Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Grief and attention

Mij Thornton
My mother died on Sunday night. She had been rushed into hospital two months earlier with a subsequent, and for me shocking, diagnosis of leukaemia and given, initially, a day or so to live. Under treatment she rallied, although medical opinion remained pessimistic. Ten days ago we were told that her prognosis had again fallen to a week or two and we watched her decline over the final days. She was 81 and had had what I think one might call a good life with a (morally) good job and loving family. Her death, in the end, in the circumstances, was timely, a release. But such rationalistic and objective thoughts don't immunise me against the pain and sickness of grief. It is like arriving in a horrible parallel world in which the same national events - eg., the EU elections - are taking place but now lack all significance.

Among the many things that have surprised me here is the connection between grief and attention. During the last few weeks, when trying to explain why meetings I was arranging might have later to be cancelled, I found that the act of attending to the point in logical space occupied by the thought I wanted to express (and first, to think it) would bring the weight of emotion which went with the thought crashing down and robbing me of speech. There were things I simply couldn't utter. I could navigate all round them, refer indirectly to some thought, but to essay it, to articulate it for expression, was impossible. The grief reaction, the mood, the affect, was secondary to attending to a possibility but then came with a kind of hideous inevitability.

Now, in the initial aftermath, there's a related but passive version. The productive way that one thought rationalises and leads to another has become an enemy of a peaceful mind. A thought utterly innocent of grave significance might connect by stages to another and dreadful idea - the loss of this, the never seeing or sharing that - which will plunge me, sickeningly, perhaps also embarrassingly, back into grief. I find myself trying to second-guess, without full-on thought (since that would make second-guessing pointless), the destination of a train of ideas.

I am also told (by a colleague who arrived in this territory earlier) of another possibility which may, I suppose, come when I have recovered a little. The temptation to poke a thought with a stick, to see whether the resonances are lessening or still as potent.

If I simply looked elsewhere, could I make all this feel less bad? Or does one simply have to go through a kind of sentence, attending to what will almost immediately bring pain through a kind of necessary compulsion?

(Later I posted my inadequate eulogy here.)