Hiroshima Day, 2014, is a day that is etched in my memory. On the one hand, it was the 11th Anniversary of my father ringing me from the horse races telling me not to come around that night, and when he asked how I was, I replied, "Not too bad for an Hiroshima Day." I was pleased that it was cloudy, because Hiroshima Day is not a day I relish. On the other hand, it was the day the hairdresser I had where I used to live passed away following a hell of a battle with melanoma. If you're lucky, you may get onto a melanoma quickly and may have many years ahead of you. My hairdresser had one removed many years earlier, but this time it came back, and those roots had spread to her spine, to her lungs and even into her liver. My tribute to her was that she was one of the first people I'd met in that town, and she cropped my locks for a few years until her faithful side-kick took over when she became too ill. She was also one of the first people to suspect I was autistic. I was saddened by her death, but at the same time, I knew she was going to die, so I felt vaguely relieved that her suffering was over.
Five years earlier, I received devastating news that a woman I'd known since high school, fifteen days my junior, had died from a burst aortic aneurysm, right above her heart. The grief was paralysing and I remember bursting into tears on a friend of mine's shoulder. I remember, two weeks before Christmas, I walked up to this friend, and I said, "I just feel really angry today." She asked me why, and I said that Christmas Day was the birthday of someone who had caused me a lot of grief (I was lost, I felt isolated, and if I'd had a strong support network, I wouldn't have become involved with them) and I felt so angry that they were alive and my friend was dead. Now, I would never take a human life, but I had been told it was okay to be angry. The way I was able to channel my anger was into writing.
The following year, I joined a creative writers group (big mistake as I was to learn that because I came to my first session with a social worker, one member left, and another, who was especially ignorant and ill-educated (again, I say, you cannot equate education with intelligence, there are some highly educated people who are very narrow-minded and some people with a limited education who are very open-minded) said, "Some of us were thinking, when that woman told us about you, "What have we got here?"" Well, seriously, were they expecting a mass murderer or someone considered too ill to stand trial on charges permitted limited release from a psych ward?
Writing was where I was able to come out of myself. I would, however, focus so intently on what I was doing that you could have fired a cannon over the place and I wouldn't have heard it.
The difficulty I faced, as well as narrow-minded people, was that the group had a break over the Christmas period. For me, I found that if I had writing to keep me occupied over that time, especially Christmas Day, I could block out some of the pain of my friend's death. I can remember making the mistake of watching the Vision Australia Christmas Carols and a small girl being brought onto the stage and it was her birthday on Christmas Day, and the host invited the people in the audience to sing Happy Birthday, and I had to turn the TV off and sit with my fingers over my ears, feeling a panic attack coming on. Had I been at home, my mother would have labelled me stupid. Many of the members wanted an early break-up, to have time to buy presents for their grandkids and the like, but one thing that amazed me with the group was when I would quote from song lyrics (I can remember one time, we had to write on the topic, "Doubts" and as we'd done it before, I had "Don't Speak" playing in my head and had it that I was a paparazzi photographer on Rodeo Drive who'd caught Gwen Stefani out shopping, and one of the people said, "I don't know who Gwen Stefani is," to which another replied, "I do.") was how little the people shared and how they never talked of what their kids and grandkids liked.
When I said that I wanted to be occupied with writing, because it made Christmas Day easier for me, one member of the group, an ignorant woman who felt threatened by my memory for facts, just looked at me and told me to move on. I was devastated. Fortunately, another member, a retired special education teacher recently widowed, understood and was sensitive.
Everybody's grief is different, and it depends upon how well you knew the person, how much they meant to you, and most importantly, the circumstances in which they died.
A memory that I have, of January 24, 1989, was of the aftermath of the execution of Ted Bundy. I remember a white hearse coming past, with Ted Bundy's shrouded corpse in the rear, and a crowd of onlookers cheering loudly. Ted Bundy may have refused his last meal, personally prepared by the chief cook at the prison, and broken down, but he was not somebody who showed any remorse for his crimes.
I remember the nun who was the inspiration for Dead Man Walking appearing in an interview with Australian presenter, Andrew Denton, and her saying that spending time with a condemned person in the hours leading up to their death is a strange feeling. As in, if a person's fight with cancer, say, is coming to its conclusion, you can see them fading away, and you can possibly sense someone who wants to say a last good-bye hoping they won't be too late, whereas with a person awaiting the guards to escort them to the execution chamber, you know by your mind and by your watch that they're going to die at a set time.
Sometimes, people die of preventable illnesses, and there can be anger from relatives or friends, and accusations of, "Why didn't they go to the doctor?" or, "Had they done this or that, they might still be alive today." In some cases, people have a sneaking suspicion, or they may just want to live their best life and ignore it. By all means, think that they led a full life, and they may think their time is up, and that's their right. I mean, I say, I was born autistic, I live autistic and I'm going to die autistic, even if someone developed a cure, because I don't want to be cured of autism.
Grief does not have a timeline. Just as we saw, there was no grief for Ted Bundy. I also remember, that same year, watching Australia's Most Wanted, and a case from 1971 (at this point, I was unaware of certain things, except my memory) and was skeptical of any prospect that a suspected murder committed 18 years earlier could be solved, when I was to learn that someone's memory may be jogged (I amaze myself, sometimes, when I hear the name of someone and think, "Yes, I remember that incident, it was in such and such a month of such and such a year.") or something may have a new context however many years later, and wondering why the sister still mourned the death, only to think, well, if someone close to you was murdered and the killer was never found or brought to justice, or even if they were, you may have a difficult time reaching "closure".
It also depends upon the person experiencing the grief. Some people remarry after a spouse dies (I remember meeting a lady once, who had lost both of her husbands to death, and she said that in the first case, she married out of love and in the second, she married out of loneliness) some do not. Some television series, I remember the Australian series, Our House, which was co-hosted by Graham "Shirley" (nicknamed for his Shirley temple curly hair) Strachan died in a plane crash, the presenters left a space vacant for him and stopped making the series, come to an end if a presenter or cast member dies, others find a replacement. You cannot say to somebody, "They've been gone for so long, you should be over it, now." It can be a labour of love and devotion to be there for someone experiencing grief, but you need to have a great deal of patience. By all means, cook them a meal (it is probably better to give them a casserole than invite them over for a meal), ask them if they'd like your company, accompany them to a place that was significant to them for something, but NEVER, and I mean NEVER, tell them to "get over it," or, "get a life," or anything like that. Let them know there's a space in your life for them, and they're welcome to fill it when they want to.