​​​​​​​​​​​
Bereavement and Fear
Steve Eddy



C. S. Lewis said in his memoir of bereavement, A Grief Observed, that he had never realised how much grief had in common with fear. His book, written after losing his young wife after only a few years of marriage, was one of two books that I found helpful after losing my own partner, Claire, less than a year ago. The other was Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World, by Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Lewis’s insight is one to which I could definitely relate, but it is one that I could never have predicted.


Loss cannot be anticipated
My own bereavement came as a shock, so I had no time to anticipate how I might feel. Having said that, I imagine that any deep bereavement, even after a protracted illness, would come as a shock, because the reality of loss is impossible to contemplate; equally, it is hard to remember in its true intensity. To anticipate it, or even to recall it, would involve actually being immersed in it. It is the same for any intense experience: who ever truly imagines being in love, or can recall it without once again being in love?




















An existential terror
More precisely, I felt an awful anxiety, a deep and horrifying insecurity based on what now appeared to be the utterly insubstantial nature of the world I had taken for granted. Suddenly I was living in a terrain where an earthquake could strike at any moment. The very ground of my existence had revealed itself to be a fragile crust spanning a bottomless pit. Yet, as a philosophically minded ‘bit of a Buddhist’, I already knew, in theory, that what we call our world was an illusion, or at best a subjective construction.
I lost my confidence to do things that would normally present little challenge – like beginning to write a new book, or travelling abroad. I had to force myself to do these things. I would sleep fitfully, if at all, waking at 3.00am with the renewed recollection of loss. I had to go to sleep with the light on, and the World Service on the radio to remind myself that elsewhere people were still carrying on more or less normal lives.
I had not been especially dependent on Claire in a practical sense. We were both independent – especially me. I had always enjoyed my own company, and felt comfortable scaling mountains relying only on my own abilities, or in my office writing books. I never really missed Claire if I had to go abroad for a week or so – though I told her that I would certainly miss her if I thought I would never see her again. Nor am I the sort of man who does not know one end of a frying pan from the other and in the absence of a wife is forced to survive on Pot Noodle.


Coupledom provides a context
The point is that Claire was always there in the background of whatever I did, a vital, albeit often invisible presence. And I think, for any couple, just being in a relationship provides a context – giving a meaning to one’s life. Hence bereavement plunged me into an existential crisis. As Sartre would say, I was ‘condemned to be free’. For the first couple of months I really questioned whether I would even survive – though it was hard to say what ‘not surviving’ would entail.






How I survived
I knew in theory that people do survive, and indeed one of the few things that was at all reassuring was the testimony of survivors like C. S. Lewis, or the individuals cited in Neeld’s book. I had kind friends. I also had an excellent counsellor who seemed to reassure me that life would continue, both for me and others, and who heard and acknowledged my waves of grief so that they became simply a part of my reconstituted and forever altered self. And I had grandchildren who made my continued existence worthwhile.
It was also a grim comfort to realise that we are all in the same leaky boat. We are all mortal – even if we live as if this were not the case, and as if the thousand pettinesses of our days really amounted to anything significant in the face of this, and we all stand a good chance of suffering a major bereavement at some point in our lives. In fact, anyone in a couple stands a 50 per cent chance of losing their partner – a fact that couples to whom I pointed this out were curiously reluctant to embrace!


Our shared experience
In the end it is recognition of our shared human experience, and our compassion for one another, that gets us through bereavement, and perhaps through life as well. W. H. Auden ended a poem with the line ‘We must love one another or die.’ Later he amended this to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This second version may sound less optimistic, but it is perhaps more realistic, and ultimately, therefore, more comforting.

    
My partner had almost died on two previous occasions in the three years before her final demise. Ironically, what eventually killed her was a rare condition – idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension – that was completely unrelated to her previous near misses. It was as if she had cheated death twice and was finally being snatched away by a grimly determined invisible hand. Given this history, you might think I would have been somewhat prepared. If asked beforehand how I thought I would feel, I might have said ‘sad’, of course. Perhaps ‘devastated’, as indeed I once told Claire I would be, when she asked me, seemingly out of the blue. But even this falls far short of the sense of one’s world shattering that Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s subtitle identifies.
Suddenly I was living in a terrain where an earthquake could strike at any moment. The very ground of my existence had revealed itself to be a fragile crust spanning a bottomless pit. 
We ar​​​​​​​​e all mortal - even if we live as if this were not the case, and as if the thousand pettinesses of our days really amounted to anything significant in the face of this.