Grief comes, like love, in myriad forms, chameleon-like, shape shifting, shadow dancing, furtive and furious, all consuming, ever-present, ineluctable. It hits with the power of a tornado, obliterating everything in its path and it lingers, a festering presence eating away, corrosive and heavy. It limits our movements, deadens our thoughts and crushes our spirit.
We are none of us immune.
Grief is a disease. It causes dis-ease. It renders us unable to be calm or serene. It unbalances, throws reason and order to the wind, disrupts, distorts, disaggregates and obliterates with its abhorrent omnipresence. And it can strike any time.
We feel grief for all we have lost: people, places, roles, relationships, stages of our lives. Grief is not exclusive to the bereaved; it lurks, and appears unsummoned at the least auspicious time. It is painful, catapults us back to a time or a place or a love we once felt, that is no more. And the longer we live, the worse it gets.
My great grandfather said, at the age of 97 that he had lived too long and seen too much. A familiar lament of the elderly is that all their friends have died. The world they grappled to master when young has long gone, been replaced by one that seems out of touch with their reality. Death is not the only loss they have seen.
Past loves, our first romance, memorable times, can all gather to taunt us when we are least expecting it. An old song on the radio brings instantaneous teenage infatuation, a rose tinted filter to the memory of walking in the rain and loving it! A train journey to Aberdeen one June was an out of body experience, and a car journey on another occasion with an old friend after a celebratory weekend still preoccupies me. He asked me if I would trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday? We were 30, had just attended a raucous school reunion and I had to think for a while before I responded. When I turned to him there were tears rolling down his face. By the time we were 38 he was gone, tragic complications of a chronic digestive disorder. I still miss him, the swapping of French homework in sixth form, the evenings in the pub in Soho, his wit and sensitivity.
Or the snatch of a phrase from my daughter as a toddler, common parlance in our house, but so evocative of a time gone by. The nights I would feed her and watch the dawn creep on us, the sight of her watering the garden with her daddy, leaning over at an angle directly symmetrical to the angle of her little yellow watering can. The piggy cake she had for her third birthday. Where is that adorable small child now? When I asked the teenager I live with this questions she wittily replied, “I ate her!” She will never know the grief of losing that small child, even though she has been stretched into a taller, stronger and funnier version.
And what of the grief that surrounds those of us who work in the public sector? Health care professionals, social workers, therapists, police officers, teachers, probation officers? I am sure there are many more categories. How do we deal with the ever present spectre at the feast? Grief is all around when you work with people in need of care. Every day we bear witness to loss, to pain. Death, disability, fear, the related losses that accrue from ill health. It is not just the palliative nurse who lives with grief – that of their own as well as of the families of their patients. A GP who has worked for years trying to help a depressed patient, a social worker whose client goes to prison, a police officer who has to break into a house to find the resident has passed away, a teacher whose pupil is taken into care……the list is endless. When we work with the public we bear witness to the cruelties and difficulties life can bring. We bear witness to other people’s grief while trying to contain ours at the same time.
We believe that we cannot help others in their time of grief if we too are grieving, and maybe that is so. I don’t know. A phrase that often comes back to me when pondering the question of an objective stance for the helping professional, is one used by Professor Kieran Sweeney when talking about (and grieving for) his foreshortened life due to cancer in his late 50s. He said medicine was about being with a patient at the edge of the human predicament, and understanding them when they were there, and letting them understand him being there with them at that point. This reflexivity of being, this human connection, of transparency and presence seems to transcend objectivity. We might not know exactly what someone is going through, as our lived experiences are differently experienced because of the different lives we have led, but we can be there, our presence supported by the griefs we each carry.