Death does not become us

Cape Town – I’m going to write about death and grief. If that makes you feel funny, go and boil some carrots, or watch Ridiculousness, or play Joni Mitchell badly on the guitar. Or sort out the bills into piles: urgent, pending, paid, ignore.

The everyday is comforting. It is the ultimate distraction.

Like today. I spent a long time hewing cheese, tomato and onion sandwiches to take to work. Then I picked stray thread off some newly sewn blouses, hung towels out to dry, wondered about basil, and spent half an hour searching for my red sandals. Not once did I think about death or pain or missing or absence.

But then I drove into town and couldn’t find parking, so I had to take a turn and a turn and another turn. The traffic was high-season mad and the sun was shining on tourists’ shoulders, and I eventually found myself driving past my brother’s old house. The one in which he had left his neat shoes to die. The one I had tried to make nice for him. And old grief suddenly became new grief, felt in rear view: a smudged mirror of memory.

My grief is not special. I know many people who have lost parents and children, husbands and lovers. In the past eight years, I have lost two brothers. Death will happen to all of us. And we will never be the same.

Many people say that grief and death don’t define us. Death does not become us. We are more than the experiences we have had. But there are degrees of definition, and to deny the effects of death’s thorns is to deny the whole garden itself.

I recently watched a video by Megan Devine. She’s an American psychologist with nice pixie hair. She watched her partner drown in a river. She talks about grief and how society’s way of dealing with it is to shut it down with platitudes: “time heals”; “everything happens for a reason”; “this will make you stronger”. She argues that pain does not need to be fixed; it can’t be fixed. Instead, it must be witnessed, acknowledged and allowed to exist.

It is our instinct to fix things. It’s how our capitalist culture has evolved: fight, succeed, conquer, overcome. It’s a ridiculous approach for a species that is so flawed, terrified and vulnerable.

Death changes us. If it doesn’t, we are not human. But the altering isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Since losing half of my sibling quota, I am terrified of having to feel that pain again, yet more primed for how it might be. I am more serious about the world, yet am able to overlook the petty and small. I allow myself to access pain, yet I equally allow myself to access joy. I see past the haziness of constructions and projections and am able to focus on distillation. And I have empathy for others: the widow reading on her own in a cafe, the parent who, after 23 years, cannot say his name.

If we are to become a better species, we need to make death real. As Megan Devine says, we need to tell new stories. The 89 people who died in Paris’s Bataclan Theatre were us. The 16 people who were killed in Cairo last week were us. The 14 people killed in San Bernardino were us. But those who loved them and are left behind are more us, negotiating a world that has suddenly curdled and gone dark. It is they who need our mindfulness. Sadly, the dead are gone.

Time does heal. It knits skin together and makes breakfast seem normal again. It puts a distance between That Day and This Day. It fills in the cracks and even does some polishing. But it also draws new boundaries, and its metronome no longer ticks with the same reliable rhythm.

Most of the time, I can no longer see my brothers clearly. I try at night to set up dreams for myself – ones in which I will see them again. Mostly, I end up dreaming of waves. And there are some days when I can no longer see myself clearly.

Every morning on the way to work, I take a selfie in the car – not because I’m a narcissist, but because I need to see how I am. It’s like a pain gauge – and usually I’m doing just fine. But there are moments when I do catch sight of my brothers – the time I laughed so hard with Richard that I peed my pants; the time Andrew, in his wretched muscles, acted as ball boy when I played tennis with his daughter – and the picture is edged with fatigue, and I take the pain that comes flooding in and I hold it close, because that pain is love. It is a confirmation that they were once here; I am still, missingly, here.

We are so primed for life – “How To Live Well!”; “Eat Butter And Prawns And Horrible Banting Bread And You Will Live Long!”; “Get Good Thighs In 30 Days!”; “Find Your Perfect Job!” – yet we are so dismally unprepared for death. But we can become better people by opening ourselves up to the fear and chaos it brings. We can be better companions.

An old friend lost her husband to cancer about a month ago. A few months before, her beloved father had died. Having been in that place where all the leaves are stripped bare and the world seems to bounce along a surface only the untouched can access, I didn’t offer her platitudes. Nor did I offer New Age mantras about gifts and gratitude and growing and giving. All I said was that it totally sucks. And that she can call me any hour, day or night. I won’t be scared.

Originally posted in Cape Argus

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