Today I read Up Late by Nick Laird, which recently won a Forward Prize for poetry. It is a poem about the death of his father from covid; a poem about grief, and the shape we try to give grief, through elegy, through the shape of our bodies, in the day-to-day. Not all of the poem quite works, I think, but that doesn’t detract from its power. Perhaps in fact it needs moments of stuttering, of losing pace, because that too captures the bagginess of grief, the empty gap of it, as much as any tight stanza. It’s a poem I’ll return to, but for the moment I want to talk about this:
I said what you’d expect.
I love you, Dad, and I want you to keep on fighting,
but if you are too tired now, and in too much pain,
then you should stop fighting, and let go, and whatever
happens it’s okay. I love you. You were a good father.
The kids love you. Thank you for everything.
Then I hung up. And scene. Impossible to grieve
and not know the vanity of grief. To watch one
self perform the rituals that take us. Automaton
of grief, I howled, of course, by myself
in my office, then sobbed for a bit on the sofa.
An elegy I think is words to bind a grief
in, a companionship of grief, a spell
to keep it safe and sound, to keep it
from escaping.“Up Late” by Nick Laird
Impossible to grieve/and not know the vanity of grief. Ouch. Yes. Not how I would have phrased it, but I understand it: it’s easy to see oneself performing grief even as it happens. Depersonalisation is a part of trauma, of course, the out-of-bodiness of shock and loss – but there’s also a strange self-consciousness in grief for many of us. Am I doing this right? Is this how it’s done? That’s part of why we like ritual, right, in a time like that (in times like these): when we are paralysed by the shock of loss, ritual carries us, words and gestures powering that automaton of grief.
Quite a poem. Check it out.
Riffing on it to take me to somewhere else I’ve wanted to go — Something I’ve wanted to write about, and intend to write more fully one day about, is the expected shape of mourning and grief, how curiously for a society that has lost most of its meaningful death rituals our culture is still stuffed full with pretty rigid expectations of how grief goes, its proper direction.
One of these is the narrative of the “chapter two”. This is a phrasing I’ve only heard within the widowed community, used to refer to the next lasting romantic attachment made after loss of a spouse. But while the phrase is new, the cultural expectation isn’t at all. Hell, in the Middle Ages that I study, widows came under serious pressure from friends and family to remarry. These days, there’s still a good deal of Victorian puritanism about the amount of time you should wait after being widowed to find a new partner (see the outcry when Patton Oswalt remarried after Michelle McNamara’s untimely death as a good example), but the cultural narrative is clear that finding a new relationship is like the final seal in a successful completion of grieving. It’s present in cheesy Netflix romcoms where the handsome widower finds new love at Christmastime, and it’s present in conversations with strangers (“it took my brother five years to move on,” someone said to me recently, equating in one breath their brother’s recovery from loss with establishing a new relationship).
The messy truth, of course, is that grief has no end date, no final chapter. I dislike the language of “chapter 2” because it seems to reduce my relationship with Kieran to a storyline – but I dislike it more for the way it tracks the story of my life through romantic relationships. I know it’s meant well, that it’s supposed to show that life doesn’t stop when you’re widowed – something many widowed people struggle with – but I find it frustrating because Kieran wasn’t the first chapter of my life. I lived for a quarter century before he and I got together, and had many difficult, wonderful, rich, strange, funny experiences without him. I then spent nearly fourteen years with Kieran, and those years were profoundly shaped by him. But they don’t belong to him: they belong to me.
I know many people who have been widowed who do not feel whole, and I empathise entirely with how their grief manifests. But – I don’t feel like that. I am a whole person, in and of myself. I have never been anything less than whole. I am a wounded person, currently. Some of those wounds have healed a good deal in the 19 months since Kieran’s death. Some far older wounds have reopened, under traumatic pressure. Saying I am whole does not mean I am entirely sound. But I am not half a person. And if I do form another serious romantic attachment at some point, I will not become any more whole than I am right now. I will become different, because love changes you, of course it does. What would be the point, otherwise? But if I change, it will be another way of becoming more myself.
Coming back to Laird’s poem, thinking of how he writes about elegies, how they make grief manageable, portable, measurable. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing that with my writing here. I told my therapist recently about my frustration with always being told I’m wise, I’m good, that even when I’m trying to be honest the way I present my grief is something people can see as a translation for their benefit, rather than raw meat. Sometimes, I told him, I want to be a hot mess. Not everything I say has to have meaning. Not everything is meant.
That is the core, I think, of my resistance to the idea of second chapters. It’s so easy for me to narrativise my own life; easy for all of us, I suppose. Human beings love stories, and it’s easiest to make sense of ourselves when we can be stories, too. But life has no neat chapters. I may write them, for convenience and ease. But beneath it is still the churn of the ocean, marking its own kind of time.
Do you remember the pure world? I remember it
from being a kid. All was at stake in that place,
one moved through it sideways, through forests
of time, lost in them, and had to be called back
to the moment. Infinities growing in stone,
in moss, in the hayshed, the rain, the wind,
in the darkness under the cattle grid.
Rilke says of the pure unseparated element –
‘ . . . someone dies and is it.’
Yes. That’s it.