What I have learned about grief (so far)

I thought it would be noisy.

In the preceding years I feared it, the maelstrom malevolence, jaws awaiting me, to swallow up identity and reason. I watched it approaching, week by week as my mother’s health waned. The diagnosis gave us the end point, though not a timescale.

After two months living in the front room beside her hospital bed and going through the gut-wrenching vigil of watching her make her final journey the initial forty-eight hours after her death were heady. There was a sense of great sadness but also so much relief, she was, after all, free of the pain and challenges which had been limiting her for years. I imagined her smiling, on a sunlit beach in foreign lands in the sixties, like those in her photographs of pre-marriage travels, waving to us with glee, mischievous, fun-filled grin in place.

There is much to do after a death, organising is a great refuge from the chasm of loss.

I am rational, like Elinor Dashwood my default it to “think”, to reason around life’s challenges, to grab a book or Wiki page and learn. In the beginning I reasoned that to keep active was a good way to start. I also reckoned that to deal with the milestones in the journey of being “without” her would also be helpful way to manage the sense of loss. We took charge of planning and leading the funeral, sending out death certificates, notifying authorities, I am a natural administrator so this is a comfortable place for me.

Weeks passed, things took much longer than seemed “normal” in lockdown and it was four months before we were finally able to bury Mum’s ashes. We stood together in the garden of rest, parakeets chirping and wing-whirring among the yews, and I was washed by a wave of emotion, until this point I had cried very little. I am not great at crying, I do not enjoy or allow myself strong emotion readily and fear that should I let it in it will wash me away entirely. People used to talk about children this way when I was younger “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”, I am the same with emotion. You shall not pass.

I had begun writing a book I had been planning. I work well with deadlines and the busy-ness of the project (and associated terror of the creative, fearing censure, or success) filled me up. In the aftermath of the publication I began to unravel.

Nothing “felt” right. I was uncomfortable, emotionally dissonant. We had lived with my parents throughout the final three years of Mum’s life and in a bizarre accident of timing – and over three months later than expected – completed on our flat in the week of her death. We moved house, became “empty nesters” and lost my Mother within, in the end, a space of forty-eight hours. The structures which had kept my identity throughout my life, the roles which defined me – daughter, mother, carer – vanished.

I retreated into my head, it is my safe space. I could not allow myself to feel because there was too much.

I began to unpick creations, long worked-at and hoped for, I made changes to the things I could control. I came up with plans one day and took them apart the next. Physical symptoms began to emerge, chronic pain, blood pressure issues, as though my body was working out my emotions when my mind and emotions wouldn’t. I observed, as though an interested observer, that my diagnosis of insanely high blood pressure, showed that my heart was not happy. No shit Sherlock.

Yet still no storm, no tirade, no Ophelia wanderings in the local park, scaring off the school kids and causing ructions on Nextdoor.

Summer passed in a blur of unseasonal dampness and grey days. I had blogged about life and musings throughout Mum’s final five years, but this experience took me into silence. I could not explain it and each time I tried to fit it to words it was as though mental shutters came down, officious and grumpy. I was on one side of a glass wall, the world wandering by, lion in the zoo, watching dull-eyed.

I felt trapped. I knew other people experienced grief. I knew many had faced loss, more so during life in the time of Covid. I tried to tell myself that these experiences were “normal”. They didn’t feel normal, what seemed most strange was the lack of feeling. Surely there should be something? I was moderately depressed, disinterested, but the expected drama failed to materialise. After eight months it felt too late to Mrs Bennett my way into my bed and stay there demanding smelling salts. Life inched forwards.

In the end I arrived in the reality of my sadness in a counselling session. I hadn’t been able to admit that I missed her. It seemed selfish, and pointless, to do so, when it was much better for her to be free from the pain and challenge which had marked her final years. I had felt that to say I missed her was in some way to wish her back, to hold her responsible, somehow, for leaving us. I went to church for the first time in five years and cried into my mask, unable to sing the words of familiar hymns because they reminded me of Sunday evenings in our childhood home eating home-baked scones and watching Songs of Praise.

