As in many towns and villages across Britain a silhouette of a solider has appeared in my village as part of the commemorations of the end of World War One. A hundred years ago across the blasted battlefields the guns finally fell silent. A generation scarred by loss, every family touched in some way by 4 years of pain and suffering.
The silhouette seems to speak to a deep truth about grief, for those left behind, that we are left with a hole in our lives, the hole which the loved one filled. Grief does not know about cycles, or tasks, that we are supposedly meant to go through and reach the magic point called closure. Instead grief just knows there is a hole, a space no longer filled which we feel, sometimes as an ache, sometimes as a smile of memory.
I feel it is a great pity that idea meant to help, such as Kubler Ross have been seized on, by everyone from work coaches to vicars, to try to say “this is how to do grief”. Perhaps it is inevitable that such rules were looked for as we moved away from the more formal codes of mourning of our path, but it is often deeply unhelpful. Kubler-Ross, who worked with those who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer was trying to describe how one might react to such a diagnosis, and thus offer guidance to medical professionals. It was never intended to be a how to guide for grief, despite how it is often used. There was never meant to be a stages to be gone through, rather a “people might feel this”. It is, of course, useful, to have your anger, or despair, or guilt, validated by being told “this is normal” but for many it does nothing to fill the void, the person shaped hole left in their life.
We can find many ways to fill that void, to try to dull the ache. Drink, drugs, work, sex, can all be used to ignore or override our feelings. Even recognizing the space exists can be difficult, and acknowledging that the pain is still felt, especially if you believe you should be over such feelings.
But the loss is still there, the empty space a loved one once filled still empty, like a black silhouette against the autumn trees.
Does this mean grief never changes, that there is no hope of the pain lessening? No, thankfully, because being human means to change. We may need to do work to acknowledge the loss, to move past shame, and beliefs about where we “should” be. Sometimes this can involve rituals, such as visiting cemeteries, or it may be journaling, or returning to a favourite spot. All of these though involve recognising the presence of the person who has died in our life, accepting rather than repressing the moment of pain which recognition may bring.
Recently I had cause to visit a local cemetery. I was struck by how we ensure names are remembered, on benches, as well as the conventional tombstones. Our narratives around death, especially around “getting over things” have been resisted by those closest to the loss. It is as if as a community we have said that we know what we are told about moving on, but we also know, in the depths of our subconscious, that we need to acknowledge that person shaped hole which has appeared in our lives. We are resitting keep calm and carry on, the stiff upper lip, the stages of grief as a how to manual, and instead working out our own ways of grieving.
I wonder how many at Remembrance Day parades and services today will be processing their own losses, finally finding a socially acceptable way of “not being over it”. We mourn for those who no longer take up spaces in our lives by still giving them space, and in doing so perhaps we are better able to embrace living.