Good grief

by Rick Johansen

After the murderous attacks on 11 September 2001, the late Queen memorably told relatives of the dead, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I thought, and still think, that it is among the most profound statements I have ever heard, something to which all of us who have at some time suffered loss can relate. The Queen’s words were actually a part of a much longer passage written by a British psychiatrist called Dr Colin Murray Parkes which went thus: The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love:it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.” I’ll stick with the Queen’s version, not least because by the time I reached the end of the good doctor’s passage, I’d forgotten how it started. Grief is an awful but necessary thing.

My old mum always said that when someone dies and we cry, then we cry for ourselves, or what we have lost, and for years that was how I felt, too. However, gradually over the years, I came to realise that this was not necessarily so and anyway we all feel loss differently.

To help me understand the subject better, I visited the website of the Mental Health charity MIND and it was a real eye-opener. All the things I believed about loss and its consequences were turned upside down. And how we feel after loss can be a very different experience to how anyone else feels.

Someone who dies young, before their time you might say, seems to me to be a bigger tragedy than, say, an older person who dies after a long illness. Of course, you would still feel the loss if that was, say, a parent, but with a parent like my mum who died after years of excruciating pain, or my stepdad, after years of Parkinson’s and dementia, my loss was offset, at least in part, by relief that they were suffering no more. That isn’t to say I wasn’t sad – of course, I was sad: how could I not be? – but the pain was not overwhelming. When someone dies, we are told to remember “the good times” and eventually I was able to, but in the short term after death, it was as if a wave had washed over me, somehow easing the memory of pain which had, at times, overwhelmed me in the preceding years.

How the relatives of the victims of 9/11 felt, I can barely imagine. Most of the victims will, I imagine, will have enjoying their best lives, or something like it, in the weeks before they were murdered. Their futures stretched out ahead of them, perhaps with long made exciting plans, ambitions to be achieved and lots of good times, And in the blink of an eye, everything stopped. Lives and dreams just crushed, gone forever. People cried for much more than their own loss some 22 years ago. Lives were stolen, as much from those who were left behind as those who were taken.

It helped me to talk about the loss of my parents, not least because they passed in the natural order of things. I still needed therapy after my dad died, not least because ours was often a complicated, occasionally fractious relationship and just when things were making more sense, his life ended. There was an element of “what if” about the timing of his death, those being among the worst words in the world. I couldn’t deal with it without help. My mum’s, for example, was far simpler and my reaction was far more logical, you might say cold and considered and I might not disagree with you.

Time is a healer, thank goodness, and while I know the pain for others never goes away completely, it can and does ease. And anyway, you could argue that forever feeling loss is not always a bad thing, showing as it does that some love never dies.

I am not one of those who dwells too much on dead relatives, despite what this blog may indicate to the contrary. I am not a grave visitor, not least because there aren’t any for me to visit, although every now and then I visit Battery Point in Portishead where the ashes of my grandad and dad were scattered. I do not somehow feel closer and more connected to them – how could I? They’re both dead – but I can think of happier days as I gaze across the Channel on which my dad sailed.

I certainly felt differing types of grief when people around me died and I am glad I did because it confirmed, not that it needed confirming, that I possess human emotions.

One day, people may grieve for us as we shuffle off our mortal coils, ascend to heaven or descend to hell or the nothingness we were before we were conceived and born, depending on your point of view. I’m glad that I’ll be too dead to see what’s going but by the same token I’d like to think that grief will soon turn into something less horrible, like celebrating a life or feeling relief that something horrible has been ended.

We often use the throwaway line, “Good grief“, yet grief is a good and necessary thing because it helps us see the good stuff eventually, too. And grief is definitely the price of love because the former would probably not occur without the latter.

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