Loss and Grief

dsc00870Mt 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?

                                                                                                                            Terry Dartnall

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-and-wendy-on-mt-maroon-2005Terry & 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.combook-and-author-bnw

When the Wind Blows from the East

When the wind blows from the east

And the sun is low in the sky,

Remember the roses and wine,

And the summer time,

And the long dance.

When the wind skirls at your feet

In dust-filled halls,

Remember the summer heat

And the long dance in the skies of dawn,

When the world was asleep

And the years stretched away over the fields.

Terry Dartnall

My husband Terry wrote this poem at least a decade before he died, little knowing it would be so prophetic. It perfectly fitted our experience of love and loss when he was dying of pancreatic cancer. After his death the poem became an integral part of my memoir, inspiring the title A Wind from the East.

When we realised his death was imminent and unavoidable, it felt as if a wind from the east had blown through our lives. I do not mean to say that an east wind is malevolent, but that an east wind denotes change. We are not always ready for change, especially when we are about to lose someone, or something, greatly loved. It fills us with fear and grief.

In the first weeks, when my fear was new, I needed anti-anxiety medication to keep me steady through everything I had to deal with: a terminally ill husband, a house sale to finalise, a house purchase to complete, along with numerous legal documents and intricate finances, as well as the practicalities of selling old furniture, clearing and cleaning the old house, and moving into the new house. And of course, family, friends and colleagues, all devastated by their imminent loss of Terry, needing news and information. In those early weeks, my practice of meditation wasn’t enough to calm me when I woke at 3am, deeply afraid of what lay ahead. But yet, with persistence, I settled into habits of positive thinking by saying affirmations, meditating when I could, writing poetry in the long hours beside my husband’s bedside (which focussed my mind more easily than meditation), and appreciating what was still good in my life. If I remembered to do so! Little by little I began to trust. I trusted that we’re never alone, even though I felt lost and alone at times. But I knew it wasn’t really true because whenever I called for help, it came.

I’m not religious and I don’t pray, so you may wonder why I feel that we’re not alone.  It’s not easy to explain because it’s ineffable. I don’t think we have an adequate language to explain the intuitive, inner feelings, particularly because such experiences are felt individually. One person’s experience of non-physical energy won’t be like another’s, and yet they will both be valid. In my book I talk about some of the gentle signs and symbols that came to me, rather like messages of love and encouragement. I grew accustomed to serendipity, to things turning up in perfect timing, without any planning from me. I accepted that which I could not change (my husband’s death), and in the grace of acceptance I found beauty and stillness.

Years later, I still sometimes have to remind myself that I’m safe, if life gets worrying and I lose my footing. Then I remember that life has always worked out for me and I say it out loud in the car, or in my head if I’m with other people: Everything is always working out for me. It brings instant relief and I build on that feeling of relief by relaxing; I feel the positive nature of trust.

People might ask, ‘How can you think so positively when you’re facing disaster?’ ‘Aren’t you just going into denial?’ ‘You have to face facts.’

I question the usefulness of facing facts if it puts me into fear and panic. Whenever I’ve felt depressed, or worried over a period of time, I’ve attracted more of the same from the people around me, then I’ve felt even worse, and more negative things happen. But when I seek relief in positively affirming the good things in my life, then more good is attracted to me and I find that everything works out well in its own way. I didn’t have to worry a solution into being, I only had to visualise the outcome I wanted, feel it and trust. There was no need to worry the ‘how’ the ‘when’ or the ‘which’ because I’d set the wheels in motion with my inner feelings of positive expectation, which began with the visualisation. If you can feel what you are visualising, there’s no need to work out how or when it will manifest. It’s already on its way.

‘Everything is always working out for me,’ is a very effective affirmation, but you probably have your own affirmation that suits you even better. Affirmations work. They are especially good if an east wind brings changes you’re not ready for.

A Wind from the East is available here: http://www.wendydartnall.com


The Gift of Grief

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Losing the love of my life to pancreatic cancer was one of the most difficult and profound experiences I’ve ever had. It changed everything and I had to accept the changes. I learned that life is change. I learned deeply what might seem obvious, but I had only known it on a superficial level before. Accepting change that I really didn’t want and wasn’t ready for created both deep love and deep fear in me. Love and Fear. Life is ultimately Love and Fear. My love strengthened and deepened, not only for my husband during those dark times, but also for myself. I learned how to become my own best friend. I found ways of soothing myself. One of these was to write poetry.

My husband Terry and I had been together for almost three decades and we were very close. He was hospitalised for almost four months after his diagnosis, and then he finally came home to die. During long hours sitting beside his hospital bed, I wrote poetry. It was the only thing that focussed my mind, giving me some relief. I continued writing poetry after he died. One day I wrote ‘I am Grief in a Skin.’

I am grief in a skin,

Doing ordinary things:

Drinking tea,

Brushing my hair,

Washing dishes.

This time it is the silence

That brings me to my knees,

Sobbing at the empty spaces

You have left me in;

I am not big enough to fill them.

