Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Valediction: Reflections on Grief


Lady with the frilled blouse
And simple tartan skirt,
Since you have left the house
Its emptiness has hurt
All thought.  In your presence
Time rode easy, anchored
On a smile; but absence
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
The days.  They buck and bound
Across the calendar
Pitched from the quiet sound
Of your flower-tender
Voice.  Need breaks on my strand;
You’ve gone, I am at sea.
Until you resume command
Self is in mutiny.

This classic poem from Seamus Heaney offers an insightful consideration of the way we encounter and react to the loss of a loved one.  It is a “valediction,” literally a “saying farewell,” as when a student valedictorian gives the farewell address at a graduation.  Heaney cleverly crafts this poem using a string of images associated with sailing to depict the experience of grief when a loved one is lost.  The poem begins, “Lady with the frilled blouse and simple tartan skirt,” and right from the beginning we see that it is addressed to her, to the one who has been lost.  The whole poem is a kind of plea, a kind of yearning expressed to her.  When we are reacting to loss, this kind of yearning for the presence of the loved one can be a powerful emotion.[i]  We long for the presence of the other, for a living conversation which can restore what has been, but we cannot undo what has happened and bring that person back like she was.  So we often address the image of the one we have lost, which we hold inside, in whatever way that loved one is remembered by us, even if it is a “frilled blouse and simple tartan skirt.”

Heaney continues:  “Since you have left the house/ Its emptiness has hurt/ All thought.”  But how can thought hurt?  Aren’t thinking and feeling two different or separate things?  Several decades of recent brain research show this assumption to be largely false.[ii]  Even the most rational of thoughts carry emotional associations, and emotions themselves can have their own kind of logic.  Consider how we remember events and people.  Most of the time, when we are remembering something, we are not simply calling to mind neutral packets of data or information.  Our memories, our packets of information, are often emotion-laden.[iii]  We remember things by remembering how they felt and how they make us feel, whether joyful or anxious or fearful or angry or excited.  In fact, what gives memories their staying power within us is often the emotions with which we associate them, and nowhere is emotion tied to thinking so clearly as when we grieve.  The poet looks at the empty house after the loss of a loved one, and its emptiness hurts to think about.  The space which had once been filled with the presence of another, of activities and familiar routines, of conversations and comfort, of special moments and occasions, is now bare.  It hurts to think about because the space now serves to remind him of what is no longer available—a face, a certain gesture, the tone of a voice, comforting arms, a certain fragrance, daily routines, idiosyncratic moments, coordinated lives.  What makes loss so difficult is the simple yet profound fact that it hurts.  It hurts to think about and be reminded of all the spaces which two lives have shared, space which is now ripped open and drained of the other’s presence.  As two writers on grief put it, “Life is details and grief wrenches them away.  When death cuts away the details, in their place it leaves not so much a void but the discernible weight of pain to fill in the holes.”[iv]  Thought hurts when it is confronted with remembered spaces now lost.

Heaney then describes the felt contrast between the loved one’s presence and absence:  “In your presence/ Time rode easy/ Anchored on a smile; but absence/ Rocked love’s balance, unmoored/ The days.”  These lines are filled with sailing images.  He is remembering that the loved one’s presence felt like easy sailing, smooth days of enjoyment, always with her smile as an anchor to hold their lives together in place.  But now her absence has rocked the balance they shared like a ship which is tossed around and dangerously close to capsizing.  The patterns and routines of their life together have now been lost, and he is unmoored and drifting through the days.  This marked contrast is often felt by people when we grieve.  We say things like: “I just didn’t realize how good we had it.”  Or, “I wish John was here, I just feel so lost without him!”  This is an honest kind of reaction, a way to begin to express the felt dimensions of what has happened to us.  The yearning to cling to a remembered past over against a painful present is a kind of survival technique, a way of mitigating what can often feel overwhelming in the moment.  This is okay, particularly when grieving is at its most intense periods.  Yet it can also be a first step toward finding in the past those resources which will enable us to give nuance to our memories of loved ones, to put them in a new context, to find and create a new story of what has happened to us.           