I do miss her. But the missing will not change the fact that she has gone.

Death is the strangest thing.

What I have learned about grief is that you can read articles, listen to talks, engage with therapy, exercise, act practically, eat sensibly, try to sleep and it will still happen, keeping you company like a too-chatty stranger on a train.

It took me much of a year to realise that this is not an experience I will ever “get over”. Maybe I will learn to live with it. Maybe life will begin to coalesce into new patterns and pathways. Death is not a stone in the water; one disturbance, ripples and then stillness, as if it had never been.

We are unmade by it. Entirely. And in their leaving our loved ones gift us a final gift. A new life. Stumbling in an unfamiliar world, all the stranger for its external sameness we walk slowly, feeling our way forward, dazed and dazzled by the bustle and normalcy.

There is no going back.

I come to the church door

I have been wandering in the wild, green, woods.

I come to the church door, my hair tangled, threaded with bindweed and bramble. My hands earth-grimed. Pockets stuffed with acorns, berries, a small, nesting bird.

I am become a witness for the wild earth’s beauty, a listener of dawn breezes and owl music.

Lifting the latch silence swallows me. Ancient stones enclosing mystery.

I approach slowly, feet cooled and soothed on time-worn floors.

He stretches his arms wide to welcome, eager to see what I have discovered.

Taking the bird in its cocoon of grasses he places it high on a ledge, by an open stained-glass window.

I can see now the flowers which climb spirals upwards on stone columns, the diamond stars winking through roof timbers.

I am come again to this place and know it “for the first time.”

Standing between the worlds.

Faery Wilding

We have a wilding project taking place in woodland near our home. Bison, iron age pigs and Exmoor ponies will be moving in to help with forest management.

It led me to a flight of fancy (or fantasy) thinking about what the faery folk might need to help rejuvenate their numbers, to bring magic back into the wild spaces of Britain.

I imagined wide, wildflower margins at the side of crop fields, ostensibly left there for bees and butterflies, but much loved by the little folk. I imagined grandmother fae telling stories to the young ones about a time when there were no mechanical harvesters and they had the freedom of the fields in all seasons. Horror stories of pesticides and their effects on long, lost loved ones.

I began to imagine what I might do if I believed there were fae folk in the scrap of woodland behind my house, how I would go to collect the litter more often, or leave gifts for them by the sweet chesnut trees. I began to imagine what I could do when I am out and about in my town to help them out, picking up rubbish, dropping a few seeds here and there for birds.

I realised that much of what I would do would help the bees, butterflies and others creatures too.

I have been taught that the fae are wild things, to be treated with respect and reverence. I imagine that they have a fierce loyalty to the land and to all green and growing things. That they ride on the backs of dragonflies or finches. That when housing estates crawl, an ugly welt of scaffolding poles and concrete, over the green spaces they are enraged.

What would a faery wilding project look like where you are? What could you do in your window boxes, garden, in your street or city park to help them? What could you do in the home?

When I start to look with these eyes of imagination I see a different world, it is more hopeful, there is less red tape, and more magic. It lightens my heart and reminds me of the magic of intention and purpose. If there are small, green eyes watching me now as I type from the chesnut branches outside the window I know I would want to help their world. Which is also mine.

They are older than us, and they have longer memories. They know that now it is already late, although not yet too late.

I will begin. And begin again.

A witch in the world

Back when I was a Church of England lay minister I spent a lot of time pondering how to serve God in my daily life. I was in church perhaps one or two hours a week at most. The rest of the time I was a boots on the ground Christian. How could I live by Christ’s example in every moment of my life. I studied, prayed, adopted spiritual practices, gave to do good works, watched my language, sought to be kind and generous.

I figured that if I said I believed in Jesus and what he had to teach then my life ought, at least in some measure, be a witness to that.

Fast forward to some seven years later and I follow a different spiritual path. As a druid, witch and priestess my focus of spiritual practice is different but my question is the same, how do I embody my spiritual path.

I am interested in the path of everyday magic.

