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Creative Corner

Creative Corner: What Happens Before Grief?

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In this personal essay, Culture Editor Alex Blank reflects on the inability to prepare for grief.

I seem to haunt my childhood home like a ghost these days. When a loved one is on the brink of something final, we seem to stick around with them, in a figurative waiting room where we drink stale coffee and forget about technicalities such as the expired lettuce in our fridge.

This may sound insensitive, but after a year of going through the pandemic – a year of luck due to not having lost anyone – a question arose in my subconscious: “Is there anyone else to die?” When it turns out there is, we are unprepared. When, after a year of “luck,” the charm fades, we realise we had been in the waiting room for the past year, and it’s now finally catching up with us.

How to grieve a potentiality? Do we ever prepare for it? Hearing the distant coughing coming from the phone as I try to read my book, hearing my mum saying: “Dad? Dad? Are you there? Can you hear me?” while trying and failing to write an essay for my degree; these are polaroids whose film hasn’t dried yet, and I still can’t see the whole picture. In a week, a month, a year, what will these snapshots look like?

I’m sitting in my childhood room and I hear my mum speaking loudly into the phone. She’s relating a tennis match to the blurry figure on the other side of the country. Her tone is animated, she speaks and speaks without leaving any room for breathing, as if she was trying to give him some of her breath, along with the occasional, “She won the first set!” or “Do you want to get a drink of water now?”.

Tennis is something my mum used to force on me, something I grew to dislike as a result. Back in the days when I was not yet afraid of human interaction, I used to charm tennis coaches with my storytelling abilities, so that my never-ending narratives could take their attention away from making me play. My mum used to tell me that her dad had forced her to play tennis too, and she hated it too, until she returned to it in her thirties. Now she plays almost every day, and she’s more than willing to get up in the middle of the night to watch a live big-deal match.

Tennis, a game without words, both intimate and disconnecting. Two people standing on two sides of the court, yet bound by a constant back and forth. It may be about winning or losing, like any other game, but it’s also about the assurance that no matter what happens, you’ll throw the ball back. It’s an enclosed universe that feels like an eternal loop until the hour is over and you need to leave. But unlike life, the two figures leave together, chatting on the way back. No one is at a loss (unless one fancies playing for points, that is).

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know the protocol: am I allowed to pause now, am I allowed to drop responsibilities? Do I want to? And if I do, would it be for the right reasons? If everything ends well, is this time wasted? And what if it doesn’t?

There are many books and articles written about grief, and I’ve always instinctually avoided them. I didn’t want to be prepared for something that, personally, seemed too abstract. What about pre-grief, then? What about the hours and days in-between, when we feel guilty for not being able to predict or control the outcome? We begin to unpick the memories, feeling shameful at their scarcity, not knowing whose fault it is that the two of us never got to know each other deeply enough. Maybe it’s that damned tennis court again: we might have been throwing the ball, but we never got close enough to have an actual conversation.

Again, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know the guidelines for this, and although I know myself very well, I don’t know my own patterns around loss. Mourning might be seen as yet another form of morning, an often painful awakening of sorts, and now I’m in the middle of a sleepless night; restless yet static, impatient yet resigned. It feels like forever, though does it even exist if the light is not there to shine on it? Apparently, the only way to deal with the unknown is through these abstractions.

I recall a conversation with a friend I had back in August, and her scepticism around the virus was very clear. “After all,” she said, “it seems as though no one actually knows anyone who’s been ill. It seems a bit tricky.” I didn’t know how to respond. Even then, though I did not take it personally at the time, I was not comfortable with that approach. And now I’m angry. Because now I do know, and that knowledge is only a burden.

You can send your short stories, poetry or creative nonfiction to [email protected].

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