‘I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.’
[CS Lewis, ‘A Grief Observed’]
‘for woods are forms of grief’
[Seán Hewitt, ‘Leaf’]
Those of us that grow up with a river, that spend our days – either consciously or subconsciously – mapping the course of its ethereal and surreal liquid element; lulled by its lapping; maddened by its meandering; we are shape-shifters. We are all at once the observer but we are, too, the one being watched. We are reflected and refracted. In time, as each fluid day passes, glassy and spectral, salmon and sorrow full; we are carried in its flow. We become the load, and we sometimes, fleetingly, know this, deep down: in the sinew; in the silence.
There are themes to our lives – leitmotifs that run through the river of our selves, sometimes on the surface like leaves that have landed gently, or like apples ripped from branches in autumnal storms. Other times they are carried in the current; ferried from high places to those below; deposited in the largest body of water to be found. Sometimes, though, the through-line of our existence lives so deep in us that we cannot even sense it, let alone locate it. The tropes that could hold power to shine light on our lives can sometimes live in such a sunken place that they reach the river’s bed. They get stuck at the very deepest part, and the river flows on and on, on its course; making for the sea. Sometimes we have to make our way back to the very beginning; to our source, to try to dig for what it is we must try to unravel; the muddy, unfathomable images that both haunt and define us; those things that, if really unpacked, could hold the power to heal us.
I spent many moons trying to deny one of the most powerful, terrifying tropes of my own life. I shoo-shhooed and batted it away, as though it were a moth going at the lantern in the attic. I would dance around it, betimes, I would take it out at parties like a trick, a trinket; like a borrowed name. Desperate to undo its grip, to free myself from the knots it made to tangle me up in; I buried it deep, deep down. I hollowed out a home for that unwanted theme of my life – in a dim and echoing place: shrouded and without footnote. I hid my grief in the words I placed – timidly, covertly – on paper. I made marks that, I trusted, would not give me away; traces that left no space for translation.
I never named my losses. I never sat with them all, in the night’ darkening beauty, and spoke their names. No place was ever laid at my table so they could be in my hardened, shaken company once more – invisible but welcome; seen.
There had been so much loss I had lost count. Names, faces, houses, accounts, words – all bled into one, overflowing from a communal cup; this is all of our bodies given onto you; eat this in remembrance. Was it the blood, or the bread not taken? Did I lose them from my memory because I had not eaten his body?
When the first died, I was like the banshee; I screamed and wailed so uncontrollably that my Mam begged the Doctor on our street to sedate me, to try to let sleep come after too many nights of terror. That Doctor was the man who had brought me – screaming and winter-coated – into the world. Here he was, trying, now, to keep me there; fearful, like they all were, of where this unwelcome, unimaginable sorrow might lead me to.
He was 18, the first. I was 16. He was my closest male friend, the only male I’d slept beside in a bed, the first person to give me a valentine’s card. He had curtains as sculpted as Binevenagh and as blonde as a cherub. He was murdered, most likely less than an hour after I said goodbye to him, within sight of my home; the safe place he was due to sleep in that night. He had walked me home from the village chip shop, and was on his way back down to stand outside it for another wee while with our other friends. His body was found, miles up the hill behind both our houses, in ancient woods, beside a set of stones that shared his surname.
The next friend was 18, too, and took his own life one Sunday night the following year. He’d only just spoken to his Mam, who said he’d sounded like a little boy again that evening, which had made her feel hopeful for the first time in years.
The third was 20, had thick black curls that covered his face like a spring mist. One morning – the day after the evening we’d all spent dancing to cheesy 80’s music at a party as chemical foam filled our local Hotel – he lost his footing on the building site he was working on that week.
I didn’t attend any of their funerals, the farewells to those I had lost. If I had, though, I wouldn’t have seen a single one of their faces; each were placed back into the ground in a coffin that remained firmly shut the whole way through the events that followed their deaths.
One August over a decade later, I lost my beloved grandfather and Seamus Heaney in the same fortnight as one another. Suddenly, the banks were broken and nothing, nothing whatsoever, could hold the river back.