I wait for a purpose to show itself,

To give my life meaning,

But I am not ready for a purpose.

My skin barely contains me;

It is worn thin and tired.

I want to be with you –

Why else am I here?

A Wind from the East, page 169.


I didn’t know who I was on my own, or what I would become, or how I could live without my dearest love. But gradually I moved away from deep despair and emptiness. Every day I would consciously choose to feel better, while allowing my deep grief its natural expression. The poem shows the allowing of grief. I let myself sob whenever I needed to, and I spoke to Terry as if he were still with me. I even got angry with him a couple of times. But then I would soothe myself with thoughts of appreciation about the good things that were still in my life. I would appreciate the beauty of a sunrise as I slipped early from bed, unable to sleep, or I would take time to appreciate soft colours at dusk with a glass of wine in the garden, with my dog Poppy at my feet. Just sitting with Poppy could soothe me. My daily ritual of morning tea with incense and affirmations was steadying and sometimes uplifting. Meditation and affirmations became quiet habits that soothed my mind and emotions, keeping me pointed toward the Light.

I had begun writing letters to Terry when he was dying and he could no longer have conversations with me. We had always talked about everything together and I missed our discussions and shared observations. He would never be able to read the letters, but they helped me express my thoughts and emotions. I continued writing to him after his physical death. The letters were the spark of inspiration for A Wind from the East.

It may seem an unlikely analogy, but grief shares similarities with colds and flu in that it can be a gift, opening a person to an expansion they would not have gained in any other way. Colds and flu can be a gift for greater health, according to Dr. Ben Kim, Experience Your Best Health: http://drbenkim.com. He says: … rather than take conventional drugs to suppress uncomfortable symptoms, it’s better for your health to allow the cold or flu to run its course while you get plenty of physical and emotional rest.

Grief too is uncomfortable, but it’s better for your emotional health to allow it’s expression while simultaneously looking after your own physical and emotional needs. You may be feeling reclusive and low in energy, which is perfectly natural. Be kind to yourself and rest as much as possible. Say ‘No’ to things you really don’t want to do until you’re ready.

Dr Kim also says In the big scheme of things, a cold or flu is a natural event that can allow your body to purge itself of old and damaged cells that, in the absence of viral infection, would normally take much longer to identify, destroy, and eliminate. … the common cold is nature’s way of keeping you healthy over the long term.

I feel grief is nature’s way of keeping us emotionally healthy over the long term. If you feel like screaming out loud, close all the doors and windows and yell into a pillow so you don’t alarm the neighbours. Go to an empty beach and send your anguished cries into the wind and out to sea. Maybe don’t try this when you’re driving! Park the car in a safe, quiet spot and let rip. I was lucky to have an empty house on acreage. You’ll feel better with the relief that follows a cathartic crying, venting session. It’s a purging of emotions that are better out than held in, causing distress to the mind and body.

Finally, I don’t believe there is a time frame for grief. If people say you should be ‘over it’ by now, don’t let it get to you. They may have your best interests at heart, but you are the one who will know when you can remember your loved one with joy and appreciation without dissolving into tears. Time really is a great healer and you will get to a point when you realise with gratitude more than with grief that you had that loved-one in your life. At the same time, you may be caught off-guard for years by a sudden song, or a smell, or a sunbeam that will bring a memory to make you cry. It’s natural. It’s good. You have loved and been loved. Grief is intensely personal and as different for each person as there are people and circumstances and cultural differences and beliefs.

Be your own best friend.

‘A Wind from the East’ is available from: http://www.wendydartnall.com/book


A Writing Life

Hello fellow writers and readers. This is my first post and my first blog-writing experience. I’m starting a blog because I’ve spent years writing short stories and poetry, and have recently published my first book, a memoir called A Wind from the East.  I took the above photo one wet day when I was writing the final chapter. For me, the picture contains much of the essence of that time, spending days alone with words and memories. South-East Queensland’s sub-tropical rain had been plummeting for hours on the hillsides around my house, high winds were tossing palm trees outside the windows, the storms held me more firmly than usual at my desk.

I hope to share the writing life with you. Poetry that I love, other writers, and chats about the content of my memoir, which is a story of love, loss and finding strength from within. Writing helped me get through grief and loss.


Excerpts from the book are at http://www.wendydartnall.com

I’m also a writing group facilitator. Once a month, I run a writing group in Brisbane, Queensland for vision impaired people—Writing With A Vision. It’s no different to a writing group for sighted people, except we have no use for picture prompts.  We use phrases, sentences, single words, songs, poems, smells, and objects to feel as prompts for our writing. I hope to share some of our activities on this blog. Writing exercises are useful as inspiration, they act as triggers for memories and imagination for those who write solo, or in groups. They are great for making that thing called ‘writers block’ a myth. Writing spontaneously from a prompt can make the unexpected appear on the page.

I look forward to future conversations.

A Wind from the East is available from http://www.wendydartnall.com