Mt Barney National Park, S.E. Queensland, Australia.
What will you say tonight
When the frost bites at the window?
What will you write in the place where I am writing?
What will you say, when love is waiting,
Lost in the dark?
Shall we go on, today, tomorrow?
Will there be an end of sorrow
And the endless waiting?
This poem was written by my husband Terry, decades before his own death. Like many of his poems it was prophetic and could have been written to describe our own predicament at the end of his life. What will you write in the place where I am writing? he asks. Well, Terry, I wrote a darned lot! Poems, letters, and a book that became a long love letter to you: ‘A Wind from the East.’
The writing in question began before Terry died, when I was dealing with the imminent loss of him as he lay dying of pancreatic cancer with complications after an operation. I was in a state of grief and loss through the six months of his dying, but I found solace in writing to him. He never read my letters because they were, in a sense, letters to myself. They helped me to express thoughts and feelings that were too intense and personal to share with him in his weakened state. However, I was able to read him my poetry. He appreciated the poems I wrote in the long hours at his bedside. They helped me express intense feelings while keeping me focussed and calm. It sounds like a contradiction, but I found that once my emotions had been expressed on the page, I then needed to edit them into a respectable poetic form. It was a meaningful process and it kept me quietly focussed.
Terry also asks, Will there be an end of sorrow / And the endless waiting? There were times when my grief became unbearable and I wondered how much of it I could withstand. After his death, I yearned to see him. I missed him every moment of every day. As the weeks passed into months, the sorrow went on and on and on. I lived my days feeling the loss of him, but I also talked to friends and family about our collective feelings of loss, as well as our good memories of Terry. One day I drove out into the kind of country you see in the photograph above, which is in the Mt Barney National Park, in South-East Queensland. As soon as I saw the familiar open country and distant mountains I felt the loss of him. We had hiked and climbed the mountains together for almost twenty years. I cried as I drove, wondering if I would ever see the world complete again. The absence of him was everywhere.
There was eventually an end to my deep sorrow, but I had allowed myself to feel it for as long as I needed to. It felt natural. I didn’t try to mask it, or push it away. I allowed its natural course, which may have been different in nature to other people’s ways of feeling sorrow and grief. I didn’t worry about it. Everyone’s different.
I have a dear friend who lost her husband to cancer two years ago. She is still in grief and sometimes berates herself, saying she should ‘get on with her life.’ In many ways she is getting on with her life magnificently, and in others she is slow because her heart is still heavy with the loss of her wonderful man. I tell her there is no ‘right time’ to get over such a huge loss. Every single one of us is different. I encourage her to be kind to herself and know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Sometimes well-meaning friends and family are fearful of grief, thinking that a person should get over their loss within a set time frame, or they’ll become depressed forever. But there is no set time for grief, no recipe. We’re not lumps of bread baking in an oven. There are too many variables with human beings and human experiences. If you feel you’re using up the grief-tolerance levels of your friends, there are plenty of helpful people to talk to. Don’t try to cope with feelings of overwhelm by yourself. Reach out. In Australia there is Beyond Blue. They talk about grief and loss on http://www.beyondblue.org.au. There are many online sites and Facebook groups on this subject. At http://www.helpguide.org there is an article ‘Coping with Grief & Loss’ and they give helpful tips for coping. Your local palliative care hospice will have counsellors who understand your pain. In Brisbane we are fortunate to have Karuna. You’ll find them at http://www.karuna.org.au.
Writing your thoughts and feelings can help. Regular meditation will keep you centred and calm, and so will time in nature, listening to your best-loved music, cuddling your much-loved pet, or grandchild, or working in the garden, or cooking, or decorating, or sleeping… we’re all different. Be your own best friend and give yourself pleasurable moments every day. It is not taboo to laugh when you’re in a state of mourning. Laughter is good and refreshing. Try to give yourself something to look forward to. It might seem hollow for a while, but keep going because one day, years from now, you could find yourself looking at a photo of you and your loved one and feeling deep appreciation for the experience of your time together. It was your time as a couple. That’s a form of happiness.
Terry & Wendy Dartnall on top of Mt Maroon, S.E. Queensland, 2005.
You can find out more about Wendy’s memoir, ‘A Wind from the East’ at http://www.wendydartnall.com