Nothing was the same after that. Fear held me tightly in the belly of its storm, and my identity, once seeming so fiercely outlined, had faded at the edge; the lines of my map had blurred and I didn’t have a compass. Grief is a country that has no definite borderlines and that recognises no single trajectory. It is a space that did not exist before your loss, and that will never disappear from your map, no matter how hard you rub at the charcoal lines. You are changed utterly, and your personal geography becomes yours and yours only, for that brief moment in time.
That Summer is almost six years ago now. This year, only a handful of weeks ago, grief made its way back onto my pathway once more, on the very night I messaged a friend about coming with me to stay with you, in your home by the River Dissour. On that same night, within the same hour, I received both the news of the death of a close friend and of the murder of the young Journalist Lyra McKee. Grief has been on my mind now almost daily again, for weeks. All of a sudden, I am weeping for my grandfather again. I am weeping, too, for his mother, and for so many other lost things. All of a sudden, I am grieving. There are places laid at my table now, so many places; I am sitting with my loss.
I am writing about grief.
On how grief does not speak the same language.
How that grief is a pilgrimage; a journey, both grey with fog and, all at once, golden; light sent down from a crescent moon.
How that each fresh experience of grief can wound us further; how that past loss can resurface many moons in the future, like things thought long lost to the bed of the river.
But how that, on the other side of that same coin, newly born grief may also hold the key that unlocks the proper rooms in the house of historical grief; more like a laneway than the labyrinth I so often feel it to be.
How grief is not linear, how it is not even circular. How is grows and mutates, shape-shifts and hides in what is too difficult to translate into the human tongue; how it morphs and gathers such great momentum that it has often dissipated before we can really take it by its roots. How it will not be pulled out easily as a rotten tooth or an invasive weed; the things it most resembles on so many days; too many to fully recall.
On how grief is not always, though it is sometimes; coal black as a crow. How that grief sometimes holds a surreal rainbow in its beak. How grief is a painter. How it makes and sculpts, writes and dances. How grief is an actor, how that actor tricks, deceives; makes true.
Of how grief is not always as silent as we so often paint it to be. How it sometimes sings, rather than screams. Not siren or banshee like, at all, betimes, but ethereal; grace dripping from the tongues of iridescent birds.
How grief is more the moth than the butterfly. Of how moths, in their own way, grieve also. How grief is not always found in the dark – how it lives in bright places, too; illuminated. How moths are so unbearably beautiful; achingly so, in fact.
Sunken, swollen and hollowed out, my hands cannot quite reach; the well is bone dry. Her hair, my hair; our hair wraps itself around the scene and then some.
Shade- thick and echoing; mud-deep and all silent, I see the mistle-thrush make as if to liftliftlift and then, all at once; the train – in that world behind and beneath us all, and the flapping made less noise than you as you went back; into the belly of the earth: cracked and held in place by one buzzard circling the small crowd; Easter Sunday in Craigbann.
We thought it was a jay, my father and I. The only bird left in place after the metal on the track. The May sky – newly born, thunder-brim and dove-dull, suspended above the oaks like a retelling. Closernottooclose and then the revealing.
Speckled, sculpted; ordinary – so ordinary – against the crepuscular shine, fallenfallen and falling, still. A creature that sees the storm before it comes – in the small bones that keep order to things, in the blood that courses onandonandon; in the parts that fit together like iambic. One that drags the chaos inward, at its richest in those moments of dancing rage; a bird that shares its secrets with the tempest.
A male blackbird breaks the hush, and my father moves; out of the dullness of once-muted space, back to the afternoon – to a world now hung with closeness and with murk; a world now bruised with the last of the bluebells.
To Mavis, in quietude; and in the memory of JC, MB, LD, LM and all of those who have already crossed.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh lives in northwest Ireland. She writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Dublin Review of Books, Caught By The River, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine. Her first book – ‘Thin Places’ – will be published by Canongate in Spring 2021.