What we talk about when we talk about grief

Aug 8, 2018 · 38 min read

By Patrick Galey

The rooftops of Tripoli, Lebanon (Patrick Galey/Flickr)

It’s time I told you all about Chris, as I have wanted to do since the day that he died. I do so now for no reason other than I have been unable to before. Loss ties the tongue. Words shed their ability to convey truth. Rendered weak and flimsy, they struggle to hold the weight of meaning. Each attempt to verbalise thoughts or feelings ends up trite, inadequate.

I met Chris the first day of high school. I remember the second I saw him, a clumsy looking kid with a nose slightly too serious for his boyish face, a Beatles mop and a kindness in his eyes that told you everything was going to be alright. That moment is one I’ve come back to more and more in the years since he died. The cloudy Autumn light spilling into the corridor, the glowing checkerboard floor reflecting new arrivals like greased paper ghosts. The smell of fresh matte paint spread thickly on old brick. Rows of identical school photos, haircuts and eye wear and dental care getting worse as the decades receded. Years later, I am still struck by how self-assured he appeared, how comfortable he was in his surroundings — fond of but slightly aloof from his peers. How much he enjoyed just being there, how much life burned in him.

On the morning of January 10, 2016, the day that David Bowie died, I was on my own at work, scanning news sites and channels in a thickening panic of disbelief. I felt powerless, sure that everyone else was wrong, angry I couldn’t refute them.

Bowie’s death set off a global chain of events that year that wouldn’t stop turning everything we ever loved into dirt in our mouths until Leonard Cohen passed eleven months later.

The dust hasn’t yet settled. We won’t know for sure how devastating events in 2016 may prove to be for a while — though for political paradigm shifts such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and geopolitical disasters like Syria and climate change it’s probably too late in any case — but its string of shocks re-awoke something in me from Chris’s death, a burden my body and I had silently agreed to bury pending alternatives.

This is not an essay aimed at breaking new ground in the exploration of grief’s causes and effects. I am not a scientist, and I can only (and only now) speak for my personal grief. Nor is it intended as some form of “self-help” treatise for dealing with loss; I know from experience that plenty such texts already exist, just as I know how little they really help.

Nor do I want to use this to lay any sort of claim to grief. I alone don’t get to experience it, my grief is no more meaningful or impactful or profoundly felt than yours. I am no martyr to suffering. Of course I recognise that the pain I feel in losing my best friend pales in comparison to that felt by Chris’s family, or his poor, dear partner.

And there are so, so many dead. In Syria, children are killed in their cots and hospital beds. In Yemen, babies starve in third world conditions a few minutes drive from a border where first world doctors hand out prescriptions for obesity drugs. In Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Mozambique and elsewhere there is mass-manufactured, man made death every second. I can’t tell you anything new about that.

This is, instead, a phenomenological look at grief, personal and collective, about why we react to loss in the way we do — both similarly and differently — and how the death of a friend, or an idol, or of the prevalence of a worldview, can influence and shape our behaviour, language, and ability or willingness to act humanely.

There are two main texts I’ve used for research. The first is Levels of Life by author Julian Barnes. It documents Barnes’s own experience with grief following the sudden death of his wife to cancer after 30 years of marriage. It is a remarkable work. Barnes seethes with choler and pain through stages of mourning, and emerges with an unflinching tribute to suffering. It’s not a cathartic triumph over grief; the prose is irascible and cluttered and dark, but the lense through which Barnes invites us to witness his pain is crystal clear.

The second work is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Body and Mind in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, a US-based psychiatrist who has spent the last 40 years researching mental trauma, particularly the psychiatric and physical impact of post-traumatic stress. He writes about his experience with victims of trauma and the evidence he has accumulated regarding chemical or physiological changes in their brains. The trauma Van Der Kolk describes is far more visceral and affecting than straightforward exposure to loss, but he frequently cites his observations on trauma as similar to more acute versions of grief. If there was a self-assembly model of suffering, this would be its instruction manual.

Because grief is so universal — it is the sole emotion one can realistically guarantee we will all experience at some point — its effects come from every direction once you decide to look into it. Inspiration for thoughts on grief comes haphazardly yet constantly, spilling out of you at weird moments, interwoven into life’s fabric like a stitched pattern ran through your seam. The cruelty when deciding to write about it is that one of grief’s first victims is expression. Grief kills our very ability to even talk about it.

And so, for a long while, I couldn’t talk about Chris.

Chris was killed on a Saturday night, in a city he loved, having just left the company of friends who adored him, less than three miles from his home where his soulmate was waiting.

I got the news the following morning, the day of my uncle’s wedding. It was a beautiful, English summer Sunday. I remember the dust suspended in the shards of light through the hotel curtains, the sound of cawing seagulls and waves gently foaming on the rocks below. The soft linen of the bed, the iron-framed windows that a thousand different people before me had looked out of, onto the same cropped view of beach head, seeing a thousand different worlds made up of the same sand and rock and sky.

I felt nothing — out of shock, but also sheer unfamiliarity. Information that reroutes your life course isn’t easily processed.

If I can tell you anything about how I felt as I walked in dazed silence along the seafront, it was as if I had been suddenly unmoored from myself. Something too big to comprehend had happened, changing everything in ways I knew lay ahead of me undiscovered, unconfronted. A dimension shift, like I’d travelled through a wormhole and now inhabited a world where every detail was anatomically the same but fundamentally different. I had a new, hellish view of reality, where behind every facade lurked pain and horror. The sun still warmed my cheek as it had the day before. But now I saw that the sun was burning itself out. That it, too — that everything — was going to die.

