Many years ago, distraught and devastated after a miscarriage, I turned to literature for solace and comfort. So when my dear mother died just six weeks ago, I went searching for memoirs written in an attempt to decipher the overwhelming effects of death on those left behind. Consequently when I stumbled across the memoir, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, the story of a woman who struggled with unbearable grief after her father died, it sounded just about right, albeit a little too close to the bone, my flesh still flayed raw by funeral corteges, my soul seared by heartrending hymns singing my mother’s soul back home. Was it too soon to try to understand, to unveil one of life’s greatest mysteries?
“Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s taken from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.”
Wham! A gut-wrenching, heart-piercing, bolt of fire hurled from the gods above, hit their mark with absolute precision. I was winded. My spirit felt as if it had been severed from my body, arms and legs and, oh so heavy head, drowning, submerged, pushed, held under water, limbs like rocks dragging me down to the depths. Such heart pain leaves its mark; scar-faced channels of grief cut, sliced, engraved into deep, barren ravines.
“Gone where? It’s midnight!”
“No, you don’t understand. [How could I? It didn’t make sense.] She’s had a heart attack. The medics have stopped trying to revive her.”
Since that horrendous night, it feels like I’m stuck in that moment, the phone call playing out repeatedly in my mind, over and over again, like a wound up gramophone which won’t shut up. Like Groundhog Day. Time seems to have altered, its shape and sequence forever changed. But not just time, meaning too. Before that night, Mum was an anchor, a force, a raison d’etre. I have lost the one person in the world who was always, without reservation, on my side. My advocate and principle cheerleader is gone from this world. This vast, empty space where the bitterly cold Arctic winds blow without ceasing, will never feel the warmth of early morning sun again. Standing in this abyss of grief I feel not just lost and lonely, but as if my very moorings have come undone. It is simply inconceivable that life will go on. And yet it must.
What does one do when one is left drifting, floating on a river of despair which seems to follow no known pathway, meandering in and out of gloomy gullies and desolate deltas, pursuing its own course with a reasoning and logic all its own? I can neither control nor outmanoeuvre its trajectory. But I can give it room to roam. I can open a space within and without which would allow the force of this overwhelming grief to flow, not just in tears, but in memories too, remembrances of times past.
There is a place I go to whenever the world and my walking in it threatens to overcome me with its bustling busyness, too noisy and wearisome for a fragile soul. An ancient monastic site where the earth continues to hold in safe keeping the memory of its distant past. Steep slopes, deep lakes, and dead trees dot the scrub hillside surrounding the lakes. The veil between the natural and the supernatural is thin here, in this place where monks lived and moved and had their being, where they prayed in the darkness and again at dawn, and many times throughout the day, in the ‘big hours’ and the ‘little hours’ too, shivering in the damp and cold which seeps up from the sodden earth below. They must have stood by the edge of the lake and stared out over the still twilight, reflecting the sky and clouds above, just as I do when I return here to think about my mother. Their robes would have blown in the wind which always sweeps down from the gap between the mountains, the valley left behind when the glaciers moved through, sculpting the land aeons ago. I crave the spaciousness, the vast openness which only this landscape can offer.
Here in this numinous space, walking on this sacred earth, I can feel my mother hovering close by, as if the very air I am breathing is filled with her presence. The cold wind blowing down the valley makes my eyes well up, tears fall, dropping black stains on the grey stones by the lake shore. My gaze embraces the wider landscape, the white blasted trees which have all the appearance of sentinels, or mummified centurions keeping watch over all that lies below, including not just the monks’ graves from long gone, but me also, and my mother’s spirit joined now as one with the voices of the wind and the water, all the ancient ruins, cells and chapels, stones too, still carrying traces of chanted psalms from long ago – nothing can drown out the songs of the past. The past and the present, and the future too, are all of a-piece.
This is the womb knowledge I carry back home with me when I return to the suburbs where I live and where my mother lived her entire married life, after moving up to the city from the country. And so when I stand at an opened kitchen window, or stroll out into the garden, I hear her sweet tones in the breeze which caresses my cheek, I feel her tender kiss in the first fall of a gentle summer’s rain. She hasn’t left me after all. I simply need to learn to adjust my vision, to recognize the new shape of her being, hovering as it does between heaven and earth.
-Writing this has almost been unbearable, a heaviness in my chest like someone has punched me so hard I am left winded, flying backwards through the air, back and down, down, down, down, free falling into a bottomless pit of despair. And just when I think I can’t breathe anymore, a little wisp of air blows gently from the blackened crevices, and I breathe it in gratefully, knowing that yes, I can go on.
I asked above what one can do in the attempt to make some kind of sense of death and loss and grieving. The only answer I can offer is, as Rilke tells us, “to live the questions now”, and if you are a writer, to write. For if you are like me, and I presume you are if you are reading this, then you make meaning of your life through the practice of writing. While the subject of death is far too enormous and mysterious to ever be encapsulated, codified and tamed through the act of laying words upon a page, like letting a diaphanous shroud drape gently over the embalmed body of our loved ones, still words are all we have at our disposal in the attempt to somehow understand. And maybe they are enough. At least for now we can practice seeing “through a glass, darkly.”
Write about the death of someone dear to you. Approach it any way you want – begin with the facts, if that is your best path into the mystery, the agony of your tangled memories. Be prepared for the onslaught of emotions which will surely take you by surprise. Be kind to yourself. This is mindful writing in its rawest form. Witness well to what emerges from behind the veil.
–Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes, and sits at her spinning wheel, spinning dreams with words and fibres. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal, and her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, as well as online at Story Circle Book Reviews. She writes occasionally on her blog, In a Room of My Own