For many people, it’s a certain song. For others, a familiar place, a type of drink or a favourite dish. For lots of us, it’s absolutely nothing at all.
Grief, that unwelcome companion, unbeckoned and unwanted, yet ever present. It crops up in the most inconvenient of places, watching, waiting, ready to spring just when the world seems manageable. If it is anything at all, grief is unfair.
Until it strikes, grief is something played out on the big screen or across the pages of a book, a sensitivity that manifests in a loved album, play or poem. As a race, we all experience sadness, a sense of loss. We have believed ourselves to be in the depths of despair. We were idiots. There was a pure grief in our future of which we knew nothing. Now, we berate ourselves for our naivete and yearn for the bleakness we once believed to be unsurpassable.
This new knowledge is a terrible understanding. It takes a myriad of forms. We lose grandparents, people we knew and loved deeply and we grieve for them. But, in an ageing population, we attempt to console ourselves with the awareness that they lived long and happy lives and were ready to move on. We invest great love in our cats and dogs. However, our devotion to them is surely tempered by the innate appreciation that their life span is much shorter than ours.
There are other kinds of loss that we will never, ever come to terms with, sorrow that defies comprehension: the cruel wrenching out of the world of a young person with everything to live for; the devastating accident and the cruelty of modern medicine that, in its mission to save lives, can sustain existence but little else.
Perhaps trying to compartmentalise grief is pointless? Grief is no respector of circumstance. We believe we plumb our own depths of desperation but, in truth, we have much in common when it comes to the edge of bearable heartache. Sometimes, in the depths of our despondency, we cling to the belief that our wretchedness is unique. We believe our anguish is special. But it isn’t. Is that the worst realisation of all – that our darkness is banal?
And so we attempt to make sense of our own mortality and that of the people and animals we love. But the truth of it is this: no matter how many poems tell us that we are united in our experience of loss, we are all alone in our despair. It is the worst kind of isolation, we each of us teeter over our own chasm of distress. And yet we never fall.
By Helen Nugent