As a child I had a recurring nightmare. There was always this huge, shapeshifting, gaping black maw, like one of those giant metal ore mines that seem too massive to take in all at once. It wasn’t the image that was so terrifying but rather what it symbolised to me: an unshakeable harbinger of total doom.

Now, as an adult, that same abyss loomed into view, too large to see its edges, dark enough to blot out everything.

Chris dying had a butterfly effect. Within two years, his father, a genial, successful, well-loved family man, was also dead. Shorn of the solder Chris provided, his friendship group melted away into personal grief spirals. Every decision made by people who loved him was snagged on his absence — each move to change careers, or partners, or get married, even to have children — were all hung upon his not being there.

In life, he was the centre of our friendship group, and though we’d later disperse throughout the world, he remained our confidante and support pillar — an ever-willing listener, caregiver and instigator. In death, all we had keeping us going was the power of his absence, so strong, at times, that it continues to feel like a presence. It’s a process, we told each other. We still do.

But it’s never been entirely clear to me what you’re meant to do when you grieve. Where do we keep it? How long does it last? What is its message? How are we supposed to use it as motivation, to invoke it when we need emotional nourishment but lay it aside in any situation requiring fortitude?

I don’t know, obviously. But I knew I would eventually have to write it all down, to get outside my own suffering and view myself as a patient, prognosticating based on the testament of others. Everyone grieves, after all. What started out as an investigation, prompted by the death of Bowie, into what others had felt and thought and verbalised while dealing with loss, turned into an examination of what we mean when we talk about grief — how and why we say what we do, how we can find more constructive responses to death, and how we may go on living around the massive void losing someone you love carves inside you.

Barnes bases his theory of loss on an eye catching comparison: he holds that grief is the opposite of love, that “every love story is a potential grief story”. I’d always maintained that love’s opposite was indifference. It seemed self-evident that love and hate — and, indeed, any profoundly felt emotion, including therefore grief — existed in pretty close proximity to one another, that the fact that one intensely experiences emotions at all must indicate attachment to the person or thing for which one feels them. Even if you despise someone, they still matter to you. Indifference, on the other hand, coldly casts someone into the morass of people for whom you feel nothing — i.e. everyone else on Earth you either don’t know or don’t want to know — denying them any specialness, any defining characteristic that may impact your own emotional state, positively or otherwise.

But Barnes believes that grief — which after all cannot really develop from any emotion other than love; we can’t mourn someone we detest or feel nothing for — is love’s diametric adversary. He writes how his uxoriousness made him want to be a better person, that the love he felt for his wife was some kind of moral act:

“Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.”

How easy is it to lose touch of our morals when something so profound as grief shakes our worldview? In a personal sense, grief makes us through anger seek something positively amoral — be that revenge, wanton self-debasement or even physical violence. Collectively, grief leaves us feeling slighted. When we see someone like Donald Trump ascend to the world’s most powerful position off the back of a campaign of untruth and division, the most visceral response we have is hatred for the people who helped put him there. Eschewing much needed dialogue with them is only the natural extension of this.

So, too, is the temptation to turn inward — to seek comfort in either solitude or self-delusion — both a personal and collective reaction to loss. Internally (or emotionally), whereas a breakup or betrayal may stab at you with the physical agony imagined to belong to a broken heart, grief removes the heart entirely, taking compassion and clemency with it, leaving you in the throes of chronic phantom organ pain. And, given that the world around us now also contains a void belonging to the person you love in everything you see and sense, it’s little wonder many grieving people renounce their ties to it. Life, which was once so full of colour and promise, of outcomes that could be altered through intervention or inclination, now appears hostile, and you its unwelcome interloper.

Barnes has a nihilistic refrain reasoning that since the world is random, and random things happen to random people all the time, that his wife’s death is “all just the universe doing its stuff.” The problem is that he doesn’t believe himself. He laments how his loss has cleaved all meaning from life, all perspective (“no texture, no resonance, no depth of field”) but he does manage to find scant comfort in mundane, almost brainless activity. He will watch a football game between two sides he knows nothing about and feels, if not relieved, then at least pleasingly vacant throughout. Mindlessness can be an outright relief when what’s going through your head is unremittingly bleak.

Chris had eyes like ozone. They were the first thing and the last thing you saw whenever you were together, these oyster-shell bluegreygreen irises, goading you on to something outrageous while reassuring you he’d never let you do it alone. They were a double-dare, a shimmering, bottomless pool of warmth and understanding and forgiveness. The number of times those eyes got him into trouble was only bested by the number of times they got him out of it.

I can still now close my eyes and see his pierce through the darkness, like the Cheshire cat’s smile enticing me into a world where everyone’s mad and none of it matters.

For months after he died, the image that would come to me, randomly and without warning, was from a photo taken when I guess we must have been around 24. In a bar, trademark check shirt, five o’clock shadow, his eyes are flashing that slight, chameleonic warning that while he’s happy and gregarious right now, he can’t vouch for what the rest of the night may bring. It shows his purest essence distilled into an instant of endless potential. It might turn out to be nothing, but it may also end up being, with Chris, the best night of your life.

