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Why humour is grief's ally

OUR New Year is overshadowed by long visits to the hospice to visit the man who raised me as my father, and the clocks on our watches and phones tick silently down to impending oblivion.

It's a process we decide to spare the children, who are still visiting with cousins from abroad at my wife's family home, though midway through this long, last weekend of waiting, I ask our eldest two if they'd like to come back with me across the city to the house we abandoned on St Stephen's Day, for a break.

The three of us arrive in the dark to a place that's as cold as a tomb. "Well, this is cheery," I say.

The dog, which had distinctly told me through the medium of deafening yowls that she'd wanted a break too, now pads around the sitting room among puddles of shed pine needles and shakes a single paw in disgust. We're all able to see steam from our breath.

"I'll make some dinner," I try jovially, peering into a Christmas-ravaged fridge at two lonely packets of cocktail sausages with which, comfort now being a priority, I resolve to make some sort of casserole, but it comes out thick and pasty, almost a terrine.

"Slice of stew?" I offer.

"I'm going out," mutters the second-eldest.

I have no appetite either. "Dinner's in the pot," I call upstairs to the eldest.

COPE

The house only reaches something resembling body temperature the next day, by which time my stew has set solid. We have toast for lunch and I set off alone for what will be my last hospice visit, mostly spent in a closed cafeteria exchanging the worst, most offensive jokes I can think of with the males of our small gathering of close relatives and in-laws. This, I notice, is how men cope – and I suddenly have no doubt that the old man would much rather be out here with us.

We've run out of jokes by the time I realise how many hours have gone by. Someone drums their leg and someone else blinks and sucks a sigh in through their teeth. "Guess I should go," I say.

I shuffle over to the little room where the women sit in silence and I kiss the small, breathing figure there. "See you later," I tell him, though I've no idea if he can hear me. "You take it easy," I whisper.

It's an interminable drive back through the dark again across miles of motorway to the house of the wilting pine tree and the pot of solid stew. The boys are out. I feed the dog. It sniffs at the sausages.

"Jesus," I mumble. "Cheer up. It's Christmas."

I phone my wife and am rather heartened by the bedlam in the background when she answers. "It's not my turn to wash the dishes," I hear our youngest teen moaning. "I don't care, get back in the kitchen," yells my wife from behind the handset. "Any news?" she asks me. "Not a sausage," I say.

A friend picks me up in his car to bring me for a recuperative pint. We're at traffic lights when I take the call. "He's gone," says the voice.

I ring the eldest. "Is your brother home?" I say. "He's on the train back out to the others," he tells me. "Your grandad has slipped away," I say. "Okay," he says. "Are you all right?" I ask. Pause. "Yes," he says. "Shall I come home?" I ask. "No," he says, "I think I'd like to just go out for a walk on my own." "Okay," I say.

The word "grief" paints a picture. Weeping. Wailing. But whatever way you think you'll feel, it's always something different. Inexplicable euphoria, giddiness even, or utter numbness.

You think: "Should I cry? I should be crying. Why am I not crying?" Or: "Wow, I'm fine with this." And suddenly you're in tears.

Time becomes immaterial inside this vacuum some call grief, a vacuum in which you tumble like a space station accident between unlikely emotions.

There are phone calls too innumerable to recall, there's the rallying of family, the sympathetic friends and the pints in pubs. Your own children, I think to myself at one point during this jumble of days in which the fireworks of a New Year fizzle distantly, look to your face to see how they should feel, and so I smile and manage a sort of calm within a flood of pleasant memories that seems only recently unlocked.

COFFIN

So it is, on a stormy morning before what's to be a very intimate, non-religious ceremony, that I find myself staring at an open document on the family computer. It's blank. In just a few hours I'll have to stand beside a coffin and speak to where, just a few feet away, my children, most of them not so much children any more, will watch my face, looking for a cue.

How should they feel? How will they learn from me to remember their dead? How will they remember ME? As a sort of Homer Simpson? Jim Royle? Gomez from the Addams Family? Any would do me, so long as they forget about that horrible stew I made.

Humour isn't grief's flipside, I decide, it's its sidekick. And, suddenly, the words pour on to the page.

Bob Diebold, musician, composer, teacher, journalist, father. July 17, 1924 – December 29, 2013


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