Each moment of life is sacred, a gift, I want to honour that and treat daily tasks, washing dishes, cooking a meal, as ways to express my magical practice. When I cook I want to stir in intentions for nourishment and companionship, for wellbeing for those who will eat. When I clean (when I clean!) I want to use this as a way to shift and lighten the energy in my home. There are moments when I can indulge myself with a full cleansing ritual but in the middle of life these can be the exception rather than the rule.

It is harder when it comes to my day job, how can I bring magic into the office environment and business. Perhaps in how I interact with others, in the values I bring to my work, the Reiki principle to “work diligently”? Perhaps in remembering that whatever I put out into the universe may return to me threefold so to keep that snappy response under wraps and breathe?

I am no saint for sure. I get jealous, frustrated, fall into comparison, or wishful thinking…but I want to be a “full time” witch and for me it isn’t an option to run away to a cottage in the dark woods. In my modern mid-life world it means making magic in the everyday, right here and now, with what is to hand.

Witches, so I’m told, do what needs to be done, with what they have, where they are. A smile. A cup of tea and a listening ear. Picking up litter in the street. A card pulled while the kettle boils in the morning…

This is what it is to be a witch in the world.

How do you make sure you write everyday?

Thanks to my friend Susan for this question.

Which, as with many things, got me thinking.

The short answer is, I don’t.

I know that daily practice helps many people in their creative life. For me “making myself” do almost anything is a quick way to kill it. It is in my mindset to turn most things into a stick to beat myself with so I chose a while ago not to do this with my passions.

That said creating a structure which holds me accountable has been helpful.

For me, at present, this is mostly through social media. I am restructuring some accounts at present to encompass this further. With Tea Break Tarot School it was a Facebook group. I set out to write a free tarot school blog, I set up a group for anyone who wanted to join in. The group then became a way of being accountable for finishing the work.

With current creative projects it is my Patreon supporters who are my accountability buddies. They might not know this is their role but by sharing that I will do or complete something with others I then see it through.

I believe there are as many ways to be creative and exercise our creativity as there are human beings alive on the planet. For me creativity is an ebb and flow. During a busy few years caring for a family member, with limited time or physical space, I found creativity was crammed into the 6 a.m. half hour before anyone else was awake, or the 3 a.m. slot when I wasn’t sleeping. Now, adjusting to a return to the virtual office, creativity is often something I engage with after the evening meal. I need to make time for other practices too to ensure this is possible. My physical health means that long hours at a desk are not an option, and my day job is desk based, so it may be that some days I cannot spend time writing because my body won’t permit it. In this case a walk, some stretching, are as crucial as words on the page.

Creativity is a wholistic practice, it encompasses all of who I am and how I am.

On a day when I haven’t had sleep then I’m unlikely to be effective, but staring at the squirrels in the trees outside or buying a bunch of flowers, can feed my imagination and nurture my soul, providing fertilizer for the top soil in which creative seeds can sprout and thrive.

I am not a fan of rigid structures. I find that life shifts, alters, reshapes itself regularly. This requires my practice to evolve as I do. A flexible container works for me, guidelines, or suggestions, gentle prompts.

If I was going to offer any of these they would be:

  • listen to your life
  • tend to your wellbeing – body, mind and spirit
  • create micro spaces for creative play
  • feed your imagination
  • daydream
  • find accountabiilty buddies (friendly ones!)
  • do what brings you joy

This, for today, then, is how my practice is; purposeful, playful, full of potential.

Tomorrow it may be different; for me this is the way.

How To Be a Writer

Begin with lines drawn in the sand, chalk squiggles on the garage wall, pictures drawn on steamed up windows.

Then your name, traced across your mother’s dots in crayon.

Write stories in your creative writing lesson, with a drawing of a princess with impossibly long yellow hair and a face splitting grin.

Write birthday cards and thank you letters.

Write jokes and quotes and I love A-Ha on your secondary school rough book.

Begin to read Douglas Adams and Arthur C.Clarke.

Fall in love with TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and dream of your own dusty garret.

Study literature, fall in love, get married (far too young).

Live in a one-bed flat above a drug dealer.

