Grief…it is one of these words that can go to the core of my heart. It is one of these sensations that can fill me up with all kind of negative linked words. Words that evoke the worst side of being alive. After all it is one of these acts that only takes place when we humans are confronted with that one part of our existence that involves something that creates chaos and a lot of uncertainity. Surely many of you who read this modest blog know what I am talking about and I don’t need to go into more depth to explain what this act involves when it comes down to me. Still, after this weekend and just having read the first few paragraphs of a specific news article I did feel the urge to write something about this word.
When my father died the first couple of weeks I don’t recall grieving. That is something that only kicked in a few months later and then it fiercely attacked. It found a home inside of me where it seemed to feel very much at ease. The memories of that period of time are those that I consider very hard to deal with. Nothing was certain and I was flying blind. It took me years to come to terms with the loss and the pain. I still have got days that I can curse while looking up to the sky. Not sure that I make sense but that is one of the things that I personally found out about grieving…it is a very personal thing.
I use the word thing and some of you might not even like me doing so. Still I do it purposely. Like mentioned a few lines above did the first weeks my mind and also body seem to cope quite well with the loss of my father. It was like an automatic pilot was active. I managed to do my job and I even can’t remember crying at the day of his funeral. Yes, I have got very vivid memories of these first weeks leading up to him dying and being erased from our daily existence but tears are not one of them.
One of the most confrontational things I experienced during that time was how my grandmother dealt with the loss of her son in law. That was something I had totally underestimated. The day that my beloved ‘bomma’ expressed her personal opinion in a very open and straight forward manner my time stood still. It was like a knife was planted into my heart and all the feelings I tried to keep under a lit of the boiling kettle suddenly were pushed out into the air. I will never ever forget that day when my 90 year old grandmother stood there in total defeat and her face reflected what she had just told me. Her words were like daggers and landed into that one spot where some scar tissue was formed. Believe me, she got her message across…very clear…
I have mentioned my grandmother before. She is one of the strongest people I have known in my life so far. The last few years I become more and more aware that what she managed to do was certainly not straight forward. The war correspondence of my grandfather is one of those things that pointed out that my grandmother at numerous times must have been exposed to grief. Did she ever talked about it? No, she hardly ever told us something about that one person that we never had the pleasure of meeting. Yes, there were pictures and in those we met up with a very good looking soldier in his uniform. Even in their wedding picture he was wearing that outfit.
Neither will my mother tell us a lot about her father. She was the youngest of 3 and was born after the second world war. The things she does tell us about him are mostly funny childhood memories. Even talking about how he died was done with not that many words. Like they all wish to tell us ‘less is more’. I am never ever able to follow any of them there. My grandfather stays an enigma and only since reading those letters he wrote in prison I was able to feel some connection. It was like a door was opened that my grandmother had kept closed. But it remains mostly firmly closed.
Yes, I did wonder how my grandmother had done that. Why she never ever did think of handing us over those letters at a sooner stage in our lives. Why did we never ever had an in depth ‘meaningful’ conversation about what she must have felt when he was imprisoned, on the run and when he then finally died years later after the war… Reading those precious letters made something very painful clear to me and did also put what had happened between my grandmother and me in a meaningful perspective. It did teach me something very important about life. Something that they write about in those self help guides dealing with depression or loss. But let us be fair that what is written down on paper has never ever the same effect than what is spoken out loud.
My grandmother had a lot of love to give and she shared in abundance what she had. Many of our friends envied us and described us as being ‘cool’. To be honest at that time I did assume that all grandparents were like her. Was I wrong about that? Still you only find out at a very later stage what the reality was. That she in her darkest of her existence did express what she felt like must have been very hard on her.
It is with this in my mind and all the things that I have been taught in history classes and English Literature lessons that I did watch the remembrance of the battle of Passchendaele. For those amongst you who ever been to Ypres and other spots where the first world war I guess you must know what I am talking about. I was 14 when I did hear the Last Post playing under the Menin Gate. I have biked and hiked and sat on the back of a motorbike while the landscape where many people gave their lives passed by. I call these bitter sweet memories. For many reasons and even for the word grief that is. I was there with others but more importantly I was there all by myself.
The newspapers and many specialist have over the last few days expressed what the impact of that battle precisely is. It is certainly necessary to repeat those wise insights. The outcome is known. The effect of it speaks in the number of white crosses and the names of all these people that their life ended during that one battle. And there are many rather invisible ones still at work. But there is one thing that did make me dive back into my own grief, my own personal grief. Yes, I did put that one word purposely in bold here. Yes, I do think that word is vital in this context. Why?
Well like everything in life are we always confronted with two sides of the medal. Even when it comes down to a medal that a soldier was granted post mortem/human or after the war he/she managed to survive physically. Nowadays social media and main stream media will gladly point this out to us. I went on Twitter while the BBC and Belgian national television were broadcasting Helen Mirren bringing that one timeless poem about a certain flower. Overall many expressed their positive thoughts and opinions about this event. But I did come across enough other opinions that did reflect the other side of the medal.
Yes, it was very clear that this was a British affair and that even the Belgians were considered a foot note in all of this. We were hosting and granted to stood along side all those people of a nation who 100 years ago had lost so many souls. All went smoothly and it was a well directed program of speeches, songs, poetry and evocation of a battle that has left scars on the should of many lives.
