BBefore my first contact with real grief, I had imagined what it might feel like. I had wondered – in the recesses of my mind more than anything else – if it would hurt, physically, or if it would hurt my heart. I also wondered if maybe that was the thing that finally triggered my generalized anxiety from time to time, turning it into a real psychotic breakdown. But it wasn’t like that.
When I lost a relative to suicide, there was a week or two of numbness. I guess it was a shock. And then I started pretending that everything was fine.
I pretended to be hungry, I pretended to want to see people. I even pretended to process the loss. I’ve sat in bars and cafes with friends and friends of friends and said things like ‘It’s been hard, but I’m taking each day as it comes’ evoking feelings of acceptance and of determination, as if I were rehearsing for a play.
I also remember saying to more than one person, “I understand why he did it and I have to respect that decision.”
Years later, thinking back to that time, I guess a lot of what I said and did was more than just a coping mechanism. It was an elaborate, albeit unconscious, diversionary attempt. The more I talked about my grief, the less someone would think I was losing it. The more information I volunteered, the more people left me alone.
Of course, these conversations left me feeling empty. Or not just empty; empty and sad and embarrassed and angry. I too shared the hope that I could get rid of some of the horrible things inside of me, but because the horrible things inside of me were big and real and would take time, there was no relief. And, with each revelation, I had the impression of betraying him.
I started writing my book, Bain de soleil, in the winter of 2019 during a writing residency in Italy. More than a year had passed since the loss itself.
I woke up early in the morning, went downstairs to make a coffee, then went back up to my office which overlooked the hills of Abruzzo and wrote. I was writing late at night. I’ve written about fear and grief and what it’s like to be left behind. I’ve written about relationships and regrets and what we’re supposed to do knowing that people can leave this earth voluntarily, and it will sometimes feel like your fault.
While writing, I found that there was a whole piece of stuff that I needed to say. And when I started talking to publishers interested in publishing my book, I realized that I wanted to share these things with the world.
The grief, in the end, after the numbness and simulation, wasn’t just painful and achingly lonely. It took away the comforts of everyday life, so I was compelled to seek it out. There was a time, after a year, when I started looking up at the clouds and wistfully brushing my fingers against the leaves of the trees. I was waking up to the unending beauty of life on earth, as the loss of someone reminded me: it’s not for everyone. And it’s not for long.
In her collection of essays, Upstream, Mary Oliver talks about learning from Walt Whitman that a poem is not first or foremost a literary thing, but a place; a temple or a chamber. She says that a poem – and perhaps, then, a book or some writing – is a place to feel things. An offer to the reader: come in and live life the way you need to.
Writing about our worst experiences — or our best, or our weirdest — doesn’t just help us understand ourselves. He won’t just take your hand and hold it through the often disconcerting experience of being alive. It won’t just teach you to say what needs to be said or to tell the truth.
Writing about life also offers companionship to the world beyond our own lives. It is a room in which to feel things.
Sunbathing by Isobel Beech is now available through Allen and Unwin