Sunday, 4 December 2016

Grief is exhausting

Did I say it was getting easier? I lied.

Of course, I didn't mean to lie. Anyone who knows me well knows that I genuinely can't lie. I have to tell people the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of my relationship with them or the length of my acquaintance. It gets me into no end of bother. I blame my dad. Like an archetypal Yorkshireman, he called a spade a spade, and being on the receiving end of his truth was like being hit soundly around the head with one. I try to be a bit more gentle with other people's feelings but still, for some reason, unless I'm writing fiction, I am compelled to always tell the truth.

And the truth about grief, or about this kind of grief (for I believe there are different kinds) is that grief is unpredictable and temperamental. Just when I think I've got it under control, BAM! It hits me round the head again, like that spadeful of truth and leaves me reeling. Suddenly, I find myself struggling to breathe again, feeling dazed and confused like a cartoon character with stars around my head, in a grief bubble, detached and cast adrift from the rest of the world. And, as if this isn't bad enough, it's then that the panic starts, because I can't believe this this is still happening and that there is no escape from the truth that what happened, happened and that this is my life now. I feel that I can't possibly live the rest of my days with this gaping hole at the centre of my being. I want to run away from that hole but the hole is part of me and there is no escape. It feels that, at any moment, what's left of me might collapse inwards and fall through the crevasse or that I might be sucked into a vortex of oblivion. Seriously. I'm telling you the truth. It feels that bad.

But sometimes, it feels like I can dial my grief down so that it's just a background hum. It is always there, like a constant baseline to the music of my life, but the baseline has become familiar now, maybe it even adds depth. It is irritating living with this interference but it is manageable. Sometimes I can even hear a tuneful melody playing alongside it. New instruments are introduced and the different parts harmonise for a while into something beautiful, something that sounds almost like the soundtrack to happiness, almost like hope. And I think, this is nice, it's getting better, things will surely be ok. And it is usually at that moment that grief turns the baseline up so loud that I can barely hear anything else; grief, it seems, doesn't like to be ignored. And so grief asserts itself until the deep, throbbing baseline is so over-powering that the other instruments can't hear themselves playing anymore and everything is discordant and out of tune. Eventually, the melody is obliterated and the orchestra packs up and all that's left is the overwhelming noise of grief. Seriously. I'm telling you the truth. Day after day, week after week, month after month, (don't talk about the years, please don't talk about the years), it feels that bad.

'No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,' says C.S.Lewis on the opening page of 'A Grief Observed'. He is right. It does. Grief feels horribly like fear. I wake up every morning with a tightness in my chest and a kind of lurching feeling as if the bed has been moved in the night and I am emerging every day into a strange new world. Gradually, as the daily routines take place, those feelings of terror recede but they return periodically throughout the day, often with no notice, often with no root cause that I can trace. It is like my mind and body are on red alert, waiting for catastrophe to strike even though the worst has already happened, even though, in many ways, I feel I have nothing to fear anymore. 'I am not afraid,' C.S.Lewis says. Neither am I. But grief does feel like fear and feeling afraid all the time is exhausting.

Yes, more than anything else, grief is exhausting. It is a battle every day to reach for goodness, to climb up a shifting mound of sadness towards the light. It is so tiring to get to the end of the day knowing that tomorrow I will have to do it all again. And again. And again. I am so tired that I am shaking. I desperately want to relax but nothing is relaxing. I want to lose myself in a good film, but I can't concentrate. I want to read but I can't follow the plot. I want to write about something that isn't you, that isn't grief, but I can't make up stories at the moment. I am wedded to the truth. I wish I could get drunk but I can't stomach alcohol anymore. I wish I could go out and drink and dance and socialise but I can't do it.

I did go out on Saturday night though (I couldn't have done that a while ago). I went out with a friend to a street market and I floated around like I was an alien in a spaceship from another planet, observing people living their strange lives in a strange world, where all the men had hipster beards and ate food from trays in the freezing cold, in an industrial warehouse with music blaring as if this was the new fun. I felt dislocated, old, out of place. I drank a warm glass of punch, stared at flames in rusty bins, browsing Facebook and Twitter to feel the protective presence of fellow grievers. I read a quote by Emily Dickinson: 'I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.' Exactly. Most of the evening I hung out by one of the hipsters who was stoking the flatbread oven, watching his hands and his forearms, wondering if I found him attractive, longing for male company but not able to think about being with anyone else. 'He's like Paul,' my friend said. And I realised she was right and that I was just standing watching him move the iron in and out of the fire, like he was a blacksmith at a forge.

What I want, of course, is to relax by curling up in your arms in front of the fire and doing nothing. We hardly ever went out. We had no need. What I want is to feel the calm familiarity of your body, your presence, your understanding. But there is a hole where you were that another man can't fill. So I fill it with activity, with exercise, with my laptop, writing until the words blur on the screen, building a fragile bridge across the gap with truth. Writing brings me calm. But it is tiring.

Grief is horrible. Grief is boring. Grief is exhausting.