Yesterday was my brother's death-day -- at least, 10 April is the official date given on his death certificate. Judging from the medical report, I think he actually died about ten days earlier, alone in his flat in New Jersey. He rang on 30 March to wish my father happy birthday, and I suspect my father was quite well the last person he spoke to. In a kind of awful symmetry, my father died six months later from a stroke, five days after my brother's birthday. I believe the two dates were interconnected; others don't.
The period from my father's birthday through to my brother's death-day often coincides with Easter, and I feel it passing through similar rhythms, from the acknowledgement of death through to the slow lift of hope, of life returning again. As I was teaching last week, I felt a sense of heaviness, which could have been to do with the fact I was teaching a particularly cramped block and the abrupt change from summer to Autumn here. But I suspect it was more to do with the sombreness of the season for me.
I've often pondered blogging about the subject of death and grief but I've feared I lack the eloquence or grace of some other bloggers to write well enough about it. I fear writing something raw and ugly. Underneath it all, I think I fear disrupting the particularly Australian and generally Western calm that says, don't talk about it. It's not appropriate; it's never appropriate.
Still, in the midst of life we are in death. Each day that passes is someone's death-day; each year we pass our own death-day without knowing which day it will ultimately be.
One of the things I struggled with most about grief was its lack of acknowledgement as a genuine and legitimate state. Part of the problem seemed to be the confusion with its relative, depression. People get worried, very worried, if you're not happy these days. There are good reasons, of course, for worrying about depressed people, but ironically, the belief that everyone should be feeling sunnyside up all the time only seems to fuel feeling worse about yourself. Some people, I felt, would have been much happier, relieved even, if I'd suddenly announced that I was embarking on a course of counselling or taking a script of anti-depressants. I would have been saved the perils of feeling bad about something bad that had happened.
In my case, I kept on going, weathering out grief with journalling and cups of coffee with gay men, refusing to engage with the machinery of the depressive niche market. I guess that in the parlance of contemporary psychobabel, I demonstrated resilience. But the thing about resilience, and its less-modish antecedent stoicism, is that you come to see it as a rather hollow quality, something like a raw athletic ability. The endurance runner keeps on running because they have the capacity to do so. Others may fall by the wayside, but you don't. There's no particular virtue to being a survivor; if anything it seems almost a random phenomenon.
If I could have worn a black armband (without seeming like a pretentious git) or observed a six-month period of mourning like the Victorians, I would have been a much happier person. Instead of being unable to explain to people with whom you have everyday dealings but don't know you all that well that you're distracted not only by painful thoughts but by things like an inability to concentrate, absent-mindedness, sudden bursts of racing heart-beats, and so forth. Grief becomes a largely personal terrain in a society that allows only a very short initial period of public expression of a loss. There seems almost no time to be allowed to sit with your grief. The reading on the subject of grief I did, in the scant material available, indicate however that it's a definite psychological, if not physiological, state lasting from around 6 months to 2 years.
The notion that death was one of the last century's greatest taboos is now something of a commonplace. For me, one of the most interesting twentieth-century books on death and mourning is Philippe Aries' In the Hour of Our Death. Here's Aries on the pathologisation of grieving:
A new situation appears around the middle of the twentieth century in the most individualistic and middle-class parts of the West. There is a conviction that the public demonstration of mourning, as well as its too-insistent or too-long private expression, is inherently morbid. Weeping is synonymous with hysteria. Mourning is a malady.... The period of mourning is no longer marked by the silence of the bereaved amidst a solicitous and discreet entourage but by the silence of the entourage itself. The telephone does not ring. The bereaved is in quarantine. (p580)
But I think there's a peculiarly Australian -- stoical, hedonistic -- inflection to the suppression of grief. Bathsheba writes in a comment on an earlier post of mine:
Colonial types used to mourn spectacularly openly - all that 'good death' and lengthy narration of the circumstances and elaborate processions bespeaks a much healthier sense of mourning. Personally, I blame the wars for rendering death too awful to speak of, but not as much as I blame the baby-boomers, for refusing to look at anything ghastly (including Howardian bastardry).
S, friend of mine from Laos, expressed similar thoughts to me about the strangeness of the Australian way of grieving. Several years ago, a cousin of his was killed in a car accident. They'd been brought up together as part of an extended family structure, a bit like blackfella-way maybe, in which cousins can be as close as brothers. S recalled his surprise when he realised that in Australian culture, life was meant to go on as normal once the funeral was over. In his culture, a year of rituals followed anyone's passing, and even after that, there were further remembrances. He felt that the Australian way was unnaturally brief and blunt, and that people hadn't understood the significance of a cousin dying: Aries' quarantine.
But I also found that a strange confederacy of people can appear when a sibling dies. Some people who were otherwise peripheral in your life -- extras, supporting actors -- can suddenly appear and say insightful things that hit the mark in a way that other, well-meant words don't. A rather brusque and forbidding unit manager at work visited my office one day and told me how her brother had died from cancer several years ago at the age of 44, and of how even now, at Christmas time and around his birthday, she found herself wandering through department stores, wondering what she should buy him. Another rather forbidding femocrat and manager from my ofiice told me that although her brother had died some years ago, she'd never stopped thinking about him, and his death left a lingering stain on their family life. One of our media officers told me how her 40 yo brother had committed suicide all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, eighteen months before. We'd talked about many things in our short work friendship, but she'd never told me that before.
'Were you close?' others asked. I always found this a strange question; I didn't know how to answer it. I suppose the point in asking was to commiserate if you say that you were close to the one that's died. But its flipside is disturbing: is the death not to matter, to be of less consequence, if you say you weren't close? (And can we please change the subject now and move onto something else?) And what can you say about someone who'd been living at a geographical distance for a number of years, who was poor at communicating by phone or email, but to whom you felt close by virtue of shared experiences?
I have no doubt that there's a taboo around death and grieving in Australian culture maybe over and above that which exists in other Anglo-Saxon cultures. I would have said this before I experienced it myself. For me, added to this was the improbability of a young person's, a sibling's death, and what it might mean for my family. Before my brother died, my only close-at-hand experiences of death were 'natural', expected ones, such as grandparents, great-uncles. One of the assumptions about a sibling's death is that it cannot be important to you as a parent's, a partner's or a child's death. On the Holmes-Rahe Survey of Recent Experiences (Social Readjustment Rating Scale: SRRS), which measures life events in 'life change units' (LCUs), the death of a spouse scores 100 LCUs whereas death of a close family member scores only 63 LCUs (it's very precise). There's a footnote to the 'death of a spouse', suggesting that the death of a child may be rated as high as or maybe a little higher than this death. I can't comment on the death of a spouse or a child. But my experience of a sibling as opposed to a parent dying was that it was far worse, for the reasons that people usually state in relation to a child's death: a younger sibling's death generally unexpected, out of the natural cycle of things. It brings home your own mortality, the mortality of your own generation. It taints all your childhood memories, like spilt ink on blotting paper. Think back to the earlier, happier days, and you can't, without thinking of the one who's gone.
What kind of person was I meant to be as a result of my experiences? I had no idea. I found grieving exhausting, for a whole range of reasons. I now think there's no proper way to grieve. In the main, you want to talk and to be listened to (and gay men and people who'd had similar experiences proved the best audiences for me). It's all the old cliched stuff; you want people to validate your reality, not pretend it didn't happen. And if some of the latest research into trauma is correct, talking and writing about bad experiences helps you to take control over your own narrative, to diffuse tension and to take the sting out of the bad, the inexplicable and the inhospitable.