I don’t have the actual photo. It’s not online anywhere. But I indulge myself often by accessing it in my head, as a form of inverse mindlessness — I deliberately think of him, his ridiculous eyes and have-a-go grin, and it makes me smile back. It’s a gluttonous moment, where I have him all to myself, sharing a conspiratorial glance that gives me back a little fight. It’s timeless, and I can live with withdrawing inwards in order to access it.

Then there are the anniversaries. Living the first year that Chris hadn’t was punctuated by a series of seemingly insurmountable events: seeing the body, his family, partner, his birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of that day. Barnes argues that grief, like love, can build, rather than dissipate through time:

“You think that year two can’t be as bad as year one, and imagine yourself prepared for it. You think you have met all the different sorts of pain you will be asked to bear, and that after this there will only be repetition. But why should repetition mean less pain? Those first repetitions invite you to contemplate all the repetitions to come in future years. Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?”

I disagree. Chris’ 32nd birthday won’t be any harder to think about than his 30th. But grief and pain aren’t correlative — if they were then very few of us would ever be willing to go on living with grief. Pain spikes. It sneaks up on you, renders you mute and fearful at the oddest moments. The lyric of a particular song, seeing a small dog walk with a limp. Grieving is a way of analysing that pain — of trying (and often failing) to organise and separate emotions that seem to come from nowhere just as often as they come from deep within. In fact, birthdays are a pretty decent marker along the road that grief sets you on. They require manufactured fortitude — and how often do people get pretty good at things they are only play-acting at?

Van Der Kolk writes how trauma victims will often paradoxically seek out similar situations to the ones that initially traumatised them as a way of reconnecting with primal impulses that, due to terror or injury, the brain subdues in normal life thereafter. It’s why, he reasons, someone may return to an abusive partner again and again, or why soldiers suffering from PTSD often seek a similar adrenaline rush to that experienced in combat.

The compromise is that while trauma victims’ brains are rewired to be hypersensitive towards and hypervigilant against danger and/or stress, the function of what Van Der Kolk terms the “emotional brain” — the limbic system plus cerebral cortex — is dramatically curtailed.

“Feeling numb during birthday parties for your kids or in response to the death of a loved one makes people feel like monsters. As a result, shame becomes the dominant emotion and hiding the truth the central preoccupation.”

What is physiologically intended as a coping mechanism ends up further alienating the individual. We feel shame constantly in grief: why we couldn’t keep our loved ones safe; why we undeservedly get to keep on living and they, also undeservedly, do not; guilt at actually feeling joy during brief moments where we free ourselves from grief; speaking personally, the fact that I’d lived abroad, therefore away from Chris, for most of his final three years.

On the first day of school we were put in the same form and so would spend several hours a day together, each feeling the other out, gauging his worldview, measuring up a potential ally. It wasn’t his smartness so much as his aggressive curiosity that was so dizzying.

Chris was the kind of boy who would hold his breath until he passed out just to prove to the class you don’t actually go blue. He was a prodigious reader, art lover, political dilettante and geographer, wielding knowledge like a blunt object to swat aside bullies, defenestrate complacent teachers and impress would-be collaborators. An impassioned advocate one minute, the next he’d flip and turn remorseless interrogator; a conversation with Chris was like an assault course you ran for the sheer, giddy rush of endorphins.

It’s strange how things hit you as you mourn, the unexpected order in which you’re called on to confront each recollection, each tiny fragment of loss. If you asked me what I most truly missed about Chris when he died, I’d tell you that it was talking to him — the exhausting, thrilling, confusing conversations that would fly off at obscene angles and hit unanticipated notes of intrigue. It didn’t even mattered how they ended.

But grief is an altered, indeterminate state. There’s no way of knowing when, or if it will end, and no way of even navigating towards something approaching the finish. There’s no roadmap, no rhetorical or logical trick you can deploy, to get you through.

Van Der Kolk conducted an experiment with two survivors of Canada’s worst ever road accident, during which the couple found themselves stuck in the middle of a highway blanketed in fog, with 18-wheelers thundering past inches from their vehicle, knowing that any second they could be cleaned up by one. As the crashes kept coming — an 87-vehicle pile-up in all — the couple saw, metres away, a young girl burn to death in her car.

Van Der Kolk and a colleague worked out a script of the incident with the couple, who agreed to have it read to them as they sat in MRI scanners while images were taken of their brains during the flashbacks the script induced. Among several observations the team made was that in both the couple and in several additional patients, the area of the temporal lobe that deals with time perception was shut off. Patients didn’t just feel like they were reliving the most horrid thing they’d ever experienced. They felt like they would never stop reliving it.

A friend recently posted on Facebook, perhaps 10 months or so after he died, that “Bowie grief is a long and unpredictable process”. She’s right, of course. Grief’s narrative — partly due to its potential for indeterminateness discussed above — isn’t linear. In fact it’s downright contradictory. It requires both acknowledgement of your own diminished state and the paradoxical faith that that, too, will pass. It is this faith that grief most virulently attacks.

Nothing is unendurable if we know it will eventually end. Grief is so terrifying precisely because we have no idea when it will be over, if someone who has lost something they deeply love can ever truly get “over” it. We plan these stages, these to-do lists that replace normal living with sequences, but there’s no knowing when we’ll reach the end of that circuit. When grief is personal, it cannot be reliably reasoned to have its echo in the grief of another, so the time it takes your friend or a stranger to feel “normal” after losing someone doesn’t necessarily offer any instruction in negotiating yours. As E.M. Forster once put it: “One death may explain itself, but throws no light upon another.”

