The Being of Grief

by Adele A Wilby

It is unlikely that any of us will escape the experience of grief during the course of our lifetime. Throughout that experience, many of us will struggle to find the words that adequately convey what happens to us during that period, and the disruption to our lives that grief brings will be understood as normal in the circumstances. Unable to console the bereaved, and with good intentions, ‘time’ they reassure us, ‘is a great healer’, and there is some truth in that adage.  But ‘time’ itself can also be the very source of confusion in grief, although most of us fail to recognise it as such throughout a bereavement, and we are left wondering what it is about that feeling of being out of the world that I, for one, experienced following the death of my husband. Why, apart from all the other manifestations of grief, did I feel ‘suspended’ from life, yet still alive and living, as I stood and stared out the window of my sitting room, and watched the world go by? I considered myself to be a competent person capable of ordering my life, yet I was impotent in my ability to change what was happening to me. Why did I find it so impossible to act, and get back ‘into’ the world?

Acting on his medical knowledge, my doctor prescribed anti-depressants as a possible ‘cure’ to the vice-like grip that grief had on my life, but I knew I was not depressed: I was grieving. My counsellor patiently listened as I poured out my disorientation. I found some solace in Judith Butler’s exposition of grief in Undoing Gender as indicative of ‘the way in which we are enthralled of our relations to others  that we cannot always recount or explain…that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control’, and we become ‘undone’ once death brings that relationship to an end. Perhaps I had loved too much and become so ‘undone’, and with ‘time’ I would find my way out of the quagmire I found myself in, and a future would eventually become a possibility.  But while anti-depressants failed in effect, my counsellor kept me sane, and Butler offered insightful accounts of our relatedness to others and the way in which the loss of the Other might impact, the matter of that feeling of being ‘suspended’ in time as I watched the world go by becomes comprehensible after reading Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow.

Riley is a philosopher and a poet, a woman familiar with language, yet she herself acknowledges the difficulty of finding appropriate words to express that ‘altered condition of life’, that ‘private non-time of pure stasis’, or what she refers to as ‘a-temporality’ following the sudden and tragic death of her adult son from cardiomyopathy. The idea of an ‘a-temporality’ has no morbid connotations of dwelling on death, it is, she says, ‘not negativity: life is lived, but without a sense of the ‘flowing of time’.

Riley is not alone, as she acknowledges, in the experience of the death of a child, and claims no exceptionality.  However, her articulation of such a powerful human experience as grief has provided us with some clarity and rationality of the world many of us inhabit following the death of a loved one.  As an indication of how she lived this ‘a-temporality’, three years lapsed following the death of her son before she was able to pick up notes, and write this book: to do otherwise ‘would acknowledge some notion of the passage of time’ which, when being in ‘a-temporality’ is not possible. She is indeed correct also that trying to convey ‘living in this profoundly altered temporal state’ risks boring others: one of the difficulties the bereaved have is in trying to find words to convey to others what exactly it is that they are experiencing, a lonely place to be.

The book unfolds as a series of notes written at various intervals following her loss.  Her notes are selective of those she kept, but those in the book are enough to provide insight into her experience of atemporality, of ‘arrested time’ when  ‘we anticipate the return home of the deceased’; of being ‘cut down, and yet you burn with life’; ‘of inching along…crab-wise’; of ‘deep tiredness’; ‘the knowing but not knowing’ that the person is dead: the disbelief of it all. The loss of any notion of a ‘future’, deserts us and, as Riley points out, the present becomes the only measure of time.  She makes a distinction between the expression, ‘time stopped’ and ‘a-temporality’. As we know, time does not stop, it ticks on oblivious to the moment, but for the bereaved the only time that is real is the present.

It is the suddenness of her son’s death that has had such a profound impact on Riley and plunged her into a-temporality. She describes this suddenness as a ‘violence to the experienced flow of time’, of dropping ‘like a guillotine blade to slice through my old expectation that my days would stream onwards into my coming life’. While the sudden death of a child must, inevitably, have its profound and shocking impact, Riley beautifully conveys how her son’s life has become part of her, how she carries him with her. Nevertheless, despite the different circumstances that exposed me to the experience of grief, her exposition of a-temporality has contributed to my understanding of the grief I experienced following death as a result of terminal illness.

When living with chronic illness and eventually terminal disease, the subject of death inevitably enters into conversations, and it does so for several reasons, one of those being to emotionally prepare the surviving partner for life after the death of the loved one. However, as it turns out, all efforts at emotional preparation or intellectual understanding of the inevitability of death, can prove to be, in my case, ineffective processes in blunting the impact of a death; it was as if the death was as sudden, as a sudden death. It is possible that that profound moment of life, that last breath when life becomes death, has the effect of a ‘violence to the flow of time’, a moment of transition too swift to allow the movement of the mind to shift into a different reality: the mind becomes ‘arrested ‘in time. Or perhaps, as Riley argues, the experience of time for the bereaved following death from terminal illness is a different form of temporality to that of the a-temporality a mother might enter into following the sudden death of a child.

Riley acknowledges the dearth of literature on a-temporality during grief, and she proposes that we look for what she calls a ‘literature of consolation’ to discern expressions of a-temporality in the works of authors and poets who have written on love and loss. In that way, it will be possible to discover the extent of the phenomenon of a-temporality experienced by the bereaved. In so doing, deeper insight into grief and how time works in the life of the bereaved will become more apparent.

However, as we know, there is a ‘return’ for most of us from this a-temporality and we know this when ‘a familiar intuition of sequence eventually and spontaneously (has) restored itself’, albeit in an altered form, and indeed, in its own time. Perhaps that ‘return’ too manifests in different ways, as does grief. However, we are fortunate that Riley’s ‘return’ was marked by revisiting her notes and the production of an insightful book. The ‘return’ in my situation only seemed real when I found myself sitting in the lecture theatre at university, although that I applied to return to university may suggest an earlier ‘return’ to the ‘flow of time’ that I had not recognised. Either way, in my understanding of Riley’s concept of a-temporality, it seems for some period of time we shared an aspect of grief, and I am certain others, after reading her intelligent and insightful treatise on time and grief will feel the same way too.