A Tasmanian beach in February 2018. Unprompted, a woman I barely know recites Seamus Heaney’s Postscript to me as we stand on the sand; bodies, hair wet after a swim.
It is a grey day, not cold but not warm either, the wind pushing the water towards the sand.
At the dinner table a week later, she cries as she reads excerpts of her dead daughter’s diary to me. The last pieces she has of her.
Her grief hides from her like the spiders in her study, creeping out from behind blinds, from under paper until you can see all the hairy legs, all the ugliness.
I have been thinking about grief constantly for three years. Feeling it for longer without recognising it.
Now, I can’t stop reading about it, trying to learn it.
When it feels as though everyone you love is sick or dying, it is not surprising that you’d want to get good at it.
To treat it as a skill to master like web design, like backstroke.
I read the essay Time Lived, Without Its Flow, in which the British poet Denise Riley writes of the submergence of time after the death of her adult son.
The essay’s first line:
I’ll not be writing about death, but about the altered condition of life.
Before he died, she said, ‘the future lay in front of me as if I could lean into it gently like a finger of land, a promontory feeling its way into the sea’. Afterwards, time is ‘arrested’, it collapses, plateaus.
Months after his death, she is ‘inching along. But not forward, or in any other discernible direction’.
She says she lives ‘inside a great circle with no rim’.
I picture her as a marble that won’t stop rolling.
I read and re-read Bluets, in which Maggie Nelson writes:
It calms me to think of blue as the colour of death. I have long imagined death’s approach as the swell of a wave—a towering wall of blue.
This calms me too.
But strangely it is not death I’m scared of. It is the before and after. It is the collapse that I fear, the rolling.
February 2020. It is Saturday night, my father calls. His Parkinson’s makes his speech hard to understand so we don’t talk on the phone often. (Video is easier, his and my mother’s heads both half out of frame.)
When I answer, he says ‘It’s me, Mike’, instead of ‘It’s me, Dad’. His voice, like him: thin, wobbly.
On the way to the hospital, I try to work out the colour and shape of my feelings. I urge myself to remember it, this sadness that is somehow both hollow and full. This dread, this pain that has already arrived, settled in like a season.
I tell myself that it is a blessing to grieve, it is a gift, because it means you have loved.
I cry, try to pull myself together in the Uber before I get there. I feel as though I need to be brave because my pain is smaller than the pain of others. My loss is smaller.
I Google grief poetry, find Audre Lorde’s Coping, in which she describes the world as ‘a round puddle of sunless water’.
In Anne Sexton’s The Truth the Dead Know, dedicated to her parents who died within months of each other, she writes perfectly, succinctly:
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped.
I re-read Postscript. I think of the woman on the beach more and more often these days. Her blue towel, her sadness, the way her voice quivered over Heaney’s last four lines:
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
I read The Disappearance, a book of letters written by Genevieve Jurgensen to a friend about the loss of her two young daughters in a car accident. It is written years after they have died, and her feelings have crystallised, distilled.
In the first pages she says ‘life is the only way of talking about death’.
At the time of writing, her daughters would have been sixteen and nineteen but instead, they are dead. She grieves not just the unfolded map of their lives, but the mother she could’ve been to them, the different way the world could’ve looked if they were still alive.
‘The children died’, she writes, ‘and for us time stood still’.
I think of a peaty bog, of still water. Time stagnated. Undrinkable.
In Home, Toni Morrison writes:
Death is a sure thing but life is just as certain.
Interviewed eighteen months after the death of her son (a period, she says, that left her wordless), she claims she doesn’t want closure. She just wants ‘what [she] got. Memory. And work… and some more ibuprofen’.
Maggie Nelson again. This time in The Red Parts, upon seeing the children of firefighters who died on 9/11:
Watching their little bodies, I wondered where grief gets lodged in such small vessels. If I looked at them long enough, maybe I would actually see it.
She sees grief as an object. Solid. Immovable.
I decide that grief is a mist. Grief is a long-boiled stock you absorb slowly until you become bigger, gluggy. Like a risotto or something more beautiful than a risotto.
After the death of her mother, Deborah Levy sits in her writing chair. She listens to the sound of the night,
the hissing of pipes, the entropy that makes floorboards creak, the ghostly night bus that comes and goes—always in cities, a far-off distant sound that resembles the sea, yet is just life, more life.
In The Cost of Living, Levy realises what she wanted after her mother’s death was simply ‘more life’.
In the hospital lounge next to the room in which my aunt is dying, I eat a quarter of a cheese sandwich. The twins sit with their long legs dangling over the arms of a sofa.
One cousin sits up perfectly straight, perfectly still.
Another is chewing gum.
Through the wall, we can hear someone singing to her.
We eat, we talk, sometimes we laugh.
While she is going through the motions of dying, we are going through the motions of living. But we are living and that is, I realise, the very least we can do.
Victoria Hannan is a writer and photographer living in Melbourne. Kokomo, her first novel, was the 2019 winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and is out now via Hachette.