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THE TRUE SADNESS OF GRIEF

7 minute read

THE TRUE SADNESS OF GRIEF

The true sadness of grief is mixed up with feelings that you are never sad enough. That you are doing it wrongly, or self-ishly, or theatrically. And it's far beneath any arrangements of words on a page. It feels as if someone is scraping a grapefruit spoon on the inside of your stomach.


I talk to a friend who is a psychologist. She says that we sometimes try to tell too neat a story about what loss can do. We sit in the bright white of her kitchen and she makes me coffee. She asks some questions and listens. Before I leave she goes up to her study and brings down a book. Sometimes, she says, the experience of losing a parent can be processed as much as a gain as a loss. Intuitively, that makes no sense. You think that when you have lost something, you would be sad, empty, bereft, hollowed out. Actually, it can be that, and something else, too. She opens a book to show me. There's a chapter about the way in which utter devastation - particularly that of losing a parent - can lead some people to feel almost elated. Like they ve survived a bomb. The near miss makes them feel as if nothing can touch them again. Of course, the writer says, losing a parent is not like having your house bombed or being set upon by a crazed mob.


It's worse. It's not over in one terrible moment, and the injuries do not heal as quickly as a bruise or a wound.


But, like a bomb, he writes, parental death can feel like a kind of near miss. It can, for some, give the sense that a bomb has dropped just beside you. The death of a parent can be a kind of gift to a certain sort of child. The fact of survival leaves you feeling tough, exhilarated. Hardened by experience. I know this.


I like the idea of winning back something from all of this losing. My resentful shell is built up with layers of Teflon conviction, and it's been like that for years. I've always told myself that I need not care too much because, like a gambler whose luck is on the turn, I've hit rock bottom. We losers - the bereaved children - can recognise our kind across a crowded room, sniff each other out at parties. We glance over the shoulder of the present, trying to catch the future's eye.


The worst thing has happened, and we are still standing.


My dead dad stands on top of the piano, leaning against a wall. A trick of time, he is the same age as I am now, wearing a pale blue shirt, with a clothes line in the background. Two years after that photo was taken, he began to sink. I think I realised something was unusually wrong when he took me to Brent Cross for clothes on my thirteenth birthday - my birthday treat. I walked around the revolving stainless steel hoops of clothes on hangers, flicked my way through the rows of sweatshirts. Then turned and saw my father out of the corner of my eye, carefully vomiting into the bin near Luggage & Children's Shoes.


By June he was lying in a bed in the back room, except for the two times I found him lying on the floor having a seizure. After that had started, we took him out of the front door in a wheelchair. I think we levered him into the back of the green Renault, but it could have been an ambulance. Either way, it felt OK. People who get into ambulances are on their way to getting better. I wasn't aware that sometimes people go to hospital when there is nowhere else to put them.


It wasn't a hospital, though.


The one bonus is that he got away from the stucco, I suppose. Set in a quiet corner of north London, the Edenhall Marie Curie Cancer Centre is in prime property space, its red-brick rectangle rising among leafy trees, between Victorian mansions. They moved him there from the Royal Free, down at the bottom of Pond Street, and in both cases I remember being quite pleased at the prospect of visiting my dad in Hampstead rather than Finchley, partly because it was posh, but mostly because there was a big Body Shop and a Laura Ashley on Hampstead High Street, which meant that I could stare at swimsuits and bottles of gloop, or iridescent globes of oil.


It seems almost impossible to square the knowledge of the pain that was to come with my thirteen-year-old preoccupations at the time. If I did not exactly will or wish for my father's death, waiting for it seemed like a sometimes interesting but mostly burdensome sideline to the rest of my life. Looking at my diary, the entries are all about what to wear to Rachel South's bat mitzvah disco, how neat my handwriting was, whether I should shave my legs, and if I would get a merit in flute.



They let me in alone to see my father's body. He was lying on a plinth bed in the hospice chapel of rest. He was pale, long, his red hair nearly gone, and that which was left had faded to the colour of sand. When I saw him, I wondered at the new burgundy pyjamas. Wherever he was, he wasn't there. Back at home, his sheds and lean-tos struggled in the wind. The rented hearse drove slowly up the road, and we lowered our heads in the crematorium. Relatives bent down to speak to me in the front hall, hunting for words. A friend's father started to talk to me about how it would be from now on. Then his voice broke and he couldn't go on. I think, refreshingly, that he was trying to say that everything wouldn't be alright.



They are very sorry for my loss. I am very sorry for him too. He arrived the day my father died, wrapped up in brown paper, and I have felt for him ever since. A grey, damp creature with pilled fur and webbed feet. He wasn't labelled, but I knew him straight away. He was my very own Loss. I did not choose him, as you might hope to choose a lifetime companion, but I have grown to know him and his ways. He is clammy and demanding. He smells. He has a habit of turning up at key moments. Graduation ceremonies. Dates. In bed.He really loves Christmas. Every year, he sits in the middle of the table, among the turkey and the roast potatoes. A centrepiece. Later, he moves to the Christmas tree, and sits there for days, as the pine needles fall around him. He has no special allegiance to time or place. He seeps into all festivals and celebrations, seamlessly. My Loss is outgoing.

Sometimes embarrassingly so. He forces himself onto people I have only just met, and cuts into conversations that do not concern him. He has a weakness for alcohol. I can almost guarantee that at the end of any drunken evening, my Loss will turn up, tearful, angry, determined not to be left at home. People are very kind about him. They are intrigued at first.


He reminds them of their own losses. And they pity him. But my older friends must have tired of him some time ago. I think they must wonder why I haven't brought him up better, why I haven't made more of an effort to control him, or to make him fend for himself. Their losses are usually left at home. I imagine they may think I bring him along on purpose. And occasionally I do. That's when he stinks the most.


How do children mourn when there are no models of grief? How does anyone mourn when there is no shape to hold the pain? It still wells up inside me from time to time with a fierceness that I fear. Nowadays people make memory boxes. They record tapes. There are websites. There are people trained to help children to try to make a story, a fixed place that provides, if not an ending, then a point of return. I remember more of a blank. A perplexity surrounded me, as adults and children alike wondered what to do with us. This family of four, missing a father. A mother, two teenagers, a baby.


At times I tried to create my own rituals. I had a tape of a piece of music he liked, which I played at full volume and walked around the garden at dusk, until I thought my heart might break. I was told to stop it. I created in my imagination a kind of hybrid deity - Dearfathergoddeardaddy - and I would lie on the grass under the apple tree, talking to it, making pacts and promises and trade-offs. There were no mourning clothes to wear, to show how I was feeling (if l even knew), so 1 chose, I think, things that I thought would get me noticed. I remember being asked to take my sister for a walk and putting on a hand-me-down two-piece red knitted tube skin and jumper set. I walked around the block with the pram, hoping to be looked at.


pp. 120-25. Excerpted from "The Lost Properties of Love - An Exhibition of Myself" by Sophie Ratcliffe. Published by William Collins . Copyright 2019. 

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