Nevertheless, grief can feel tumultuous.  Heaney continues:  the days “buck and bound/ Across the calendar.”  Like a ship that is tossed around by powerful forces of wind and wave which converge around it, so the griever will feel emotions so powerful that they may scare him or her with their intensity.  And not only are they intense; they can be volatile.  We may wonder at times if we are going a little crazy, feeling deeply sad at one moment and angry or guilty the next.  These powerful and often conflicting emotions feel as if they slam into us or wash across us with little control on our part, like a huge wave washes across the deck of a ship.  Part of what sometimes keeps people stoic and tightly controlled in reaction to a loss can be a fear of being seen as out of control.  We don’t want to feel the assumed shame of crying at an awkward moment or blubbering in an “undignified” way.  But such moments are human, all too human, and they can be a natural part of experiencing loss.  We need one or more affirming people with whom we can be our grieving selves without a fearful sense of shame.

Heaney follows this with lines that offer a striking image for the experience of loss:  “Need breaks on my strand;/  You’ve gone, I am at sea.”  A “strand” is a nautical term for a shoreline or coastline, think stranded on a deserted island.  The grieving words of the poet here suggest the reality of being stranded, alone without the loved one.  This is the painful reality he must confront, and yet, his emotional need cannot seem to fully accept it.  Just as waves break upon a stranded beach, so his emotional waves keep breaking on the reality that he is alone.  He wants the loved one back, feels the intense need for her come in waves, and yet each time, they break upon the reality that she is gone.  The finality strikes the shore of his life:  “You’ve gone.”  This is the painful heart of grief, and the process of grieving is saying this to ourselves, letting it break upon the shore of our awareness, as many times as we need to realize it and keep realizing it.

Finally the poem concludes:  “Until you resume command/ Self is in mutiny.”  It is a plea for the loved one’s return in the hope that order will be restored and the griever’s self will no longer be in mutiny.  Until that happens, the self will feel chaotic and unmanageable.  This kind of sentiment and yearning for the return of the loved one and the restoration of life as it was before is entirely understandable.  It is the self’s way of reacting to loss and handling the overwhelming feelings which follow.  But at some point, there comes the realization that the griever cannot give “command” to a past that is no longer possible anymore.  The self’s “mutiny” can then be seen as a kind of search for those elements and resources within the self which will offer the possibility of change and even growth through the process.  The griever can experience strange and even mutinous feelings toward her or his past and loved one.  This is not betrayal, but more like a kind of testing of new parts of the self and new ways of approaching life after loss.  The griever can ultimately ask, “who am I going to be now that this has happened to me?”[v]

[i] Therese Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign: 
     Research Press, 1984), 33-4, writes, “There will be intense yearning, an aching and pining for
     what has been taken away.  This is the single most typical feature of grief.”
[ii] I am thinking here particularly of the work of Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion,
      Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam, 1994).
[iii] Keith Ansell Pearson, How to Read Nietzsche (New York: Norton & Co., 2005), 55, summarizes
       Nietzsche’s insight on memory with the following description:  “Memory is not just a neutral
       recollection of events and things that have happened to us.  It is also bound up with our
      affective or emotional life.  The things of the past haunt us, have the potential to unsettle us,
      and remind us of experiences we have forgotten and wish to forget.  Life is full of mummies,
      ghosts and phantoms – a whole series of people and places that exist for us as virtual objects.”
[iv] Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff,  About Grief:  Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos (Chicago:
       Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 19.
[v] Susan Berger, The Five Ways We Grieve  (Boston: Trumpeter, 2009), writes, “As I began collecting
      the stories of more than sixty survivors of significant loss, I started to see patterns. When people
      experience the loss of a loved one, they consciously or unconsciously develop a new identity
      based on their changed circumstances.”  She draws from the work of Dr. Robert Neimeyer,
      whose recent efforts have been focused on the importance of “meaning reconstruction in
      response to loss.”