A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
There’s a brilliant film on BBC iPlayer by Adam Curtis called Bitter Lake. Aside from being about decades of war in Afghanistan it has nothing to do with grief. An underlying message within it resonated with me beyond its immediate subject matter, though. The real point of the documentary is to show how the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we no longer seek to understand the complexity of the world around us. It aims to offer a deep and thorough counterpoint to the thin – and often manipulative – stories told by those in power today.
Watching it made me realise how accustomed we have become to making judgments based on short and snappy (social) media soundbites. Judges who apply their own country’s law are made out to be enemies of their nation. Women who have worked their whole lives to build successful careers are reduced to the status of ‘celebrity wives’ when they marry men of profile. Bereaved families from war torn countries, who have doubtless suffered unimaginable psychological injuries, simply become ‘immigrants’.
Perhaps, though, these headlines are often thought rather than felt. Of course, it’s always easier to believe something fleetingly than it is to try to understand something deeply.
This, I believe, isn’t necessarily our fault. Our ability to empathise hasn’t kept the same pace as our capability to create and share news. Arguably, our brains still function at a somewhat emotionally local level while facing increasingly global issues. It’s really no wonder that we suffer such high levels of stress and anxiety these days. As Matt Haig puts it in his compelling book Reasons to Stay Alive: ‘We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe worth of darkness.’
The four-year anniversary of my wife’s death is just around the corner and I’d been feeling alright about it until earlier this week. I had mentally written the headlines: My son and I are settled at home; Jackson seems happy; I feel a million times better, healthier and more secure than I did four years ago etc. I suppose I reduced the potential feelings to thoughts, forgetting that it’s the way we feel in grief that tends to overrides what we think.
Why the sudden sensation of heaviness and lethargy? I asked myself last night. Why has my mood dipped so low when I’ve already worked things through in my head?
The loud bang of a firework outside my window interrupted this brief mental analysis as I reached for the thermostat to warm up the house a little. I flicked the light on in the living room to break the abrupt darkness that had begun to take over the room sooner since the clocks went back.
And there it was: November.
Completely unmistakable; dark, cold, loud and utterly evocative of a time I would rather be able to forget. A time that, year on year, I think I can get my head around but that, regardless, usurps me emotionally without fail. The smell of smoke, the crashing sounds, the bitter cold, the blackness of the sky, all evoking memories that can often be ‘unthought’ but, evidently, can never be ‘unfelt’.
Even as I write I’m beginning to wonder whether this is even making sense or whether it’s little more than a written stream of consciousness counselling session. But perhaps that’s the point: sometimes we try to oversimplify things that are inherently complex. We crave neat conclusions to chaos. We want to reach the end of things that are infinite. We hope to think our way out of things that actually need to be felt. Things that will be felt even if when we think they won’t.
How simple things would be if anything was in fact simple.