New Year Thoughts on Grief and Friendship

On New Year’s Eve, we stood outside — four of us gathered in the back garden — and we watched the fireworks blossoming in the sky over the rooftops. It was a cold, clear night. We had been drinking wine and eating Chinese food. I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory, after what has been a punishing year; but it felt important, nevertheless, to mark the occasion, to say farewell properly to a year in which everything in life changed for me.

A year before, I had celebrated New Year in Chengdu, imagining different futures than this one, futures untouched by all this grief and sadness, futures in which Elee, my partner, was still living, in which she would still be there to celebrate the turning of another year and yet another year alongside me. I couldn’t have known back then that in only a few weeks’ time, we would be facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and Elee’s too-rapid decline.

But here I was, one year on, with a group of friends standing in the frosty garden. And everything was different, and Elee was no longer there. But the fireworks were beautiful against the sky, and the icy night air was catching the back of my throat and making me gasp. So we stood outside until the fireworks came to an end, until we were shivering with the cold. Then we went inside to get warm, and I proposed some drunken toasts to Elee and to friendship, and I found myself choked up a little with emotion, and I cried a bit, and we wished each other a happy 2017.

Now, a few days later, I find myself thinking about the year that has passed, and about the year to come; and I find myself thinking — once again — about the twin themes of grief and friendship. Because these two things seem to me to be woven together so closely that I cannot disentangle them. So here are a few thoughts, to help welcome the new year.

One thing strikes me more than anything else: that this whole business of grieving and sadness has felt nothing like I imagined it would. I suppose that what I expected was something like the classic trajectory that I first read about, years ago, in the books by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But over the past few months, this model seems to have had very little to say to me. I can’t really make sense of it. Denial? But the reality of loss has been so unarguably there that denial would seem strange. Anger? Towards whom, and why? It might be different if somebody was to blame, but they weren’t. Bargaining? Once again, who is there to bargain with? Having no notion of God or gods, there is no deal to be struck, there is nobody with whom to negotiate. Depression? I have felt more sadness than I have ever known before, but not depression. And finally, acceptance… But it seems that the patient work of acceptance was where the whole thing began — in all those meetings with the oncologist, with Elee asking questions to find out what was happening, what the best advice was, with our endless conversations about how we might live in the light of this new reality — as we adjusted ourselves to the fact that what was really happening was in fact happening.

Schooled in such road-maps and ways of seeing, and finding them lacking, I have occasionally caught myself wondering — absurdly — if I am doing it right. Am I going about grieving in the right way? Or am I missing something crucial? Why am I not experiencing anger? Why am I not depressed? Why haven’t I had a foxhole-like conversion to a clutch of vaguely religious notions, so I can engage in a spot of bargaining? Perhaps, were I truly wedded to this particular road-map, I might suspect that the answer to these questions — by a process of elimination — was that I must be in denial. But this, too, feels wide of the mark, and this kind of suspicion always seems undermining and unhelpful. It may be, of course, that this is a model that works in many cases. Or it may be that grief is less mappable than the models suggest, that every grief is as unique, and as singular, as the relationship that preceded it. I do not know.

But if I don’t recognise much in this model of grieving, conversely there is also a lot that it doesn’t seem to address. It doesn’t say much about how sadness feels physically — the strange, quiet immensity of it, felt in the body. It doesn’t say anything about the difference between the slower-moving pull of this sadness, and the animal, physical grief that still sometimes overwhelms me, taking me by surprise, bubbling up through my entire being. It doesn’t say anything about that physical ache of a body for another body to which it has long been accustomed. And — above and beyond the sheer physicality of grief — it doesn’t say anything about how grief is not just a solitary thing, but something that is shared, something that connects us to others who are also grieving, who may be differently grieving for the same person, or who may be grieving for other kinds of loss. It doesn’t, that is, say how even in the midst of it all, instead of isolating us, grief and sadness can connect us to the world and to each other.

