Here’s a fun fact for you: there is no law about compassionate leave in the UK. There is “time off for family and dependents”, which is granted at your employer’s discretion, and while they “may pay you for time off... they don’t have to”. There is an understanding – not enshrined in law – that you are allowed time off to go to the funeral, but not much more. There is an understanding – enshrined in law – that you will only be allowed “reasonable” time off. I have been – technically – grieving for something like three weeks, and already I can tell you this: nothing about grief is reasonable.
I have tried for too long to act in ways that seem reasonable, runs a line from one of my favourite poems. Yet somehow, this makes me double-unreasonable...
My life before was unreasonable, for lots of reasons. But death is double-unreasonable, because you can neither argue with it nor understand it. It simply is.
And if death is double unreasonable, grief is triple unreasonable. The pain of it is unreasonable; the way it swirls and eddies into every corner of your life is unreasonable; the empty place in the centre of you is as unreasonable and inexplicable as looking into a black hole. These metaphors don’t make much sense. I know that, but I also know that writing these words puts the roof over my head. I also know that, like millions of others in this country, I am working perhaps before I am truly ready to go back to work because I don’t have a choice.
I can’t afford unpaid time off. Nor can most people. There is no choice but to go on working while grieving; working while your world is in pieces around you.
I don’t know what to do about this – not for me, or for anybody else.
I don’t know what to do about this, except, maybe, write.
Eighteen months ago, when my partner first fell into the almost-coma that broke everything irreparably, I wrote this column. “We discussed what might happen if one of us was unable to write, and we agreed, then, that the other one would write for them,” I wrote then – and we talked about that column a lot in the months afterwards. It was our mission statement, in some ways. It was the only thing worth doing. We agreed “that we would leave nothing out. That we would be honest, whatever was happening… I have to carry, while he cannot, the project he began so long ago with his blog: which means, I suppose, I have to tell you the truth.”
Maybe, if my work is to speak the truth about this ordinary, everyday kind of pain, perhaps it’s worth doing after all – no matter how tired I am
I have to tell the truth, because there is a power in truth-telling. I have to tell you that this is what it’s like because it’s all I can do: all I can do is speak to the people who are grieving, and the people who are not yet grieving. This is not a unique situation. None of this is unique. None of this is special. This happens all the time. And so, maybe, if my work is to speak the truth about this ordinary, everyday kind of pain perhaps it’s worth doing after all – no matter how tired I am.
If my work is to say – this seems baffling, and unfair, and impossible to negotiate when someone you love is gone forever; can you do anything about this? – to maybe somebody out there reading this who might listen, that seems worth doing.
And so, all I can do is maybe to say, to the people who are grieving and working; to the people putting their best foot forward; their brave face on – I see you, and you matter, and I am so profoundly sorry that you have to do this.
All I can do is say, to the people who haven’t yet had to do this – this matters, and these people matter, and be kind to the people around you because someone – everyone? – is hurting too, in their own way. I can’t fix this. I can’t fix anything. I thought I could and I was wrong, and now I’m here and I don’t know what to do about anything except hold this problem up to the light and ask if any of you can do anything about it.
If you have the energy or power to think about making these kind of situations easier for anybody – in any way, really, now I come to think about it – do it. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it because it’s all you can ever do. Do it because you have a choice: the kind of choice I don’t have, the kind of choice that millions don’t have. Do it because you can.