Relative Grief

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:55

Foreword to Clare Jenkins and Judy Merry Relative Grief Jessica Kingsley 2005. 

Death is the elephant in the living room – the huge thing that everyone knows is there but no one mentions. Fear keeps us silent. We fear the physical aspect of death, the body becoming still, silent, cold, and then decaying, but even more we fear the annihilation of the person, what we call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’, which is what makes us unique. We fear not just the annihilation of the person we love but our own annihilation. Talking of his brother’s death, Rony Robinson said, ‘You lose a bit of yourself in the process of somebody dying.’ 

There’s no way of knowing beforehand which bit of yourself will disappear when someone close to you dies. My friend Jean Flanagan had emphysema and I knew she was dying, but when the news of her death reached me I found myself utterly distraught with grief because I suddenly realised that Jean had known about my erstwhile marriage in a way that no one else did. Both of us had married fascinating, entertaining, exciting men who often behaved like wilful, selfish, naughty schoolboys. Jean and I could discuss our husbands in a way very different from the way we spoke about our husbands to other people. There was so much which we didn’t have to explain to each other or try to excuse. When Jean died a significant part of my story was lost. I was left like the only speaker of a newly extinct language. 

Each person is unique, and the part of our person which we lose in each bereavement is unique. Consequently, the grief one person feels is quite different from all the different kinds of grief which others can feel.  No text book on ‘Death Education’ or ‘The Stages of Grief’ can encompass what each individual endures. By letting each of the people in this book tell their story in their own way Clare Jenkins and Judy Merry have shown the individuality of grief. These stories remind us how wrong it is to say to someone who is grieving, ‘I know exactly how you feel’, or to say to oneself, ‘My grief is greater than everyone else’s.’ The stories show too that the dead belong to no one. All we possess are those parts of our own stories which we shared with those we grieve for. 

Yet, out of all the unique stories in this intensely compassionate and humane book, comes the understanding that, alone as we are in our grief, such suffering shows us that what matters most in life is the love we have for one another.