Storytelling

What has struck me over the last few days, since my Mamie’s death very early Friday morning, is how important storytelling is to the grieving process. Apart from the day she died, when I withdrew into a little shell and moped about the house by myself, I’ve spoken to one or more members of family every day. And each time we’ve told stories about Mamie.

I’ve found out things about her I didn’t know, and heard stories that cement my ideas about her. I said to my Dad the other night (Mamie was his mother) that I’m sure there are lots of things about Mamie that I was never going to know until she had died, and I’m kind of looking forward to getting to know her better — or at least in a different way — through the stories I’ll hear about her.

The storytelling is vital, I feel. Mamie was frail when she died — if we weren’t able to tell our stories about her to one another, I think we’d not be able to remember her as she was in the rest of her life. In the stories, she gets to live again.

I’ve always been fascinated by religion and spirituality. I went to Catholic schools growing up, and every year I did very well in the compulsory Religious Studies. I don’t really consider myself a religious person, but I have always loved learning about how people explain to themselves life and death and everything in between. Life after death — again not something I’m decided on — is a particularly interesting concept to me. I wonder whether these stories, these memories we have of Mamie, are her next life.

Mamie was religious. She believed in God, and Heaven, and that she was going to be with my grandfather, Da, again when she died.

Once, a few years ago, she and I started having a conversation about God. I told her I didn’t know whether I believed in a higher being or not, but that I didn’t think it mattered if I was able to be a good person. She listened. At that point in the conversation we were interrupted, but she looked at me, touched my arm, and said, “Please let’s continue this conversation when we can later, darling.” I knew, from the way she said it, that our later conversation would not involve her trying to change my mind, only wanting to know more of it.

Sadly, we never got the chance to finish that conversation. I would dearly love to talk to her about those things now, and it saddens me to think that I won’t be able to.

But that I can tell that story, and imagine how the conversation might have gone — have the conversation with her in my head — is enough. Whichever way you look at it, Mamie’s having a life after death right now.

I’ve shared my thoughts about the social function of literature here before, and I’m sure what I’m describing here fits into that idea somehow. Stories encourage compassion and empathy, and in doing so I think they can perpetuate a person or character’s voice and existence. Which reminds me, I’m due to write more about my ideas on using different narrative voices — my efforts here don’t do the subject any kind of justice.

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Grief

My beloved grandmother, Mamie, died early on Friday morning.

It brings tears to my eyes to type that, and I’m sure it will for quite some time. My Mamie had class. She had a sweet tooth, and a fondness for a G&T or a whiskey. She also had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until the end. I loved her dearly.

Fridays are usually quiet days for me, work-wise. I made yesterday a quieter Friday than usual. Mum had called me with the sad news just before I went into my usual Friday Yin Yoga class (as a student, thankfully), and I’d spent the entire class watching the waves of tears and quiet calm come and go. Yin Yoga has come to play such an important role in my life. It’s a quieter form of yoga than the Vinyasa that I mainly teach, and often practice; it’s passive, reflective, it allows you time to notice things that are sitting below the surface. The challenge of this style of yoga is to just let those things be, even if they’re not pleasant or ideal, which is really tough sometimes. Yesterday was one of those tough times for me.

The poses were more challenging physically. Every time I moved into balasana (child’s pose) the tears would come. As I sat in stillness, they ran down my face and dripped onto my mat. My nose blocked, and I had to breathe through my mouth if I wanted to breathe at all. Keeping my breath slow and even was extremely difficult. Hip stretches were almost unbearable (according to yogic teachings, we store the effects of strong emotions in our hips).

But more challenging still was my mind. It traversed a lifetime of Mamie-memories, and fixated on other members of my immediate and extended family, who I knew would be feeling grieved too. Every time a new thought arose, the lump in my throat would return, and my breathing would become shallow. In Yin Yoga, the idea is to notice your mind wandering and continue to gently bring it back to focus on your breath. For so much of that class, my mind was so far away from any kind of breath focus, and it did not want to come back. Being patient with myself, rather than being angry at my lack of focus, was extremely difficult.

After class, I realised that attempting the editing or research work I had been planning to do would be completely ridiculous. So for the rest of the day, I pottered around, catching up on some reading I needed to do, writing a few bits and pieces. And crying a whole lot more.

Mamie is not the first person close to me to die. Grief is not new to me. But this way of dealing with it — actually allowing myself to just sit and cry — is. And it feels far more natural than anything else I’ve tried. Not denying those feelings, actually expressing them, while not pleasant, is liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel sad, but I feel like I’m allowed to feel sad.

My Mamie was not at all well by the time she died. She’d had dementia for quite some time, and in December last year, she’d had a stroke. She was frail, and she was ready to be free of this life. I am truly glad for her that she can be now.

My sadness is all for myself and the other people left behind. I’ve often thought this about grief: it’s so strangely selfish. Understandably so, obviously. But it’s still an odd thought. And it’s such a mixed bag of feelings. There’s just plain sad; there’s regret and guilt; there’s anger, frustration; there’s holding on for dear life; there’s fear. In the last two days I’ve felt all of these things. At times I haven’t known where the tears were coming from, I haven’t been able to attach them to a specific part of my grief. They’ve just come, almost spontaneously. And I’ve let them.

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe grief isn’t entirely selfish. Grieving for someone shows they meant something to you, it acknowledges that they’ve made an impact. And I can’t say that’s entirely selfish. Mamie was very dear to me — and indeed to many people who knew her. That saying goodbye to her is difficult shows how deep the groove she made in my heart is.

One of my favourite bloggers, Claire Bidwell Smith, writes beautifully about grief. (You can read some of her posts on the subject here.) She has known so much grief in her life. Both her parents had died by the time she was 25, and she often writes about how much she misses them.

I already miss my Mamie, and I will continue to — probably for the rest of my life.

I will miss her smile. I will miss her voice. I will miss her saying things are ‘glorious’ and calling me ‘darling’. I will miss her soft hair, which resisted grey for so long. I will miss her big old glasses, without which she could hardly see a thing. I will miss her telling me I’m in her prayers, which I always loved even though I’m not religious myself. I will miss her asking me how old I am, and being shocked each time that the number is so high. I will miss her silliness. I will miss her wicked sweet tooth. I will miss her handwriting. I will miss her hands. I will miss so many more things about her — many I’m yet to think of or realise, I’m sure.

Goodbye, dearest Mamie. You will stay in my thoughts always.

~

When I first heard the sad news, we were unsure of exactly when Mamie had died, and I was under the impression that it was sometime on Thursday evening. It was, in fact, early Friday morning. I’ve updated the beginning of this post for the sake of accuracy.