Have two babies.

Move county, and then back to your homelands.

Write sermons, learn how to tell stories.

Teach adult literacy, year one phonics, poetry, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Morpurgo.

Read for your life.

Imagine worlds, places and people.

Get lost in music.

Get sick, then better.

Get divorced.

Go to Germany on your own and walk through vineyard valleys with strangers.

Fall in love again, get married again, sharing cake and blowing bubbles by an ancient yew tree.

Midwife your mother to, and through, her death.

Wake up everyday with wonder at the incredible beauty, pain, brevity and sumptuousness of life.

Pick up a pen.

Sit down at a keyboard.

Begin.

The eighteenth day

I wasn’t prepared for the visceral nature of grief.

Holding space as she travelled through her final weeks was a physical task, watching, tending, adjusting, deciding; always on hand, waiting and waiting and waiting.

And then, to begin with, I was light, knowing she was free. At moments almost giddy, I could feel her sailing away full of joy that her prison was broken and she could fly again.

The Christmas holidays drew to a close, the calendar creaking back to the mundane Monday Friday.

It will be good, I thought, to get back to work; something to provide a distraction. Not avoiding, but giving shape, focus, purpose to the days, which are, now, surprisingly empty.

I sit at the desk and read an email. Then again. And again. My eyes slide over the words, they will not “catch”, connecting with meaning, context. They are tired and prefer to stare out at the winter’s day, lemon light bathing the houses opposite.

I am slow. Clumsy. “Wading through treacle”. I forget things I know, my brain operating at dial-up speeds, clicking and whirring to little effect.

On the phone speaking to colleagues I sound like myself, but inside a restless toddler impatient, tetchy, longing to be elsewhere.

The body hurts, skin taut and unsettled, longing for another time.

Now breathe.

Once more.

Stretch.

Lie on the floor until the world stops spinning.

Move slowly, intentionally.

Allow it to sit with you, to anchor you, in the new world.

This too shall pass.

[Image by Mandy Fontana from Pixabay]

Flood days

The rain came and in the cold night turned to snow. Dusting cars and grass verges, a seasonal decoration. In the morning the light crept in milky and shy, a day only half awake, longing to be back under the covers.

We walked to the post box before office hours to send the remaining Christmas cards. We are ahead of ourselves this year, trying to prepare for the unexpected.

Turning into Stranger’s Lane we see an orange blur emerging from the farm track across the A28. A fox. It runs across the road and up the lane, hugging the wall of a house. We rarely see them in daylight, they are creatures of dusk and darkness. It is not yet full grown, and runs like a sniper, cover blown. When the wall opens out into an entry way it turns and vanishes.

On our return we are almost home when I notice the gulls are especially noisy. Looking up a flock of pigeons spatter the sky; two gulls are calling, wheeling while mobbing a much larger bird. At first I think it must be a buzzard, but the wings are too wide and the body drifting behind is wrong for raptor. It is a grey heron. Dipping momently behind the roofline it emerges further on, the gulls still squawking their disapproval; get off my land. The world is full of omens.

Photo: Fiona Phillips 2020

Another day, another brief foray into the world (which continues to turn, despite our domestic dramas). The river is swollen, fat and frisky with the rain of past days it rushes and twirls its way sea-ward, murky with mud, creeping up into back gardens, lapping at bench legs or decking, nibbling lawns and shrubs. The ducks dabble where last week was lawn.

On the far side of the bridge the water has spread into the bankside grass, now a shallow lake. I am fascinated by the way this body of water behaves. How it rises and falls, changing daily. How what was last week a grass space where I watched a family feeding ducks, is now a pond, lurking murkily. The trees are stark etching against the slate grey of sky, scratched into place by the cold, printed. Reflections shimmer in the waters swirling satin beneath.

We are in the flood days, nothing what it was. These encroachments change us. As the landscape shifts minutely with the floods expansion, contraction, the flood days sweep us on; when we stand between what was and what is to be. When the rains come to fill up and wash away, moving us, tide-born, where we do not wish to go, but are journeying nonetheless.

