This is our truth, tell us yours
A friend told me recently of how, when his brother called to tell him their mother was close to death, he mentioned Mike and the Mechanics. The reference was to the song, The Living Years, a great piece by BA Robertson and Mike Rutherford that has assumed a certain universality about grief. It’s aided and abetted by a great vocal performance of course, and by strong production, but at heart there is a certain ubiquity, a congruence with that experience of death as the closure of a conversation that could and should have continued.
One of the manifestations of grief that I know about is that sense of things unsaid and things undone, of the whole, cruel untimeliness of death. Even when death is not unexpected there there will have been things said which, after reflection, deserve more exploration, a closer examination or which provide a new perspective. Death is, in short, the time of unanswered and unanswerable questions.
I first encountered this idea through poetry, and especially via R S Thomas, whose world view seemed rooted in an apophatic tradition, devoted mainly to telling us that God was not an easy answer to questions we could not answer from direct experience. A belief in the afterlife is an easy answer to some of the questions grief asks of us; the belief that we will be re-united beyond the grave is a universal panacea, the easy way to resolve the unfinished dialogue. To quote Thomas
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply, It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
In my work, both personal and corporate, I often find myself trying to teach individuals to ignore the unknown unknowns, and to focus on the three other classes of knowledge, the things we are conscious of knowing, the things we know we don’t know but can find out, and the things we know but don’t consciously recognise (or refuse to consciously recognise). Death moves huge amounts of knowledge, the answers to the questions we want to ask, into the unknown, and the unknowable; we cannot question the dead.
At some stage though we have to engage with the poisoned arrow of grief, the realization that the person we loved or who loved us is no longer there. And that’s where the Buddhist parable of the poisoned arrow comes to mind. There is no profit or progress in recursively exploring the nature of grief, or whether it could have been different if only we had known more about it.
Life is too short to spend it asking unanswerable questions – we can only set ourselves free by asking the questions we can and should answer. If we are to avoid being held prisoner by the unfinished conversations we have to live and love and speak in the present, so that whatever happens, we can know that we sought freedom for ourselves and those we leave behind.