Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still --- at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) --- it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.
We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old --- in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty --- I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection. I could imagine myself taking care of her; I could even --- though I didn't --- have imagined myself, like Nadar, easing the hair from her aphasiac temples, learning the part of the tender nurse (and the fact that she might have hated such dependency is irrelevant). Instead, from a summer to an autumn, there was anxiety, alarm, fear, terror. It was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it; and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted. Most evenings, as I left the hospital, I would find myself staring resentfully at people on buses merely going home at the end of their day. How could they sit there so idly and unknowingl), their indifferent profiles on display, when the world was about to be changed?
We are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern. And as E. M. Forster put it, "One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another." So grief in turn becomes unimaginable: not just its length and depth, but its tone and texture, its deceptions and false dawns, its recidivism. Also, its initial shock: you have suddenly come down in the freezing German Ocean, equipped only with an absurd cork overjacket that is supposed to keep you alive. And you can never prepare for this new reality in which you have been dunked. I know someone who thought, or hoped, she could. Her husband was a long time dying of cancer; being practical, she asked in advance for a reading list, and assembled the classic texts of bereavement. They made no difference when the moment came. "The moment:" that feeling of months which on examination prove only to have been days.
For many years I would occasionally think of an account I read by a woman novelist about the death of her older husband. Amid her grief, she admitted, there was a small inner voice of truth murmuring to her, "I'm free." I remembered this when my own time came, fearing that prompter's whisper which would sound like a betrayal. But no such voice was heard, no such words. One grief throws no light upon another.
Grief, like death, is banal and unique. So, a banal comparison. When you change your make of car, you suddenly notice how many other cars of the same sort there are on the road. They register in a way they never did before. When you are widowed, you suddenly notice all the widows and widowers coming towards you. Before, they had been more or less invisible, and they continue to remain so to other drivers, to the unwidowed.
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We grieve in character. That too seems obvious, but this is a time when nothing seems or feels obvious. A friend died, leaving a wife and two children. How did they respond? The wife set about redecorating the house; the son went into his father's study and did not emerge until he had read every message, every document, every hint of evidence left behind; the daughter made paper lanterns to float on the lake where her father's ashes were to be cast.
Another friend died, suddenly, catastrophically, by the baggage carousel of a foreign airport. His wife had gone to fetch a trolley; when she returned, there was a scrum of people surrounding something. Perhaps a suitcase had burst open. But no, her husband had burst open, and was already dead. A year or two later, when my wife died, she wrote to me: "The thing is --- nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter." I found this consoling, and kept her letter on my desk for a long time; though I doubted I would ever come to relish the pain. But then I was only at the start of things.
I did already know that only the old words would do: death, grief, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak. Nothing modernly evasive or medicalising. Grief is a human, not a medical, condition, and while there are pills to help us forget it --- and everything else --- there are no pills to cure it. The griefstruck are not depressed, just properly, appropriately, mathematically ("it hurts exactly as much as it is worth") sad. One euphemistic verb I especially loathed was "pass." "l'm sorry to hear your wife has passed" (as in "passed water"? "passed blood"?). You do not have to force the word "die" on others, even if you always use it yourself. There is a midpoint. At a social event she and I would normally have attended together, an acquaintance came up and said to me, simply, "There's someone missing." That felt correct, in both senses.
Griefs do not explain one another, but they may overlap. And so there is a complicity among the griefstruck. Only you know what you know --- even if it is just that you know different things. You have stepped through a mirror, as in some Cocteau film, and find yourself in a world reordered in logic and pattern.---From Levels of Life
©2013 Alfred A. Knopf