My aunt Wendy says grief is selfish, yet I will still cry for Nelson.
Here is my aunt’s full quote, as left as a comment on my last post:
“… I think grief is less to do with the people themselves whom we’ve lost, more about what we’ve lost in terms of our childhood, youth, a supportive relationship, etc. So essentially I think grief is selfish, but that’s ok – we have to be, to some extent, to survive. Grief is the price we pay for loving and being loved.”
This stopped me in my maudlin tracks. She’s a smart lady, my aunt; one of the elders whom I wish I could spend more time with and learning from as she heads into her mid-seventies. But she’s in a small Welsh seaside town, and I’m here in Australia, so Facebook and occasional emails are the main communication channels. I would describe her as a political animal: a feminist, a peace activist, a vocal advocate for the rights of the marginalised everywhere.
This blog refers a lot to my sadness at losing my Dad; while the rawness of it has eased, it remains ever-present, on my trusty clipboard of grief.
But Wendy’s comment shone a different light on my world, which is the best you can hope for when writing I think. I have indeed lost everything she mentions, plus the physical comfort of his voice at the end of the phone, or the smell of him when we hug hello at an airport somewhere in the world. And it IS incredibly selfish: it’s all about MY loneliness, MY challenges in living without his support, my sadness at his lack of influence on my child, his grandson.
But MY world is all I know. It’s all I have. It surrounds me completely. So when something in it is torn away, it hurts. And yes, I will survive, no doubt, although I did briefly come close to not wanting to.
So what about when we lose someone who is not just of our personal world? Someone who is a symbol of hope and justice for millions of people?
When I was 14 or 15, my Mum told me we had to stop eating any food from South Africa. I had to stand there embarrassed beside her in the fruit shop while she confirmed from where the grapes had been imported. And the mandarins. And the apples. Then in 1984 The Specials released ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, and the opening chant cut through my sullen teenage rebellion. Suddenly my infuriating Mum became a cool political animal after all, just like her younger sister Wendy:
I still love this song.
Now the great man is moving toward leaving us. He’s lived a long, challenging life, and achieved the unthinkable. He means so much, to so many, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The collective grief we will feel on his death will be both universal and selfish; in general terms, we will have lost an inspiring advocate for equality and human rights, who has been a presence in our world since the 1960s. We will also each have a personal connection to that which resonates within us about him, ripping a tear in our unique emotional fabric. Even if it’s just the memory of forbidden seedless grapes and a ska song.
So it is with the loss of a parent. While perhaps my brothers have cried less than me, we each mourn in our own way. Communication builds a bridge between suffering humans; it may be a blog entry, a stilted conversation, or via the pages of a journal. It may unite people across oceans, and evoke support and understanding from complete strangers, such as I’ve experienced here on WordPress.
Profound communication may be achieved in the smallest of actions: our household went without certain fruit in England to let Nelson know that we supported his anti-apartheid movement. It may be a letter you write to a politician, or a march you attend, or a cake you bake. It may be in an unexpected form that reflects who you really are, and what you really think:
Aunt Wendy is right: grief IS selfish. But so is Love. And one is indeed the price of the other. Thus while I may stumble at the cost, I will pay, over and over.
Dad was worth it, and so is Nelson Mandela.