Grief is a complicated garment. With many different intertwining threads, patches, and sometimes pom-poms, the final grief-quilt in which we wrap ourselves is unique to the loved one – the who – but also related to a reason – the why. Reason – why – is not to be confused with cause – the how – and usually, almost always, and certainly in more cases than we, the mourners, would like, there is no real answer to why. And though an imagined – or even sincerely believed – answer to why is both the fastest-acting and longest-lasting analgesic available, it has some serious long-term side effects.
My grandma died when she was 99. Her passing was an ending, a natural next step. The season of grief was coloured by grace, gratitude, and fond memories. Shelley died when she was 26. Killed by a suicide bomber on the Piccadilly line. And it was a loss: a desperate, wrenching, shocking loss. It wasn’t an ending, it was the beginning of a terribly long, and terribly tragic procession of questions and anger.
Shelley should have turned 40 this month. There should have been a party.
We’d spoken the day before on messenger; I from the Other London (Canadians have one of everything, it would seem), she from in the UK. And among the many, many things I thought and felt, both then and in the thirteen-and-a-half years since, the hardest to ask is the why. What it was for. What was gained through the murder of a young, Goon-loving, Latin-learning, cricket-playing, universe-circumnavigating Kiwi-chick.
To accept the answer to the why was – and is – so much harder than to ask or even answer the question. The answer itself was – and is – very simple: there was no reason. There was no for. There was no transaction, no rationale, no exchange. She didn’t have to die. It was never for anything.
But. If some high-and-mighty politician somewhere had signed a small piece of paper declaring war on the people of another country, then Shelley’s death would become something strategic. There would, on that small piece of paper, be a for. She would be remembered as giving her life rather than losing it, which is nonsense. The form of why so integral to the processes of our grief does not come with a small piece of paper.
I cannot imagine the utter desperation of families clinging to a belief that those loved ones who died in wartime “sacrificed” or “gave their lives” for a “reason”. What happens if that reason wasn’t really there? Or wasn’t enough? Or was imagined in error? Or turned out later – in calmer and less politically-fueled hindsight – to be unreal or misguided? Grief wants real reasons. Not paper ones. Not political ones. And sometimes, most of the time, nearly all the time, they simply don’t exist.
The processes by which we publicly commemorate life and death affect us too. A good funeral is a release: a weight is felt, embraced, then laid to rest. It is let go, it is passed. It is a pathway through the raw and devastating present towards the salve, the balm, the scarring and healing which are beyond today. Our grieving processes colour our future memories as surely as the who of death colours our present grief.
But it’s difficult to remember those who died in war because during the grieving process the only thing that families have on which to cling – and desperately to cling – is that the whys outweigh the unimaginable tragedy of the hows and the whos. That the loss was for something. That the loss was, in fact, rather a price which was paid, that something – anything – was gained, that it was a transaction. So not a loss, but an exchange. Not a taking of life, a giving of it.
And we lump them all in together. The dead. The glorious dead. Somewhere in our horrified celebrations we turn them from victims into heroes. We make movies about brotherhood, about camaraderie, about the “good old days” in the army. We think it possible to confer nobility to the
loss exhange using language of martyrdom, glory, heroism. We dose ourselves again and again with the painkiller: fast-acting, long-lasting, severe side-effects.
We would not dream of calling a heroin death heroic. We do not bander glorious, or noble; instead we speak of foolishness and stupidity and depression and tragedy, with pity, shame, regret. To reminisce over the “good old highs” is quickly condemned as irresponsible, reckless, and there is no wish to be the mechanism for further drug abuse deaths. We know that the attitudes and language – even in grief – colour the future; and not only our own, but that of our children, our families, our friends.
So there seems to be something peculiar to war. Maybe it’s the sheer quantity of death and its publicity which give us no choice to process our grief alone, and the collective clamour for the pain-killing why soon overshadows the individual whom. But whatever it is, whatever has brought us to this place, something’s gotta give.
What if our manner of remembering fallen soldiers is dooming future generations to crave that same glory instead of seeking earnestly to prevent it ever happening again? On the one side, we want the world to find better means of resolving differences than war. We need to understand better what war really means, and it’s not the glory and medals and pomp and self-righteousness shown in the movies or TV. It’s tragic and pointless and painful and a terrible, terrible waste. So we need to remember. But what happens when those memories become too tame and too emotive and too coloured? When we call the dead glorious and forget that it’s Creepy Uncle John who farted all the time? No-one who’d met him would have called him glorious.
Where the past had sadness and loss we need to grieve it, but we must grieve it well. The process must be – as with all other grief – one which eventually brings life and release.
I didn’t go to the Real London when Shelley died, but left the Other London within the week and went home to New Zealand. Her face was everywhere. On the news, in the paper, for days and weeks on end. A year later I was living in Oxford, UK and was invited to go to the anniversary day services with other close friends and family. I didn’t know how to grieve then, and I still don’t really know now. Sure, there were lots of different things to do: we unveiled a plaque on a bench in Russell Square where she used to eat lunch; there was a ceremony where poems were read, including a beautiful one about the moon over the Whau written by her mother, Kathryn; we gathered with the other victims’ families to lay a flower each in a huge pattern as we left the ceremony; there was a lunch and buses and visits and books and photos and timetables and schedules. There were a lot of components to the machinery of this very public process of remembrance, but there was a comfort found in sharing grief with others, and I was glad I could attend. There is comfort too in the guidance which ceremony can bring when we’re not sure of how to do it, this whole grief thing.
But here’s my point. And by now, even as I’m writing this, I’m crying my eyes out. And I wish that I could let you know how emphatically I feel this point but I just don’t know how to get it across with my poor words: If any, any part of the process of grieving for Shelley ever became the cause of more death and more tragedy and yet more grief, then that part cannot ever be good. It cannot bring honour to her memory. It cannot help us to grieve well. It cannot make anything better, only so very much worse.
The same is true of war. Our desperate hunger for placebo whys to assuage our suffering in the present must not become a fuel which creates more suffering in the future. Instead, let us grieve well, remembering what the process of grief itself is for. Without glory. Without pomp. Without politics. Without why.
Among all the coloured threads, patches, and sometimes pom-poms in our grief-quilt, let the brightest and purest of them all be who.
Bye bye Bluebottle. Love always, Eccles.