But when grief is collective, we can look to one another for closer guidance. What I feel on hearing that Bowie, or Cohen, or whatever artist demi-god is dead is also felt by millions of fellow fans, for whom in turn I’d ordinarily feel nothing. We have quotes to share, from which we can infer collective meaning. We have rituals to follow, including telling stories of their lives, mutual appreciation to their work, and a sense of togetherness derived from little else other than indulging in the same love for someone as the stranger sitting across from you.

One of the first things Chris and I bonded over was music — that vital teenage territorialism that defines what side of the ridge we choose to muster for young life’s battles. The endless gigs, the hangovers, the fights, the regrets, the tears and the heart-to-hearts all adding up to days filled far fuller than the 24 hours we set aside for them. And, yes, Bowie was there, like a weird older friend, reassuring you that it’s OK to be different.

Of all the hagiographies written since Bowie’s death, Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie is a decent place to start. It’s part biography, part subjective reconstruction of Bowie’s career, song by song, and how they affected the author’s life, loves and losses. Sheffield, a US music journalist, writes about the comfort he took on the day Bowie died from knowing that others — literally millions of people around the world — were experiencing the same grief.

“Suddenly you’re surrounded by all these people going through the same shock and grief you feel, all of our heads hurting like a warehouse. Never thought I’d need so many people.”

There is some process we can go through to help with collectively felt loss. If an artist we love and respect dies, we may play their songs (there was something soothingly memetic about listening to Cohen — grief’s amanuensis — to mourn his own death). If we feel wronged over our collective political alienation, we have shared agency to protest, reform, oppose. And in that sense, at least, there’s a analogue here with personal grief: people telling you to get over it. Trump won? Get over it. Brexit? Move on. Barnes tells of a writer friend of his who six weeks after losing her husband has returned to work and is observed crying at her desk only to be told by her editor: “I thought you’d be over it by now.”

I’m not “over” my grief. I’ve learned to leave it where it is, and be OK with that. I can promise anyone reading this who is dealing with loss that things change. Nothing is indeterminate, for good and bad. Flashbacks will happen, but they, too, are finite.

We went through adolescence and early adulthood under each other’s tutelage, sharing those mundane rites-of-passage moments that seem so profound as you live them. We entered the world of work together, in an east London flat on the lookout for jobs, or a career, or, best of all, some hard-lived experience bestowing wisdom against doing it all a second time.

Chris was gloriously indiscriminate with people, instantly seeing their best sides, making time for every waif and stray and leaving a mark on their lives in some profound but fleeting way, like the dust left behind when you touch a butterfly’s wings.

When Nietzsche told us that God is dead, one of the unintended consequences of His demise is that non-spiritual people were left with no recourse for irrational hope. Whether you think that’s good or bad is less important than facing the fact that you will never see the person you love again. Not in this world, and certainly not in the next. One must live, every single day, with the knowledge that is as simple as it is devastating: life will forever be dimmer, and your world poorer until the day you, too, die.

How can we fashion anything positive out of the wreckage grief strews across our lives? What hope is there left for those of us that don’t believe in a divinity, who cannot convince ourselves that there is some overarching, intelligently designed narrative arc to the world? To whom do we turn, in the lowest depths of despair, and who do we ask for guidance, for salvation?

Words are powerful. They can inform and obfuscate, hurt and heal. It’s to them I turn when I want to make sense of the world, to organise and control my thoughts. There is comfort in the reliable structural repetitions language can offer.

But language loses its emboldening power when words become unlatched from the concept they symbolise. And so it is with grief. I mentioned at the start that grief kills our ability to express it. The shock of loss ties the tongue — we are not only too overcome to think and therefore articulate anything sensible, but our very situation also loosens itself from the relevance of language. Who among us hasn’t been lost for words when either confronting our own grief or trying to comfort that of others? We stumble, demur, opt for vagaries, pleonasms, epigrams.

There is a natural tendency towards metaphor. Barnes likens grieving to being in a hot air balloon above a layer of cloud; you can see yourself, the silhouette of your life projected on the cloud cover clearly enough, yet you’re not sure what to do about it and you can’t even be certain you’re moving at all. It works on many levels: grief leaves you listless, rudderless, floating in strange new territory that requires a vocabulary of description you don’t immediately possess (Barnes describes this as “the lostness of the griefstruck”). We only know words such as “death” and “loss” as abstract concepts until they actually happen to us. Barnes rails against acquaintances who refuse to say that his wife has “died” as it either makes them uncomfortable or renders what they are about to say appear meaningless. He believes, as any good writer would, that you should call something what it is, that being able to give an idea a name implies some form of ownership over the concept expressed. Here, again, we differ: we don’t avoid certain terms out of denial or cowardice, it’s just that using the mot juste, for once, doesn’t seem to explain itself. Meaninglessness triumphs over whatever autological “deathness” is contained within “death”.

Grief as an experience is terrifyingly unreconstructed and our response to it is naturally, even necessarily, disorderly. And as comforting as it might appear to compartmentalise grief into “stages” — denial, anger, bargaining, depression — I’d argue that nothing comes in order when you grieve. It possesses no narrative, obeys no logic. And where’s the benefit in analysing nonsense?

It used to drive me to distraction when I’d hear, or receive as actual well-intended advice, the words: “It will be OK.” To utter these four syllables to someone grieving loss is, quite aside from possibly the most useless prognosis imaginable, a tacit approval of one’s helplessness.

