could talk to him about anything.’
‘Right now I’m feeling quite clear – it all seems to last moments. So I feel like an otter right now, poking her head up from the water to see and enjoy her friends… two minutes ago would have been a different answer, and two minutes hence, probably… riding the waves.’
My Unplanned Companion – context, and some to do’s
Grief, when it comes into us, into our lives, changes everything. My brother for 55 years (my own, not his – he was older) just died. And I am experiencing so much grief that I had to write it out. It has helped. As an expressive person, I create as a way to process my reality and what I am learning to understand. It is instinctual for me. Whatever helps you, as long as it does not harm you, I hope you allow yourself to be with that gentle facilitator.
It can whirl us around, like a puppy with a toy (or an animal with a carcass), sometimes throwing us in the air where we fly like a rag doll landing awkwardly, and sometimes burying us in the ground. Sometimes we feel we are in control and sometimes out of control, sometimes we are a fish fighting a huge current, or we are walking underwater and everything has slowed down, including time, thinking, sound, and the ability to react. Sometimes it feels like our insides are being vacuumed out in real time… and sometimes we wonder when and where the tunnel will end or the cave will provide a shaft of light. Sometimes we are wordless and other times we might need to chat about inane things, or about the real experience we are having.
I have noticed both how tiring and how visceral the pain is – I started off with a frightening headache and deep nausea, and I wanted to speak to that here, to honor how complex and whole grief can be. I wanted to post some of the harder moments, as well as the humour that comes to visit so unexpectedly and sometimes fleetingly. It’s all ‘sometimes’ and it is unpredictable. It actually has become a journey of trust for me as I cannot fight it, so I have to live with it, the unplanned companion.
Grief can be really hard, tiring and taxing, and we each will have our own experience of it when it comes. But there are some things that help. So… what helps?
To the friends and family of the griever: your attention, offering to shop for them, sending messages, and checking in… consistently. I can say that what I’m going through has been helped by my various communities’ ability to empathise and hold me without judgment or rush, also my friends’ and family’s companionship; in thought, feeling, deed, resonance, simple witnessing, and awareness.
To the griever; reach out and ask for help, be basic ‘I’m having trouble right now… I needed to hear your voice… can you read me a story… play cards, do a jigsaw puzzle together online? Can I just talk to you? I need your company. I feel sick. Tell me this will end…’ And sleep when you can. You are processing a lot, and that process needs gentle care and fortifying.
If you know someone who is going through it, stay in touch, even if they don’t respond – maybe especially if they don’t. Perhaps remind them that they don’t have to respond but stay in touch with them anyway – daily. I especially have found surprising comfort in the messages that say ‘no reply needed, just wanted you to know I’m feeling you and thinking of you’. Friends, just your attention makes a huge difference! And occasionally a giggle will emerge like sunshine and rain to a very tired flower. Those giggles are the light in the cavern and the promise of an end to the tunnel. They are sweet and gentle reminders that we do not travel alone and, for that, I am so grateful.
Much love, brother mine, and safe passage on your dear journey. I love you.