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a blog about being well, becoming well, staying well - and flourishing. Written by a professor and family doctor living between Liverpool, UK and Granada, Spain

Grief and Joy
Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Here are four of the many wise and thoughtful responses I’ve received to my recent posts.  The writers have given their permission for me to share them with you.


I was thinking, "Don't rush. Grief doesn't have a destination. It's a journey of a lifetime".  I wonder if you have read "Carrying the Elephant" by Michael Rosen?  It's the first of three volumes of poetry for adults, primarily about the death of his son.  He has some powerful imagery about "walking along".  I find this helpful, and the poem always makes me cry.  I think the whole journey of life thing is a bit trite, but I like the idea that we walk along.  I take myself to the lakes and think of those who accompany me on the way, sometimes we hold hands, sometimes pulling or helping each other, sometimes the kids and dogs dash about in front.  There are those who walk with us for a while, join another group then return, and those who just spend a short time with us.  There are those with whom we walk in comfortable silence, and those to whom we cannot stop chattering.  We take in the ever changing view, in all its weathers.  I find life can be hard to make sense of, and I find this idea comforting.



My brother died nearly 15 years ago, and I still miss him.  I found it took a year before I was back to normal functioning. One of the hardest things was not the absolute grief – which was like falling off a cliff into profound sadness, but the brain fog.  Quite simple tasks became almost impossible, and academic work was quite beyond me.  My experience was that with time, and by that I mean over the course of the year, not just a few weeks, although the level of sadness didn’t diminish, the frequency of falling off the cliff did, and each time I fell off, it lasted slightly less long.  So I went from being always at the bottom of the cliff, to being mostly at the top of the cliff, but with episodes of feeling the same searing loss as right at the beginning.  It was like losing half my self.

 I’d like to add one more thought that came to me while reading your blog: when one grieves a loved one, the more this person was important to us, the heavier we’ll feel when we lose this person because to some extent, this person inhabits us more; we sometimes feel responsible for pursuing this person’s mission; thus it feels like gaining a lot of weight suddenly and having to learn how to balance our body with this new weight after.



I agree completely when you challenge the foolish notion that there is a set ‘healthy’ period of time to grieve. Simply not true! Loss affects everyone differently; the person, your relationship and manner of their passing also play a large part in determining how you come to terms with what has happened. In many ways, you never recover from what has happened, but you learn to accept it and manage your emotions. I know that my grief is managed when I can let go of those moments I missed or wasted (survivor’s guilt?), and think of that person with a sense of joy that overrides my sorrow. Other times I relive the grief as raw as ever, usually when I think I should have moved on – but this is not something that makes me concerned or ashamed.

 I feel that in many ways people are the memories they gain and share with others. These transcend being, and can never be taken away from you. I will feel sadness as well as happiness, and this will probably continue in waves throughout my life. It means that the person was important to me. And I find that to be a comforting thought.



Thinking/wondering about grief and how long it lasts, I think we can be still grieving gently at some level while learning to live on without the person we mourn, so these two experiences co-exist within us. There isn't a 'stop time' when the grief has ebbed away and we see no mark of it on the sand; there isn't a 'start time' when happiness and lightness begins again and we exchange one for the other. Each informs the other, perhaps.

In the poem 'Lovers on Aran' Heaney asks a wonderful question of the Aran land-sea scape: 'Did sea define the land, or land the sea?' and he goes on to say that 'each drew new meaning from the waves' collision'. I wonder if perhaps grief and joy are just like that, defining each other, quite powerfully, each drawing new meaning from the collision that happens within our identify when we are shaken and upended.

And I think of how you've also had to cope with your accident and the whole recovery process, and that 'squishiness of being' that reminds us we are so very vulnerable, and so very precious. And how in your blog you talked about handing over to others to take care of you. I imagine that here, too, in the collision of strength and weakness in our physical being, we might find some definition, some new meaning/s about who we sense ourselves to be, our growing identity.

It's late, it's a dark blue night, the wind is sweeping in from the west; rain is gusting down from the Connemara hills and sparkling against the windows. I send my warmest thoughts, and to Sue and Sasha, every good wish. It sounds so good to have their care and comfort. I get the impression you are forging ahead to where you want to be, so I'm also sending various Irish pishogues, magical spells and mythical beings to speed that up!

If you'd like to read the Seamus Heaney poem, a favourite of mine, here it is:

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves' collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

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