Healing the Maiden

She is sitting in shorts and a t-shirt, long hair tied back, wisps escaping around her face. She wears sneakers.

Her face is thoughtful, her eyes questioning, she is as sharp as a tack. She doesn’t fear, her gaze is steady and strong; grass stains on her knees show that she has been outside playing with her brother all the morning.

When I speak she is wary at first. She weighs everything up, she is curious, careful, kind.

She reminds me that we are unique, shows me the confidence that I have forgotten, how it sits surely encircling me, heart and belly, an invisible cord of power snaking through me.

She shows me laughter, joy, playing like there is no tomorrow, forgetting time, clocks, obligations. There are no lists in her world, no schedules. She is immediate and present. She knows things, though she doesn’t know how they came. She has a wisdom which seems older than her years, something ageless there. She is certain of herself.

We walk together until it is time to part company. She gives me a red flower. Then she steps into my soul-self, as though through a doorway. I see her there, shadowed, and know she never left.

The Bone Reader

I sit in the dust. Hot sun beats my shoulders. Sounds bubble around me, a rushing torrent; traders call, animals speak their own rough music, babel reborn.

To my left my father’s shop. He trades in medicinals; oils and ointments. Herbs dry bunched above the open window, the strong, wood shutters set aside for the day. In the cool of the awning a merchant’s wife enquires for a remedy.

My brother is apprenticed here. In the afternoons he labours in the workshop; steaming, chopping, bottling. He learns the ingredients, their names and effects, how combined they may bring calm or calamity. Father makes him touch the baneful herbs to his lip, the soft skin scorching briefly to death’s kiss. In the mornings he walks to the tower in the town square. He learns there from the mage, studying stars and first-stage sorcery, understanding elemental powers and the scribes’ secrets.

I begged to go too. I am older after all. First-born. Until I bled father would allow me into the workshop, I dealt with the basic herbs, grinding them up to fragrant powder, finer than sand. Once my blood came it was different. A day of shame and celebration. Sent into the women’s rooms behind the courtyard, I learned to fix the linen and master domestic arts; the proper way to serve tea and smile at a husband.

I stifle there. My skin itches with sitting still, my heart strangling with required order. Head aches, ears pounding; I have fainted more than once. Mother fears I am ailing, some malady without a name, moon madness.

Released into the air, which they whisper is good for my delicate disposition, I am at once well. I take with me a bag, velvet and tied with silken cord.

Here I am then, in the dust. My head covered in black to hide me from the sun’s gaze, girl in the street, invisible. I tip the bag’s treasure before me and begin. This one like a butterfly with outstretched wings, this one like the trunk of a tree, this one delicate and nobbled at each end. I watch where they fall, noticing how they lie within the sphere of my gaze, where they touch. Images swim before me, shifting and remaking themselves as my eyes adjust.

I have gathered these tools from kitchen scraps, from the city’s ditches and gutters, when fresh I leave them on the roof for the crows to pick clean. Scoured by wind, bleached in the sun, marble smooth I let my fingers know them, learning each one, a trusted friend.

Already a figure approaches, he is a trader, feet bare and dirty, he offers a copper coin, small, a fortune for him. I shake my head and suggest one of the fruit he carries from the yoke on this shoulders. The deal struck he squats in the dirt. I scoop up the bones, release them, an ossiary offering. Here is a house, a cloud, a bird. Go home, I say. You are needed, be swift.

He is up and gone, nodding thanks, dissappearing into the crowd.

In years to come I will remember these early days, the way I studied and waited, watched and listened. Hiding in plain sight, gathering from the household scraps, my schoolroom the kitchen, my teachers the servants and their stories.

I will remember the day I took my store of tiny coins from behind a brick in my bedroom wall, wrapped them in a silken bride’s veil and crept out across the rooftops to find my own place, far away. I will remember the tiny refuge I found, tucked against the wall of a foreign city, where others would come to seek counsel.

I will remember that not all that is known can come from books and the teachings of wise men.

That there is wisdom in the bones; older than time, felt in the body, known in the blood.