“I think people are uncomfortable, so they say nothing,” she told me, “like people no longer saying his name.” Had that been the case with my husband, Ken, and with my dad, Barry, had my friends and family not been able to remember either anniversary landing on these days, speak either’s name, say something they remembered about them, then my grief not only would have been protracted, but I think it might have deepened and become stuck.
Julian Barnes wrote Levels of Life following the death of his wife. It tracks his grief, his madness. I remember a scene from it where he is having dinner with friends. At the table he is frustrated by no one mentioning her name, and so he, blatantly out of step with the conversation, blurts out something about her, injects her name artificially into the table talk. He does it once, twice, and then a third time, and says: “Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worst of them for it.” Through ignorance, awkwardness, and a well-meaning but misplaced effort to protect the bereaved, they do not know they should speak of the dead.
“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean they are not alive, but it doesn’t mean that they do not exist.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
He doesn’t say ‘existed’, he uses the present tense, ‘they exist’, a tense I often use to think about Ken. I think about him still existing. I don’t pause for too long and think through as to the where and how he exists, I just go with it. All that energy, well, it had to fly somewhere when his heart stopped, did it not? When he travelled to Colombo or Bogota or Kabul, I could not see him or touch him (and some days I could not speak to him) but I always knew he loved me and that he wasn’t too far away, loving me. Now that he is dead, the latter is still true: not too far away, loving me.
In my moments of loneliness – of which there are fewer than there used to be – I can usually find him. Like right now; I imagine him sitting beside me, he’ll have his computer open, as I do, and be working on something, as I am, and he’ll reach over and squeeze my knee without looking at me, and we’ll both work on. As long as I am not too tired, as long as it’s not one of those unusual days when I’ve dipped too far into maudlin, then I feel less lonely when he sits down beside me, all quiet and invisible.
We should speak of the dead. We should say their name. We should speak of them through pain and tears, through laughter and hiccupping stories of joy. We should speak of them with reverence and respect. We should speak of their foolishness and clowning and mistakes. If they were generous, we should emulate their generosity. If they showed righteous anger, we should think of how and when to put our own anger to best use. If there was a special song they loved, we should play it, sing along, dance to it. We should wear their clothes, give their clothes to charity, use their old socks to wash the car. We should frame the very best picture we have of them and hang it where the light is best, but we should not build a shrine around it. We should read their old letters and write the occasional one back telling them all they’ve missed, and that they are missed. We should cook what they loved to eat, serve it up, and make it known why we’ve cooked it. We should raise full glasses and make toasts and ramble on about the old times. We should talk about the now, and wonder what they would make of it all. We should tell stories about their triumphs and failures. We should plant a tree for them, name a star for them, climb a mountain for them, run a marathon for them, take a trip for them, cast a rod for them, buy a lottery ticket for them, back for a horse for them, pull an extra pint for them, have it rest at the bar for them, drink it for them. We should buy ourselves flowers from them, pop champagne for them, squirt perfume behind our ear for them. We should pause at the spot that meant something to them, admire the view for them. We should re-watch that film for them and whisper the lines they knew by heart. We should say good morning to them and then forget about them for the rest of the day until the night-time, when, if we remember, we might say goodnight to them. We should speak of the dead, and get on with living our lives for ourselves, without them.