I used to believe grief was a straight line. Maybe time didn’t necessarily heal all wounds, but at least it made them easier to live with.
I learned differently on 21 June 2008. It was a normal morning I’d received some good news in the post: a job offer. I was twenty-one years old and unemployed, so it was big news and as I ran out the door to go meet friends I thought I should email my dad to let him know. I’d do it when I got back.
I never did send that email. My mum phoned me later out of blue to deliver the news. My dad was dead. A car crash. Just like that, no warning. Gone.
There are things you can only learn when people die unexpectedly: how difficult it is to buy an appropriate funeral dress at short notice in summer, or how many people there are to tell, none of whom are expecting it. You learn that every experience of grief is as unique as a finger print. When people who lost their loved ones to illness say they know what you’re going through, you might learn you’re not as good a person as you thought. You learn it from the strange, ugly flash of jealousy you feel that they got to say goodbye. Or sorry. Or any of the other thousand unsaid words you had to swallow.
I learned I hate anniversaries. The 21 June is indelibly stamped on my subconscious now, impossible to ignore even if it wasn’t for the cruel proximity of Father’s Day and the sea of blue envelopes appearing annually in greetings card aisles.
The date turns up annually, as dates do, and hits me differently each time. In the early years it sent me reeling, right back to the start, weeks at a time on the edge of a precipice.
Now, fourteen years on, it sometimes just passes. I watch the date come and go and I am tricked into thinking grief is a line after all. It only gets easier from here and next time I will be OK. But the following June will be a bad one, dragging me back into the past again.
There is a pattern. The anniversary hits hardest in what are otherwise the happiest and most exciting years. These are the years when I am reminded of how I have become someone he never knew. I am an adult with a job and a home, friends and a husband he never met. He has missed my wedding, seeing my first home, the release of my debut novel. He will never catch up on all this news. He will never see who gets to be the next James Bond, or argue with me about my decision to stop flying.
These are the reasons grief isn’t a line, but an overlapping circle. I move forward, but in the absence of new memories I have to go back again and again to the same old ones. And every year comes back to that date on the calendar too.
I wrote about the circularity of grief in my debut novel, The Eternal Return of Clara Hart. In it, the protagonist gets caught in a time-loop on the anniversary of his mother’s death. He is forced to live in the day again and again until he can open up, accept support, reconnect with his dad and acknowledge that his life will never be the same again. He can never unlearn what grief has taught him.
There’s something else I’ve learned: how fragile my current happiness is; how quickly it could all change. When my mum or brother calls me unexpectedly, even now, I hesitate before picking up. A beat or two to brace myself for whatever they might need to tell me. In that moment of silence I remind myself to say at least one thing real when I pick up the phone. Because that next conversation is all that’s guaranteed and if I have to remember it again and again and again for the next fourteen years, I want it to be a good one.
The Eternal Return Of Clara Hart by Louise Finch
Wake up. Friday. Clara Hart hits my car. Go to class. Anthony rates the girls. House party. Anthony goes upstairs with Clara. Drink Clara dies
Wake up. Friday again. Clara Hart hits my car.
Why can't I break this loop?
A flicker in the fabric of time gives Spence a second chance. And a third. How many times will he watch the same girl die?
The Eternal Return Of Clara Hart by Louise Finch is published by Little Island, priced £8.99
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