I was on a long train journey (plenty of time to think); I had just written my first attempt at some words for a carol and was musing over the contrasts of the year and of life (yeah, deep stuff…). I also could not help thinking about people who have lost children – I was on the way to see my 103 year old grandmother, who lost her son when he was in his 50s and continued to miss him; I was writing the carol words for a musician who lost a son who was aged 5 and a half; I was prompted to write my book by a journalist who lost a gorgeously good-looking 28-year old stepson last year to skin cancer; and I had been invited to review a performance by StagedRight – the owners lost one of their sons when he was a teenager in a freak holiday accident.
Hearing of other people losing their children makes me even more thankful for mine, and guilty about the times I lose my temper with them – although the vicar of St. Cuthberts told me quite firmly that he wasn’t going to absolve me as children need to have rules, boundaries and discipline. Still, I love my children very much and constantly feel lucky – blessed – that they are in this world.
So these are the ramblings of a middle-aged woman with far too much thinking time about what it means to be human, and how cyclical life is:
“You can take anything in life and focus on the negative, but the positive beauty of it can change your life”.
Thus wrote Shirley Maclaine in her autobiography. It’s a saying which has stuck with me in the years since reading the book, and indeed at one time I even had it written on my kitchen noticeboard.
Whilst it’s related to the current trend for ‘mindfulness’ – which in itself is not new, as anyone who has read books by Susan Jeffers or Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman will know – it also highlights the conflicts and contrasts of human existence. You can wallow in grief and negativity (and some grieving for loss is not only natural but necessary) or you can consider the positive aspects of your sad situation in order to take heart from those possibly tiny glimmerings of hope – of new life – and move forward.
In a reflection of the human condition, the year itself is full of contrasts: not only the obvious contrasts such as cold, wet, windy, rainy days or long, hot, sultry summer days, but within the seasons themselves. The dark days of winter, for those in the Northern Hemisphere the nadir of the year, are brightened and burst forth with light and colour at Christmas: for Christians, remembering a baby born in a stable brings new hope each year. Birth or rebirth is then celebrated again with the New Year, with its wistful promise that however bad the past year has been, the new year will be better – or at least different.
The longer days of summer, half way around the circle of the year later, bring warmth, light and relaxation. We welcome laidback evenings on the patio sipping long cool drinks with friends and family; eating al fresco, an ample supply of crumbs for miniature wildlife, plump with plenty; being outdoors cycling or running, one’s body an extension of the vibrant world around.
Yet even this apparently joyful season of abundance holds the seeds of its own end. As Dylan Thomas so evocatively wrote in Fern Hill, in words I have remembered since being a teenager studying English literature for ‘A’ level:
“Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea”.
Life is cyclical: decline and renewal, renewal and decline. Comfort for anyone travelling through the depths of despondency to know that it will end, and some pleasure in life will blossom again.
Could I feel so phlegmatic if one of my children died? The longer days of summer would then drag by, the harsh cheerfulness of the sun an insult to my sorrow. I would yearn for the dark hibernating days of winter. The golden green-red glow of Christmas and rejoicing at a baby’s birth would be a painful reminder of birth and premature loss: of potential cut short.
Like the golden lingering glow of a warm day in a rainy summer, or the dazzling sparkle of Christmas against the December blackness, perhaps I could take comfort from the brief but glorious blaze of life and be glad that I had experienced the love of that child.
To all who have loved and lost a child – parent, step-parent, relative, friend – I admire you for coping and for getting through the days. The mother who carried the child in her womb and felt him or her developing, whose almost physical bond with the child has been smashed; the proud father whose seed flourished and grew; the siblings who fought and laughed, who now forever have a gap in their lives: I respect you for putting one foot in front of the other and living one day at a time. My grandmother mourned her son right until her death; the child being an adult doesn’t lessen the ache of loss of those we love so well and who we nurtured from birth.
Yet the world goes about its business. W H Auden expressed it eloquently in Musee des Beaux Arts, another poem I remember so clearly from school:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.
The rest of the world goes about its mundane everyday business in seeming ignorance: but reach out through the curtains of your darkness to others and a chink of the light of understanding and of empathy will begin to creep slowly across the floor.