It will be OK means, roughly: “I can’t help you, I can’t make it better, you can’t make it better, but conventional wisdom states that things in general do improve with time, though I can’t promise this is the case and neither can I give you a time frame.”

Better, possibly, with hindsight and experience, might be: “I believe in your ability to adapt and largely recover.”

Chris was constantly, chronically late. It was as if he’d consciously rejected the concept of time and the constraints it put on his days. Meet him for a drink and you would wait at least an hour, even if he’d chosen the time and the place. With anyone else these delays would have been intolerable, contemptuous even. But with him the waiting seemed part of the pleasure, and you’d greedily devour the minutes leading to the moment he’d arrive so you could admonish him, lovingly, before forgiving and forgetting and realising that he was always worth waiting for.

He was late, consistently and comfortingly, except in leaving us.

That we struggle to articulate our feelings in grief is no accident. The very word “emotion” comes from the Latin emovere — to move out; so feelings by definition can only mean anything if they may be adequately expressed. Or, put better, expression is the best use for emotions, which is part of the reason why people see therapists: to verbalise experience and feeling forces one to create through language, fostering understanding of that which we express.

But there’s more to it than simply feeling better after a chat, or therapy, or a cathartic cry. Grief and trauma physiologically impinge on one’s ability to fasten words to feelings. Back to Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganisation of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”

When he began his career, Van Der Kolk worked for a while in a psychiatric hospital. Since he wasn’t yet fully qualified, there was very little he could do to improve the condition of patients, but he did manage to observe, unedited and at length, the behavioural traits exhibited by trauma victims. He describes people screaming through the night, anxious patients pacing up and down corridors scratching their hands and wrists raw as if seeking some physical feedback to break the emotional numbness loop. He also saw many patients who would simply sit or stand awake for days on end, not saying a word. These people were catatonic with emotional pain.

Van Der Kolk later conducted a series of scans similar to the MRIs described earlier, taking images of brains that had experienced trauma against the brains of “normal”, undamaged patients. Among his many findings was that in the trauma patient images, the part of the brain that stimulates speech — Broca’s area — was deactivated. Whatever terrible thing these people had experienced had physiologically altered their brain’s wiring to diminish their ability to verbalise feelings about it, thus preventing them from reliving it.

Scientists, unironically, have a word for this state: alexithymia — an inability to recognise and express emotion. In the days following Chris’ death I was asked to contribute to a speech that would be read out at the funeral, aimed at remembering and celebrating his life. It was meant to include humorous, uplifting anecdotes and vignettes showing Chris to be the loving, funny, often inadvertently offensive man we all knew him to be. I spent days trying to write down some of the things we shared, and what I most missed about Chris. Now, I can tell you about how he was the guy I’d share my most intimate secrets with in the knowledge that he’d never betray that trust; or how living with him made me feel part of something deeply affirming — cared for and valued and respected. But back then I was blank. I know now that it was grief preventing me from telling everyone what I remembered, and what I’d yet to comprehend I was feeling.

Van Der Kolk even goes so far as to suggest that language is one of the key tools for dealing with mental illness, that talking about what we’ve experienced — be that trauma or loss — is a way of regaining agency, or forcing your emotions to resurface, to take form and allow reflection:

“Language gives us the power to change ourselves by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know and finding a common sense of meaning.”

“A common sense of meaning.” Here so simply expressed, in life so hard to arrive at. Van Der Kolk — perhaps unintentionally — demonstrates the links between individual and collective grief. “Common sense” within the individual involves arriving at a stage, through use of language among other techniques, where one is able to perceive the context of loss — that what feels harrowingly personal, and alienating, is in fact something experienced and endured by countless others. I know when Chris died that I didn’t want the platitudes or the meaningless, mindless optimism that grief forces us to resort to. I instead wanted to seek out and get to know others who had gone through a similar loss, to contextualise my personal grief within the general.

I remember the fits of rage I’d have in the months after Chris died. This feeling of being utterly wronged, the fury of the short-changed. I was angry at what I had lost, naturally, but I was even angrier at everything Chris had lost. He’d lost his life. How was that fair?

I learned how to be an adult with Chris. He showed me a way through that terrifying late-adolescent transit period, where life choices are fired at you as you’re still forging a shield to deflect them. He took it all how he always took everything: with grace, with hope, but with no pretensions on control. Careening into adulthood with a perfect acceptance of its chaos always seemed to me to be the most grown up approach imaginable.

But there’s a difference between the good-natured, happy-go-luckiness of someone who hasn’t really ever considered that they are going to die and the powerlessness of grief when that person is gone. This is more a vacuous passivity, a fatalism, unmoored to events but terrifyingly affected by them. Perhaps this is why it was in 2016 that I decided to write about Chris, as developments outside our control mounted towards an ever-higher collective toll. Perhaps I recognised in the tragedies of 2016 the loss and anger and helplessness I’d been grappling with since that day.

So where is the route away from this dual threat response of anger and/or apathy? Again, I believe it rests at least partly in language. From my own experience trying to find the right words to describe Chris to Van Der Kolk’s observation that talking about loss and trauma stimulates precisely the parts of the “emotional brain” in need of repair, language can aid our comprehension of grief. It helps us own the emotions with which we appear to be bombarded (Van Der Kolk notes that language formulation placates areas in the frontal lobe that crave order and structure) and it’s a productive counter-attack against a process that damages our very capacity to express.

