A fox killed Tom’s rabbit. I know it’s just the way that nature works but the pain of losing a loved pet is not dulled by some notional idea of insignificance. Loss is loss.
A few years ago I worked with a lady who arrived distressed and in a very low state. Early exchanges revealed that she had lost her cat, but something wasn’t right, I knew there was more. Over the weeks that followed I learned about a complex maternal relationship, a painful marital breakdown and the unfathomable impact of her sisters suicide, all loss, the feelings for which were triggered by what might have seemed at first glance to be the rather ordinary death of a cat. The threads are various, might appear disparate, run very deep but ultimately they are connected. Eventually the cumulative impact of loss upon loss reaches a tipping point where something, anything can lead us into a reflection of all that has gone before.
On hearing the news of Tom’s rabbit I think probably my sadness for Scratchy was only fleeting, although I loved him too, such an amusing character who enjoyed nothing more than getting into the kitchen and hopping behind the fridge to chew through the wires and ruin the food. Once I caught him in the washing machine. My thoughts almost instantly focused on Tom and his sadness. When we have children fear of loss is amplified by not only the devotion we have to our kids and the terrifying thought that anything could happen to them, but also because we tend toward wanting to carry their pain for them. We can’t and sometimes they are more capable of shouldering the load than we are. Furthermore it would be damaging for me to deny Tom the opportunity to mourn even if I were able to do so. Learning about loss is a lesson which confronts us all but which we might prefer to defer to another day.
I am no stranger to loss in many of it’s wearisome forms. No matter how often I confront a space where previously there was not one I feel the same heavy thump. Sometimes it can be so brutal that I imagine myself outside my own body looking at the shell of me wondering how on earth I will be able to pull myself up onto my feet again. This dissociation can be helpful in momentarily distancing myself from something which is not yet real in my world even if it is in the world I am forced to inhabit, and whilst the momentary refusal of acceptance is understandable and does no damage what is damaging is an extended period of refusal to accept the new world order. The longer we take to assimilate loss the more pain we are forced to endure. A refusal to accept reality doesn’t shield us from sadness, rather it is a state which makes it inevitable.
Facing loss isn’t easy and we convince ourselves that if we don’t look at it we might be able to forget it, that it will dissolve over time until there is but a trace of it left. It doesn’t work. Loss is a walk across a wide expanse of land that we have to take and until we do the loss sits within us, patiently despite that fact that it never really feels like a good time to take the first step.
Perhaps though, the acknowledgement of loss is involuntary, perhaps we have less control than we imagine over how it pulls on us, and perhaps this is particularly evident at times when we feel drawn together and so notice, with sharp clarity, the being apart. Christmas is a time like this.
I notice strongly those I miss at this time of the year not just because of the lack of their physical presence but because I am aware that as life continues it also becomes inevitably fractured and anniversaries, special days and festivals are like markers in the ground. The longer we live the more people come into our lives and make an impression and the more of them leave again through desire or necessity and the more noticeable that becomes when we have a reference point allowing us to compare this year with the last.
On R4 there is a programme called “The Listening Project” which is a series of short recordings of people chatting about ordinary aspects of their lives which so often strike an extraordinary chord. Twice this week a particular interview has played whilst I have been involved in Christmas preparations. On Wednesday it was whilst I was buying the Christmas tree and then last Sunday whilst I was making mincemeat for the mince pies (I can’t stand the shop bought stuff, it’s far too sweet). It was a heartbreaking monologue featuring a young woman talking to the baby that she and her partner had been so looking forward to but who had died shortly before full term. For the second time in fours days I found myself face to face with my own raw emotion, and in these moments I notice that pure sadness and empathy for another human being, the inability to comprehend the enormity of such a loss yet the yawning gap apparent in my own heart was far from an emotion I wanted to push away, instead I wanted it to wash over me, to allow myself to feel exactly how I am, to be myself in the most true and clear way possible, to acknowledge everyone I miss having in my life, feeling sadness not as a burden but as a gift which reminds me that I can feel, that I am alive and that I am able to give description to those feelings, and to know that tears are not bad. That was the essence of Christmas for me, right there, the willingness and desire to be accepting of myself, without any reference to whether it’s “right”, “normal”, “appropriate” or any other pointless external criteria, but more than that to recognise a connection, however slight, with another human being, to notice that I am changed by everything that happens, by who happens to me, by those that arrive and by those that leave, that I might often be solitary but that I am never alone. Loss runs through my life like the letters through a stick of rock, I cannot change it and to be reminded of it and accept it is to tap into a vein of peace which is otherwise elusive.
It took me a long time to realise that allowing myself to feel sadness is the fastest way through it, that deferring is not minimising but in fact amplifying, that endless procrastinating where loss is concerned cannot ever be a positive thing.
We put Scratchy in a box and buried him where he used to like sitting. It was properly sad. I know he was only a rabbit but it is what he represents as much as who he was. Throughout our lives even as children we have the opportunity to encounter and engage with loss and the way in which we deal with it sets a foundation for the rest of our days. As parents we have the chance to allow it, to encourage it, to show that it can be faced and accepted not on behalf of anyone else but because we are willing to take responsibility ourselves for the inevitable pain we will encounter. Nothing goes away just because you stop looking.
I remember Christmas from childhood right from the moment I woke in the early hours kicking gingerly the sheets at the foot of the bed to feel the telltale rustle and euphoric weight of a stocking full of brightly coloured parcels, through the interminable wait for present opening and the inevitability of lunch being served long after it was anticipated (my mother was a district nurse and frequently worked on Christmas Day. Dinner at 10pm wasn’t uncommon). Most of all though I think about what has gone and who I don’t see, not because I am stuck in the mourning of it’s passing but because I am grateful for having had it in the first place.
Last week, before Scratchy’s untimely death, Tom said that the rabbits, which were a gift, were probably the best Christmas present he had ever had. The multiple ways in which that gladdens my heart are impossible to describe in a way that does their depth justice. For my part loss will never be hidden, ignored, underestimated to myself or to my children because it’s such a crucial part of who we become and how we get to grips with the world, even at Christmas.