This, perhaps, is the thing that I have learned most over the past few months: that grief and sadness are not just about severing, but also about joining. They are deeply, profoundly social. Sadness, sorrow and grief seem to be intimately, inextricably, tied up with friendship and community. We grieve, because people matter to us. And this mattering and this appreciation are capable of being shared; they are things that none of us own as our exclusive property. Sadness and grief do not efface this mattering and this appreciation. Instead they bear witness to it, and carry it forward into the future. Over the past months, the one thing I have valued above all else is the knowledge that loss is not just personal but interpersonal, that all of that mattering and appreciation that is bound up in the sadness can feed back into the friendships and the communities in which I am involved, can help to build, rebuild and strengthen connections in a world that has so starkly changed.

So on midnight, on New Year’s Eve, as I stood in the icy cold of the back garden at night, watching the fireworks blossoming in the sky, and as the sadness caught the back of my throat like the chill of the night air, I breathed in deeply, getting used once again to how it felt. And then I took heart from all this friendship, from the fireworks that cracked and sparkled over the rooftops, and from everything that is shared.

Comments 10

  1. I too have felt puzzled that grief doesn’t follow that standard trajectory, although I’m sure that for some people it’s important to know that emotions like anger are not wrong. I’m glad that you have a community of friends with whom to share and experience loss and with whom you can look to the future. I hope this coming year has much joy, kindness and adventure to offer you, as well as a multitude of new perspectives and new stories.

  2. I always felt it was about learning to cope. Getting used to the way things have turned out. We are all so completely different, I’m never sure why the need to pigeon hole, be put into categories. I guess that’s how those people cope!

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this lovely meditation, Will. Having worked in therapy with many people who were grieving, I want to affirm, yes, every grief is different and has its own rhythms. I also really appreciate your seeing that grief happens in community, and while death does rip us apart, it also brings possibilities of relationship. Lots of love to you.

  4. Will, I also have had problems with the five stages. Firstly, if they even exist, which like you I question, they certainly seem to come in a jumbled up order for those people who have apparently experienced them. Denial in your case was never really an option as you had time to prepare: when sudden, unexpected death is laid in front of you, denial does appear to be a real possibility. This simply cannot be true, I must be dreaming……. then you wake up to the awful reality.
    Your comments about friends and the comfort they bring fit totally with our experience, particularly friends who have lost a loved one long before they would have been expected to die. With them you can laugh, cry, scream, joke or just sit in silence: they will understand and never judge whether your behaviour (Will, why does this page have an American spell checker which insists on redlining my spelling of behavior) is apt in those moments when you are supposed to be grieving. To me there is no correct comportment for grief, each of us has their own way and we should accept that.
    After Andrew died I remember talking to the headmaster of the American school, whose daughter Ariel died in the crash of American Airlines near Cali just before Christmas more than twenty years ago. He said it must be easier for “believers” as they could get both get angry with God, and then could fall back into a peaceful god-willing/inshalla trance. This, apparently neither you nor I can do, so as you say, there is nobody to get angry with nor is there any sense in the question of why did you do this to me, and not someone else. One philosophically accepts that in an non-predestined world it just happened to you or me with no rhyme, reason or heavenly interference.
    Depression. As you say, their is a vast difference between depression and sadness, with the latter coming in many forms. The sudden welling up of tears, even years later, for no apparent reason other than some little detail that brought them to your mind. I remember once a few years ago when your mother was in lake Calima, she quite suddenly burst into tears remembering the twins she had lost at birth more than forty years ago. It was a chilly evening with a fine mist almost turning to rain and I remember holding your mum close to me and we both felt the comforting warmth and understanding that can only come when one has grieved.
    Finally, Will, thanks for sharing your beautifully expressed feelings on grief and grieving. They are, I’m sure, a comfort to you and will also be a comfort to others who, like myself, are lucky enough to read them

  5. Thank you, Will, I lost my partner three years ago, the grief continues in an affirmative way. Your words as always, beautiful, apt and supportive.

    Maggy

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