So while I have to process and accept the fact that I’ll never see Chris again, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do about it, as Van Der Kolk explains:

“The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery.”

This is why, incidentally, that the campaigns of misinformation in 2016 were so devastatingly effective. Much has been made about the preponderance of “fake news” feeding post-truthers. Importantly, the aim of this disinformation is not to be believed by everyone, but rather to incubate cynicism so that evidence-based reporting and discourse can be more easily questioned, what-abouted. Losing the ability to organise information coherently directly correlates to losing agency.

These days it seems I walk around almost constantly on the verge of tears. There are a variety of reasons why that’s the case, and it would be temptingly glib to put that down to ageing, or the need for therapy. When someone you love dies suddenly, to borrow a concept from Barnes, what you lose is more than the sum of what they provided while alive. That’s because what is taken away is both external and internal. The world lost Chris, a beautiful, deeply generous, thoughtful and positive man. The people who knew him lost that contact with the man they loved, and, as mentioned earlier, life becomes paler because of it, like a reliable source of comfort has suddenly burned itself out. But the loss is also internal — you lose an ally, a confidante, someone who sees the world as you see it, who gets you better than anyone else. Your own standing in life is diminished.

In Levels of Life, Barnes tells a story about the writer Ivy Compton-Burnett, who for years after losing her best friend, Margaret Jourdain, adopted the disconcerting mannerism of continuing to speak to Margaret as if she were present. Strangers in mid-conversation would be treated to an only partially heard dialogue between friends. Decades on from her loss, Compton-Burnett wrote about Margaret as if she’d left hours earlier. “I wish you’d met her, and so met more of me,” she tells one correspondent. What we have lost reflects poorly on us in a number of ways. Most of us, deep down, care about what at least some others think. We want to be associated with rectitude, with willingness and kindheartedness — qualities possessed by the person we’ve lost and which we now have less of in ourselves. We are morally impoverished when we grieve, because one of the reasons that made us strive to be better people is no longer there.

I wish you had known Chris. I wish you could have heard the confident, mock-haughty way he spoke, seen him disarm total strangers with his unbeatable mix of affability and intrigue, eaten his soul-sustaining food. But more than that, I wish people who meet me now knew me when Chris was still here — I was quicker to praise, more determined to succeed and help others, and profoundly more interesting. I was never more myself than I was with Chris. I wish you could have met him, and so met more of me.

And so, we do what we can to keep the person we lost with us. Compton-Burnett is far from alone in her ventriloquism. Barnes admits to holding conversations with his wife constantly — “(her) voice calms me and gives me courage”. As the critic H.L. Melken writes, when he’s been a widower longer than he was married to his wife, Sara:

“It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life and almost every hour of the day. Whenever I see anything she would have liked I find myself saying I’ll buy it and take it to her, and I am always thinking of things to tell her.”

The morning I saw Chris’s body was as clean and bright as the morning I was told of his death. A friend, for whose perfect normalcy during this whole period I shall be forever grateful, drove me to the funeral home, in a quiet cul-de-sac in a town near where we’d grown up. The home was ran by a couple who had grown to be on-hand therapists, and who truly valued their unofficial role as comfort givers during their clients’ darkest moments. There is no other way to describe what I felt as I tried again and again to summon the fortitude to enter the room. I was terrified. What if I couldn’t do it? If I ran screaming out of the home and into a reality I’d lost all connection to? What if the last image I’d ever possess of Chris — the one I’d hold with me, seared into the back of my skull forever — wasn’t of his beautiful, grinning face, but of his bruised, atrophied corpse? Legs betraying me, I had to be physically lifted into the room. I saw the simple trestle table laid with pictures of Chris, a Leicester Tigers shirt, a solitary flower in a glass vase, and a small iPod dock, which previous visitors had used to play their own personal requiems. I collapsed into a chair and shut my eyes.

When they opened, I didn’t see Chris. I tried and failed to adequately express this at the time and risk doing so again now, but the moment I saw the body I felt a wave of relief I’m still not sure I am guilty about. I am not religious, and what I experienced wasn’t something as crass as the division between body and soul. But Chris wasn’t there anymore. He’d gone… elsewhere. Yet, while I knew it was no longer Chris in front of me, I began telling him everything that had happened, in rambling detail, since he’d died. And I kept stopping myself. Because of course he knew what had happened. He knew it all.

At the time I used this observation to comfort myself and to provide comfort to others. While I don’t believe in the afterlife and nor, I believe, did Chris, I was comforted by the comfort that religion brought to family members during the agonising weeks and months after he left us. When I look back now on the certainty I had that Chris was listening to me, that he understood what I was trying to say even though the words came out stupidly, I wonder whether what actually soothed me was a projection of what I wanted to be true rather than what I was empirically witnessing. This ventriloquism — the idea that the person who’s left us isn’t totally gone, and so we need to continue to include them in our thoughts and conversations — I now know was a form of survival. And, like most coping mechanisms, self-deception is sometimes necessary; it kept me sane and Chris alive, so it had little downside at the time.

Barnes talks openly in his essay about thoughts of suicide. It appeals as both a release from pain and as a kind of settling up; he hasn’t lost as much as his wife, not while he goes on living life, no matter how depreciated. He decides early on to set an arbitrary deadline of two years: if he finds himself still unable to cope with the grief of his wife’s death and unwilling to picture a time when he will be able to, he will end things.

