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The Five Levels of Grief

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

There are levels of looking into that void, the emptiness when you have lost somebody — something — that you loved. You might not know which one is around the corner to slam you. It’s the quiet ambush of a stray memory (sight or sound or word) or there is a bad anniversary which you dread and anticipate and wait for and which still runs over you like a Mack truck (and then reverses over you for good measure). There is the absulute certainty that you glimpsed a beloved back just ducking into a supermarket aisle ahead of you (but knowing that you did not…) There is the irrational furious stab of envy when you see an older couple pass by holding hands and you know that is never going to happen for you now. There are all those things, and more. There are five levels of grief. And I’m going, for want of better criteria, to give them to you in order of silence.

  1. The Welling

It’s the moment when you weren’t even aware that you might have remembered something but you suddenly find yourself sitting there with your eyes full of tears for no discernible reason in that moment until you let yourself catch up to your thoughts and you realise why. This is the stealth attack, the quiet sneaking up to you on padded paws like a cat’s, you don’t hear it coming or see its shadow approaching, it comes from behind and touches you gently on the heart with grief’s feather, just brushing over the scars, reminding you that they are there. And you sit, quietly, and the welling stops after a moment, and you continue with whatever you were doing, feeling vaguely guilty that you had given in to a moment of self pity even though you had nothing at all to do with this stray memory-of-grief which came for you just because it could. But you do not break. You do not weep. You wipe at your eyes with the back of your hand, and you square your shoulders, and you continue.

2. The Silent Tears

And then there is the time that you do not just continue, the time that the welling doesn’t quite stop, and you find yourself frozen at whatever you though you were doing, and there are tears on your cheeks and you don’t remember when they spilled but your cheeks are wet with the streaks and there are more tears coming on those trails a quiet tsunami. It’s the moment when you find yourself having lost minutes of a show you are watching because a stray phrase triggered the silent tears because it reminded you of another time when you might have watched the same show with someone who isn’t there or a moment that resembled some important occasion that you might have once shared with them. It’s more than just the stray memory, though, it’s the memory and then everything that it means. It’s the awareness that what you are experiencing is A MEMORY and not real and it is never going to be real again in this lifetime. And you mourn.

3. The Sobbing

And then there’s this boundary and it becomes too much to hold inside, and your breath catches, and you sob, gently and quietly at first, but this can escalate until you are gulping for air and dear god where did all these tears come from you didn’t know you had so much water in you. The memory isn’t a single memory, it is a wave of memories now, a tsunami, and it knocks you over and leaves you sitting in the backwash trying to breathe and knowing that you were — however briefly, but you were — under water. And you miss them, those that are gone. You just miss them. And you try to shape their name but you can’t because your breath is ragged and all you can do is sob and gasp and try to remember how to breathe. And you know that sometimes you can fight it off and end it here, but sometimes, sometimes, you cannot…

4. The Wailing

…and you hear yourself find your voice at last, you hear someone wailing piteously, and it is a moment before you realise that it is you because you can hardly recognise your own voicebecause it is ragged and raw from the grief that has shredded it, like a battle flag flying its tatters and rips and ribbons after having been through an artillery shelling. You wail because you have no real words to speak, because you have so much to say, because there is so little to be said. So you wail. You press the heels of your hands against your eyes until it hurts trying to make it stop but it doesn’t and you just open your mouth and this unspeakable sound comes out, something vaguely inhuman and inchoate, something you don’t even recognise as being yours, something that had to come out of you before it slaughtered you but something ugly and primeval and visceral and completely beyond your control. Sometimes it will escape when there are other people present and you can see the reaction to all of that on other people’s faces — a startled anxiety, a skittishness, a fear, a “What are we supposed to do now” kind of face, because staring this down is almost impossible — and so you try to smother it if it bubbles up in public and wait until you are on your own so that you don’t discombobulate others with it. The wailing comes upon you when you are alone with your ghosts and the ghosts are the only ones who can bear it. But they can’t help you, they can’t hold you, they can only… be unsurprised. And perhaps sorrowful, that they caused this. But they are shadows, wraiths, ethereal and insubstantial, and the only thing that ties you together is that soul-deep wail which is the sound and the signal of your loss, of your separation. But you haven’t hit bottom yet.

5. The Keening

Your eyes are dry now, dry as the deepest desert. And the sound has changed, has become deeper, higher, inhuman — the keen. The broken feeling inside of you like there is a cog that used to be in the machine and it is missing now and something is not functioning at all and never will function properly again. And so you keen, or sometimes you scream out loud in a way that scares even you — while driving, maybe, alone in the car, and you scream and you scream and you scream and you can’t seem to stop and it’s useless because nobody can hear you but YOU can hear you and suddenly there is nothing in the universe except that scream. And when you stop screaming there is still that keening noise that comes out of you from some place you never knew was within you, a dark place where you are afraid to look but which you know that no light can ever pierce again. And you howl because there is nothing else left to do. You do not cry because this is beyond tears. You just howl. Until you howl yourself out and you have no breath and no heart and no sanctuary left and the darkness is that of bones and of ashes and of emptiness and there is nothing left in it except that tiny flickering flame that is all that’s left of what you used to be, and it doesn’t illumine much more than just showing you the hand that holds it. And you don’t know any more if it is your own hand, or if you have met Death and Death is holding this final light for you to see Death by.

And then all is silence again.

Until the next time.


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