It was also not very hard to notice that there was not a very meaningful connection with the German side of the grieving. And in the view of our leading war historians the people responsible for organizing this they missed out on something vital. Forty eight hours after the whole ‘pomp and circumstance’ I seem to read that many have not managed to make it even more meaningful. Like we have missed out on building a bridge towards those others who have lost their lives in those fields. Hmmm....not sure about that....but who am I?
Have you ever been in Tyne Cot and have ever stood under the Menin Gate on your own? All by yourself? In total silence...nobody around...and then closed your eyes...? Just wondering? I can tell you that when I stood there that I was all by myself. I don’t need speeches or a duke or a king who puts down a wreath of flowers to feel. No, I don’t and even Helen Mirren did not manage to bring back what I felt when I did read for the first time ‘In Flanders Fields’. I do think I have enough self criticism to know that there is not such a thing that will take away the grief of what happened there. The impact of that one battle is lingering around in the earth of those fields.
More and more we seem desperate to look for common ground in order to make sense out of the society in which we live. Unfortunate events seem to ignite always sensations that we are eager to share with others. Hands are hold out and many hope to find an other hand which they can hold on to in order to make ‘sense’ of what they are experiencing. It is like we are desperate looking for life lines that will show us the way out of the minefield. When it comes down to grieving those that were taking away from us there are not suitable acts that we all consider well enough. It will never be enough. When it comes down to grieving we walk alone…do we get lost and spin around in a minefield. The moment you manage to leave that place and come across an other person who turns out to be grieving as well we do secretly hope he or she is holding out her/his hand.
Last week while being in Sweden and having that one holiday that I had been so desperate after I ended up in a church yard. It was a glorious morning and the sun light created a certain glow that made me feel up with happiness. The vitamin D was racing through my veins and I felt zen and then suddenly it was there. In the middle of that church yard I was warped into that one specific spot. Right there in front memorial plaque of Germans…Germans who had lost their lives during the battle of the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea.
It felt awkward to find that memorial plaque in a such a place where only Swedish people were buried. But then this sea battle was between Russia (British were involved as well) and Germany. Sweden was neutral ground at the time. My Swedish friend C and I both expressed our ‘surprise’ while standing in front of it. But then the names on that stone stand for so much more than a footnote in a sea battle. The grief their mothers and fathers, children, family and friends must have experienced must have been as deep as the grief there is still for those that were buried around that stone. I was sanding on neutral ground and I felt a shiver going down my spine. Suddenly I imagined the ice cold water of the Baltic Sea, the screams, the explossions, the tears and so much more ignited by this act. The moment I stepped away and turned away from it and was swept back into the sun light and the cheerful Swedish summer delights. But I had been there…I had found the common ground.
And so after this past weekend and all the articles I have read about Passchendaele 100 I just even more feel disconnected when dealing with grief and loss. Is this something bad and should I now panic about this? No…honestly I even changed channels last Sunday while watching the program. We still think that it is certainly is necessary to keep doing this. But P and I had expected something else than what we got to see. I did not even ask him what he had expected from it but it seemed not to be it what we were given.
We did rather prefer that one program the Belgian national television called ‘Ten Oorlog’ in which three men travel along all those places where war took place. Humanity collided with havoc, disaster and loss. The stories that all these people told they did not needed any marching band or Hollywood rated actress to get their message across. It was sometimes in a smile, a handshake or even a deep sigh that they were able to suck us into their story. For a second they opened up their firmly closed door and gave us a peek into their sadness and their own history of loss. War stories are sometimes covered up by a blanket of heroism and tend to leave out what the deeper impact was over all. Those stories were told by this format were told without bright spot lights and high tech effects. They are pure and sometimes very raw...but that program still manages to do so much more...
No, I am not upset about last Sundays remembrance. Even the criticism that I get to read I find very hard try to ignore. While changing channels it became so clear that I will never be able to share that one specific feeling with someone else. I just did recall standing in front of that one stone in Sweden..being on neutral ground and feeling connected in what many seem to have missed during this Remembrance. Well, I did not…I found it within myself…deep down where nobody else can follow. Like my grandmother had pointed out so explicitly.
Compassion is perhaps the closest we will ever come when it comes down to dealing with loss and grief. In Flanders Fields I will forever find the constant reminder that being alive is so also about being on your own in a life where we are confronted with pain, chaos, blood, suffering, torture, loss and death. The people who have lost their lives in what the British call ‘Dale of Passion’ in combination with what my grandmother taught me that is all it takes.
So no, I don’t agree with some of what people are now reflecting in newspapers. I respect their opinion but then I am all by myself wandering around in those fields where crosses are planted and were poppies are wielding. You don’t need to follow me there…and chances are likely that I will not follow you when it comes down to this. Not sure if I make any sense…but that is okay… I can live with that… I can grief and mourn with that… So next time your life is touched by 'a poppy' know that many are around…but that you are likely on our own and personal walk of grief and remembrance. Luckily there is that one flower to remind us of the fact that we more than once are all ‘on the road to Passchendaele’.