In the end, though, Barnes realises that suicide would be the exact wrong path to take. The mantra that we must live how our lost ones would want us to is problematic for two reasons: first, it projects — we can’t be certain what they would want for us so the idea of living according to their unuttered guidelines can become an exercise in self-deception. Second, it’s inadequate — we can’t live how they’d want us to because their not being here is precisely what makes life unlivable. Barnes instead takes the approach that because his wife is dead — and because he won’t ever behold her again — that they only way she may still exist is in memory. And no one has more memories of his wife than Barnes.

In this sense, then, memorialising — the very act of not forgetting those we love who have died — is not just a coping mechanism, but a moral imperative. The world has lost a source of goodness, it’s therefore our duty to keep that goodness alive for as long as we can. This can take many forms, from individuals seeking to recreate those myriad acts of kindness our loved ones performed during their lives, the kind that quietly add up to beauty, to collective remembrance and the positive impact the dead can still have generally on the living.

Sheffield, the music journalist, finishes his book on Bowie with an anecdote. It’s not about Bowie when he was alive but, rather, it details the remarkable effect he still has, even in death, when people take seriously the task of remembrance. For his birthday, he and his wife undertake a road trip to the US dust bowl, and one night find themselves in a dive bar, in the middle of nowhere, among a hodgepodge of some of the world’s most ardent Bowie fans celebrating the man’s life and work with an impromptu jam session. It’s a fleeting moment, but its effect on Sheffield is nothing short of life-affirming.

“I will never see any of those people again but I will remember… Just another group of strangers he assembled, touched with his presence, and sent on their ways to scatter around the world. The world is full of us. And that means that the world will always be full of David Bowie.”

We owe it to ourselves, to those we’ve lost and to the world around us to seek to act with the positivity and empathy the people who’ve died possessed. In this way, the people we’ve loved and lost aren’t kept alive so long as they are remembered, but rather they stay with us so long as their influence guides our future behaviour. It’s not as easy as it sounds. And while there is arguably a moral compulsion for me to consciously remember and mimic Chris’ good traits, there’s something bigger that we all need to retain in the face of grief.

Other than agency and expression, loss or trauma kills nothing so quick as it does our ability or willingness to empathise. That’s not to say we become incapable in grief of lamenting the grief of others; of course we are mortified for the victims of tragedies, both private and civic. There is a vitally strong cathartic horror that grief bestows on the sufferer — a passionate plea that no one left alive will ever have to experience the loneliness and anger that grief metastasises. Rather, grief kills empathy by deadening our ability to properly engage with and comprehend what others are feeling or thinking.

I changed jobs a few months after Chris died. Among other upheavals, this involved moving countries. We’re told that a change of scenery may help take our mind off things or provide additional context to aid understanding. Starting a new project, in a new place, so conventional wisdom reasons, encourages you to be more outgoing and to seek new relationships to furnish daily life with additional meaning. But that’s not how I experienced it. Instead of pouring energy into new pursuits and new acquaintances, I found myself living an increasingly solitary life. I didn’t want to meet new people as that necessitated an aloofness I felt unable to appropriate. No one — least of all a perfect stranger — wishes to be confronted with your baggage from day one. Concepts I’d previously been begrudgingly capable of such as small talk and personability escaped me; I lacked the energy to be outgoing and the emotional strength to fake normality. As a result, I’ve missed numerous opportunities in the past few years to form meaningful bonds with others. More than that, I found myself simply uninterested in the company of other people. This was grief sapping my ability to empathise.

Barnes draws what I think is an important distinction between loneliness — the existential feeling of having no one who understands or values you therefore denying you significance — and what he calls “herlessness” — missing the one person who’d make your existence itself worthwhile. And he’s right: I didn’t miss people, I still had friends who had been through the same trauma, whom I knew I could call at any hour, with whom I could converse and reminisce and even dare to plan for the future. In fact, I had a potential surfeit of people — new colleagues, people I met at gym or language classes who could at least in terms of human interaction ease me were I lonely. Instead, I wanted to be around the friend I’d known since I was young. I was “himly”: what I missed was Chris.

Loss of empathy may be one of the more insidious side effects of grief. Whereas the sense of being out of control or dumbfounded is at least recognisable (though no easier to counter for that) a diminished willingness or ability to feel for others creeps up on you, and, if left unchecked, can portend borderline inhumanity. Whether the cause is pain or simple exhaustion, the effect is equally marginalising. As Barnes puts it, “Now I could only be indifferent; I had no emotions left to lend.” This possibly sounds like excuse making, but diminished empathy might be seen as a side effect of the self-preservatory instincts that pain induces — you’re forced into self-defence in order to begin to process individual emotion, a task sufficiently daunting and painstaking that empathising with the emotions of others simply gets relegated as a priority. Individually this can be unsettling, collectively it may be disastrous.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk discovers another common trait in the neuroanatomy of trauma victims: the areas of the brain containing mirror neurons — neurons commonly thought to fire when we seek to imitate or share a connection with another person — showed markedly reduced activity. These victims had, through horrendous experience, lost some of their ability to empathise with others:

“Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s heart and mind… Well-functioning people are able to accept their individual differences and acknowledge the humanity of others.”

