Photo my own
Most of my death and dying, and grief and loss reading, has been in English. While my French is “fluent for a Brit”, it’s nowhere close to perfect, and by golly does grief take a cognitive toll. I don’t often willingly pick up a book in French – much less an “academic” one. I willingly listen to podcasts and talks though. There’s something easier when I am not in charge of “page turning” or content flow, when it’s in others’ hands to keep the conversation chugging along. Whether I absorb it fully or not.
But there are French writers who write exquisitely about death and dying, grief and grieving, and whose work has marked me. Some I have come across thanks to the generosity of Anne-Marie, the founder of the hospice, La Maison de Tara. As part of our ongoing development, she’s brought in world-renowned speakers who’ve facilitated weekend workshops for the volunteers. I have benefited enormously from these sessions – variously in English or in French (and always simultaneously translated).
One of the French-language sessions was led by the formidable and wise Christophe Fauré, a French psychiatrist, and something of a guru in the land of grief and loss – particularly that associated with violence, murder, accidents and suicide – the shockingly harrowing deaths. The stories that man will have heard. The broken lives and pain he will have witnessed.
When I met him, I’d already had witnessed too many deaths. It was June 2018. A year after Mike’s death, two years after Edward’s death, and a year before Julia died. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to spend two days learning about grief and loss from a man who’d sat with too many families affected by suicide. But it was a rich session. He had a warm and gentle manner and said things that made sense to me in those early days. I rather fell in love with him on the spot, with his shaved head, goatee beard and warm brown eyes.
There were two things he said that stuck with me (*). Someone asked how long grief lasted. He demurred to answer. Quite rightly. The questioner got more specific. “How long does the really awful truly painful time last?” Again he dodged the question. Quite rightly. But eventually he offered a morsel, complete with caveats.
He said words to the effect of, “For most people, when it is not complicated grief, when there is not too much added trauma, I’d say that, as a very general average, losing a parent when you’re adult or middle-aged – about 9 months. If you’re younger or a child, much longer. Losing a sibling, also about 9 months. Losing a spouse, about 18 months. Losing a child, whatever their age, about 4 years. And please know, there are no rules. These are very rough averages. But I have found that these are the times, approximately, after which “most people” find that they can pick up the pieces of their lives after big loss”.
It’s always stayed with me, that “4 year” answer. I’ve waited for the 4-year mark. I’ve wanted time to speed up so I could get there sooner.
And now, I have arrived.
Today is four years since Julia died.
And I find that No.
There is no big transformation.
There is no big change.
There is no magic emanating from the tip of a wand.
There’s no added zest in my step. I do not feel lighter.
My vision, my other senses, don’t feel sharper.
The dense weight in my heart and chest – still there.
The tension in my belly – still there.
The tightness around my jaw and brow – yup, all there.
The leaden feeling in my legs also.
And I know… I know that it’s different.
Differently easier, differently harder.
Always shifting, always changing.
More times where I can fully hold Julia in my mind while having a conversation with someone else, and it’s not too distracting or unbearably painful (for she is always, always on my mind – just know that). More times where I can carry on a conversation with her, then switch to a different task, seemingly effortlessly.
But the heavy missing, the painful longing – no – that hasn’t gone.
The non-understanding, the unanswered questions, all there still.
There is so much I will never know.
The lovely Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer who writes and sends a daily poem, often about grief and loss, (often related to her son Finn who died aged 16, by suicide like Julia), wrote this just a couple of days ago, as I was already in the full somatic experience of “the date” coming up. She wrote on (my) 28 June:
What Has Changed
There was a time I knew in days
how long it had been since you died.
There was a time when every Saturday
signified another week, when the fourteenth
marked another month. I don’t know when
I stopped counting, when the days and weeks
and months no longer felt like mules
tethered to the post of that day,
each of them carrying the terrible weight
of your loss. Now the moments are more like birds.
I fly on them. The memory of you flies with me.
Ouch. I found that poem hard to read. I read it and re-read it. Still hard.
I wrote back to Rosemerry.
I have read and re-read this… so many times today…
Yes – for another week, or month, or date… but not for the annual date.
30th June is the day Julia took her life.
Her death certificate says 1 July. But I know she died on 30th June. Just because we didn’t find her till 1 am, and just because she wasn’t seen by a medic until 1h23 am, doesn’t mean it was 1st July.
That date, that distinction, feels so heavy for me.
This week, this year – four now this Friday-Saturday – not like a bird at all.
Unless an albatross pulling down my heart.
Rosemerry was quick to respond, and did so sweetly:
Oh dear Emma,
No, I don’t think for the year anniversary it will be like a bird for me, either. I wonder if ever.
Thank you for sharing with me about the death date for Julia—oh friend. Of course it feels heavy. I can feel it in me, too.
I am thinking of you in these days leading up to June 30, July 1. I am cradling your heart in mine.
So no magic lifting for me. Not this year. Not this deathiversary.
No light birds.
No butterflies emerging from the chrysalis.
Just the familiar goo.
And yes – life continues. My life continues.
I have picked up a gazillion pieces, and the mosaic I am forever making looks okay – more than okay – given what is, given what has been. I am proud of my art work, my life work, my living and breathing and loving and creating work.
I am guessing that that is what Christophe Fauré meant by picking up pieces.
(*) The second thing he said that stayed with me? It came from a private conversation I had with him during a break. I told him about all my losses and asked, “How do I do this? How do I hold all these losses? All of them, together, at the same time? Each one bigger than the one before? How do I grieve my friend when I have lost a brother? How do I grieve a brother when I have lost a husband? How?”
And he just looked at me warmly and said words like, “I don’t know. But my sense is, in little bits, little bits you can absorb. One moment your friend, one moment your brother, one moment your husband – with breaths in between – until you can absorb some bigger bits”.
And all of that was before Julia.
It wasn’t easy even then.
It’s not ever been easy.
I miss Edward. I miss Don. But they barely figure in my grief landscape.
And for that I am sorry. They deserve more remembering, more missing, more honouring.
I just don’t have the capacity.
Still all too much.
Annual markers are still shite.
And like Rosemerry, I suspect they always will be.