When I was a boy we were not encouraged to think about death, presumably because we could not be expected to cope with such a challenge to the imagination. The closest we got to its complexities was watching Zulu, and the song from Shenandoah, and burying a succession of pets.
Then auntie Flo died. I didn’t know her. I must have met her three or four times. I did know that she had been married to uncle John, who was a bit deaf, had been in the war and played tennis to quite a high standard until he got old and had bony claw-like hands with which he used to pat me on the knee. I also knew that she ran a sewing shop somewhere in Stechford, Birmingham, but that was it.
She was buried in Yardley cemetery. I remember it being autumn, but then I remember all funerals as being in autumn, or at least as the colours of the woods in Miller’s Crossing. I also remember it as the first time I encountered grief: one minute I was sitting there, politely observing the ritual, the next I was a spluttering mess of snot and hot tears.
Grief is irrational and rational, honest and dishonest, wholly expected and not. It is alarming, a peculiar source of comfort – I, at least, am functioning as I should – insidious and visible, even performative; there are precedents and protocols. Grief lives in the gut and can kill you through the damage it does. It appears slowly, irresistibly; or it blindsides you, attached to a song or coat. It can be like a mugging. It becomes part of your character – you bury it, or wear it as you wear your skin. It feels like catharsis or like sorrow or emptiness.
I’ve encountered grief many times since auntie Flo died, in various guises. Sometimes it has been connected to celebrities. I didn’t cry when David Bowie died, even though I know all the words to Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed and just about enough of Diamond Dogs. Yet when I heard Burt Lancaster was soon to be barrel-chested and toothy no more, I burst into tears, despite only liking The Swimmer. Friends and family, too. My granny, who drove ambulances in the war and gave money to the African National Congress in the 1950s, died at 100; on the day of her funeral, as the bells rang out from her church in Lanchester, County Durham, a rainbow appeared and my grief was reflective and almost serene, if melancholic. A friend killed himself and I was atomised, left scrabbling for pieces of me that I could assemble into some sort of emotional or cognitive sense. My dad died recently and although I am grieving, I am a long way from beginning to grieve.
Each version of grief is singular: there are all types of grief in the world but never the same grief twice. Yet even if there are years between its iterations, and particular manifestations seldom reappear, it is also one single protracted negotiation – with existence, with mortality, with yourself. And it started, for me, with the funeral of auntie Flo.