What I found most interesting about Van Der Kolk’s pioneering work, as a layman and someone who’s used to — regrettably — covering the grief of others, though far less examining my own, is how people can be taught to “function” again even after trauma. It requires immense coaxing, and a dual approach that nurtures a patient’s individualised maladies while at the same time encouraging them to look outwards to others en route to a “normalised” state of being. It resonates because we see grief as such a deeply personal experience that we too often neglect the parallel need of engendering interaction, expression and idea exchange. A traumatised or grief-struck individual — naturally, as we’ve seen — turns inwards away from a world that’s inflicted so much hurt; it is, though, back towards that world that they must eventually face to begin to rectify the damage.

At the end of his essay, Barnes tries his best to regain perspective, some lifelong context that the death of his wife has made elusive and imperceptible. He’s had time to come to terms with his grief, to learn to take ownership of it and so gain a modicum of persuasiveness over it. But he’s wise enough at the same time to know that there’s no silver bullet, just as there is no singular way we can process loss. If that sounds a little stoic, then I’d argue that at this point that’s no bad thing:

“It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to. And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest. We did not make the clouds come in the first place, and we have no power to disperse them. All that has happened is that from somewhere — or nowhere — an unexpected breeze has come up, and we are in movement again.”

What, precisely, are we supposed to do with grief? Do we battle, fight to overcome it? Should we seek to be resourceful and proactive as we try to regain a semblance of ownership and control over our emotional states? More importantly, perhaps: can we do any of these things? Is it really in our power or is grieving and enduring simply a case of waiting for time’s healing effects to balm us — to simply continue doing what we can until that unexpected breeze picks up once more?

Leonard Norman Cohen died in his home aged 82 after a career in music and poetry spanning half a century. Like Bowie, he’d just released an album — Cohen’s 14th — that obviously prefigured his imminent death. Cohen’s voice, darkened by years of cigarettes and self-doubt, is almost impossibly deep, booming, godlike, as he proclaims he’s ready to go.

I immediately thought back to a note Cohen had written to Marianne Ihlen back in the summer of 2016, upon being informed by a mutual friend that his lifelong muse was dying. In a few short lines Cohen draws an arc of beauty and happiness across five decades of inspiration and mutual affection — the master of grief at his most self-assured. No one writes about life and death like Leonard Cohen:

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we really are so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you can stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

Marianne died three days later, her friends said, smiling.

It’s been four years since Chris died. In a way I can’t believe so much time has passed without me saying anything and yet I still feel like a stranger to grieving his absence. I have endlessly sought to emulate Cohen’s take on the death of a loved one (“have a good journey, see you down the road”) but I keep coming up short. Of course there’s a difference between dying at the end of a very full and well-lived life and the tragic death of someone just setting off on theirs. And I don’t share Cohen’s religiosity, that certainty that he will see Marianne again is something I just can’t reach when it comes to seeing Chris again. I have never possessed the institutional faith to which I could have fastened my hopes.

But I have tried again and again to seek something positive and life-affirming in Chris’s death. Selfishly, still stuck in grief’s first, inward-facing stages, I suppose it has steeled me a little against future shocks. I used to walk about with the constant nagging worry rolling around my head: “What’s the worst that could happen?” And now I know. The worst thing that could happen to me in my cosseted, comfortable existence is that someone I love could die.

I’m not sure I agree fully with Barnes’ take that grief moves on through no or little intervention from the sufferer; part of the point of this essay was to demonstrate that agency may be regained, even only fleetingly, in seemingly insignificant details, and that grief can be talked through, shared, collectivised and ultimately if not confronted, then at least have its existence and place in our lives acknowledged. But I appreciate his candour; it’s extremely unnerving to admit that our ability to influence our emotions and, by extension, the shape of our future lives, is also lost.

Chris came to visit me in Lebanon one summer and I took him north along the sea road to Tripoli. There’s an old crusader castle right in the centre of the town, and you can climb up and position the mountains at your back to face out across the patchwork roofs of the old souk stretching northwest to the port of El-Mina and the shimmering Mediterranean beyond. It was the middle of July but one of those rare days where the breeze comes off the mountains, cooling the air and skimming off the smog. Chris and I sat on the citadel ramparts and gazed out at the city laid out before us. In the clean, warm air above the souk a flock of doves circled noiselessly, silhouetted black against the sun. We watched in silence as the murmurations approached closer to the rooftops. Then, as flocks of birds seem to do with no discernible signal or prompt, they dived, en masse, towards a house where washing was drying in the afternoon heat. A man appeared, string vest stretched across belly and saucepan and ladle in hand like some sort of cartoon pensioner, and forlornly began the doomed ritual battle of trying to discourage the doves from roosting on his roof. Each time they landed, he’d bang his pot — in the still, rare air above the city sound travelled frictionless over clamour — threatening the trespassing birds. They’d take off in a startled flutter, circle the souk just long enough to give the vanquished man a tease of victory, then land once more among the laundry. Chris and I watched the comedically beautiful duel repeating itself, skirmish after skirmish, in the sky beneath us.

It may have lasted as little as 10 minutes but I keep that moment with me, reliving it each day to experience the giddiness of the sea air and summer warmth on my cheek, and the thrill of having Chris once more by my side. And whenever the vignette has faded back into memory, the hurt and anger and fear that Chris’s death has left us with seep back to settle in the niche I’ve carved for them just below my consciousness. I am reminded of a letter Barnes receives following his loss, from a woman whose husband recently died. I edit, for effect, and because it suits my situation better that way, and I recite the lines:

“Nature is so exact — it hurts exactly as much as it is worth. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”

And somewhere, deep within, that gets to it.

Patrick Galey

Written by

Journalist and writer based in Paris, France

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade