After the final goodbye, how do we go on?

After the final goodbye, how do we go on?

March 18, 2023

There is a horizon in everyone’s lives. We carry its distance from the moment of our birth, and on reaching it can no longer describe it. This is journey’s end. The final goodbye.

Those left behind are left to describe the landscape of grief and of the life and the death that led to that point. For many it is unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. Some fall to silence, some to distraction, some to creation. Some try to make sense of death’s grasp, others merely to seek solace. Of all creatures, we mortals are the only ones who can raise our emotions into an articulation of pain and love.

Grief is often inexpressible. Yet trying to express it is what makes us human.Credit:

We are, despite everything, social animals, and what bind us are words. Language is the bridge for one soul to cross to another.

In the darkness of grief, how to reach into your heart and mind and extract the right words to define yourself in lamentation? Will your words be received in the same form as when they left you?

You have no control over it. You just hope you can sculpt a recognisable shape. But writing and speaking of loss is not a test. It is elemental to being human and some tap into a well, others reside in silence. This, too, is elemental to being human. Sometimes no words speaks volumes.

After the death of my son three years ago, some friends greeted me with a wordless embrace. It was enough. I knew what they were trying to say; that grief is inexpressible, that coming up against the horizon of nothingness is beyond words.

And yet for three years words have washed up onto the shore. Several weeks ago, a mother who had lost her son emailed me, asking if she could use some of my words as part of a memorial to her son. Of course, I replied. A little while later she emailed me back a photograph of the mural. This is the resonance of what it means to be human. We are, despite everything, not alone.

There has been no plan, no dotted main points to the words; just a tidal surge, of giving voice to thoughts in prose and poems. This is the latest, written only a couple of weeks ago:

The Weight

Who knew that ashes would weigh the same

in your arms as when you held him as a baby.

You hold them close to your chest,

your heart breaking, this is not something

you were expecting, to be sent back 20 years

to the cradling of love, small soft body

against yours now an emptiness of sky

heavy on your breast.

Each breath is a word, spoken or unsaid,

but what can you say as you place him

in a snug shovel-dug hole in the earth

but keep warm, my beautiful boy.

We brush the plaque now sitting over him

with our fingers – a kiss goodbye of love.

We take a small jar of him home with us.

We have his smile, we say in tear-mist breath.

That night a light rain falls and I think of him

alone in the damp earth. You are not alone I say.

You are not alone.

“Grief” entered the language, and thus people’s lives and deaths, in the early 13th century, the word “bereave”, meaning to rob, from about 900. Dictionaries point to grief meaning “hardship, suffering, pain, bodily affliction”, deriving from the Latin “gravare”, meaning make heavy.

Sculpting grief into sentences is both blessing and hardship, for it is a construction of remembrance and love that is built on tears.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw death and grief as more blessing. In a letter to Adelheid von der Marwitz in 1919, he wrote: “Death, especially the most completely felt and experienced death, has never remained an obstacle to life for a surviving individual, because its innermost essence is not contrary to us (as one may occasionally surmise), but it is more knowing about life than we are in our most vital moments.

The poet Rilke believed that grief over death gave those who remained a fuller life.Credit:Jim Pavlidis

“I always think that such a great weight with its tremendous pressure somehow has the task of forcing us into a deeper, more intimate layer of life so that we may grow out of it all the more vibrant and fertile.”

Rilke, of course, never met Kerry Packer, who in recounting when he had been clinically dead for a few seconds, said: “I’ve been on the other side and let me tell you son, there’s f—ing nothing there.”

Perhaps the final words should go to Shakespeare, who in a wildly different context to our ordinary lives in Macbeth has Malcolm say to Macduff after the latter learns his family has been slaughtered: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak/ Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

Warwick McFadyen’s The Ocean: A meditation, in prose and poetry, on grief is available at bookstores online.

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