“Grief”, as Her Majesty the Queen said only a few years ago, “is the price we pay for love.”
They weren’t her own words – they come from a book by a British psychologist, Dr. Colin Murray Parks – but she made them famous, and I’m grateful, because it’s a powerful phrase.
There are dozens of metaphors for grief and hundreds of similes. Grief is the flip side of the coin, the onion that makes us cry as we peel back its layers, the mountain we can’t climb; it’s the waterless desert, the wolf that stands on our chest and the avalanche that buries us. There are innumerable books on the subject – Marie Curie recommends these six – and more than seven thousand in the ‘Death & Bereavement’ section of Waterstones alone.
Despite all that’s been written and said by people better qualified than me, I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.
There is no hierarchy of grief, but some funerals are definitely sadder than others, which is why I resist the easy use of phrases like ‘a celebration of life’. When a death comes out of the blue, in the middle of life rather than at its natural end, our shock is too great and our grief too raw.
Jeanette Winterson summed it up well in “Written on The Body”
“You’ll get over it…” It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it because ‘it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?”
Grief is not something we give much thought to until we find ourselves catapulted into it.
We don’t like talking about grief because it’s painful, and because we will do anything to avoid pain, our instinctual response is to run away, but here’s the thing: if we run away from grief, we never escape it.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. And grief doesn’t fade away or get smaller over time, it is always a part of us. We don’t ‘move on’ from grief, or ‘get over it’, but we can learn to allow it to be a part of our life and the paradox is that it’s only when we embrace grief that we can survive it.
They all serve their purpose, but what I’ve learned as a celebrant is that talking is what helps most.
Acknowledging the truth of the life of the person we loved and remembering it, openly and honestly, gives comfort: not just on the day of the funeral, but forever more.
And although grief is always with us, there is another way of looking at it that helps, and it’s summed up in the last lines of a poem called ‘Farewell My Friends’ by the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore.
Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship.
When you die, all the love you created is still here. All the memories are still here. You live on – in the hearts of everyone whose life you touched and nurtured while you were alive. As another poet, Philip Larkin, wrote in his poem, an Arundel Tomb, ‘what will survive of us is love’.
There’s another strange paradox about grief and I was reminded about it by the conversation I’ve just had with the family of a mum who left her life long before her time.
The dying are always more concerned about everyone else than they are about themselves. They know that it is us who are going to be sad when they’ve gone, not them, and they do everything in their power to make sure we’re going to be OK without them.
One of the best ways to do that is expressed in this last poem, “Epitaph”, by Merrit Malloy. As far as I can tell, Merrit is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in California, and this poem may have been written for an episode of the drama NCIS about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service; whether or not that’s the case, when it was published, it immediately resonated with millions of people around the world because its message is an inspiring one; the best way to honour the life of the person you love is to give your love to those who need it.
“When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give to them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands
Bodies touch bodies
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away”
In case you were wondering about the image; it’s a painting by Jonathan Freemantle called ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. He made it as a tribute to our late friend, Simon Scott, and you can see more of his work here.