Embracing the Stillness of Grief
The month of April holds new beginnings. Spring has officially arrived; the days are much longer and there is a renewed sense of optimism. But for me, April is also a cruel reminder of what is no longer here. It marks the anniversary of losing my dad, and this year I spent that anniversary in lockdown.
Three years ago, I had left the house unusually early and was walking to work with Daughter’s album ‘Not to Disappear’ blaring through my headphones. The music quickly cut away as I was receiving a call, and despite 7am showing on the clock, I thought little of it. I understood the situation from the very first word that echoed into my ears. It was the type of call ensuring that nothing, in the immediate days, coming weeks and even years, would be straightforward, that life would never be the same. During that call I found out that my dad had died over 6,000 miles away in Lima, Peru from a cardiac arrest.
"As each task was discussed, organised, and ticked off the list, I felt unable to move, watching and hearing it all unfold around me."
The events after the call are disjointed and hazy; the immediate aftermath was a blur. When I look back, I remember concrete things; difficult phone calls to family and friends, the seemingly never-ending masses of paperwork needed to fly my dad home to the UK. As each task was discussed, organised, and ticked off the list, I felt unable to move, watching and hearing it all unfold around me. Tasks in Peru, tasks in the UK, tasks for right now, tasks for further down the line.
I was propelled into limbo. I knew I needed to find ways to pass the time while I waited for my dad to return, anticipating the inevitable waves of trauma that would wash over me eventually. We would order Lebanese food on repeat as a source of familiar comfort, opening the lids of the tin foil containers to reveal plump fried halloumi, spicy chicken, and vats of herby tabbouleh. We would eat and eat and eat, filling our stomachs until we could no longer move.
There was an abstract feeling surrounding me in those weeks that followed. At the time, it was an unusual sensation; one I could not describe at the time. Looking back, I realise the feeling manifested as stillness. The stillness was two-fold, my life as I knew it had come to an abrupt halt, and at the same time there was a tinged tranquillity, a stillness in the air. Everything had slowed and nothing felt real anymore – my life felt like virtual reality, like I was watching a silent movie of myself, like I was disassociated from real life.
During this time, of course, we were gifted some of the nicest weather in a long time. I remember thinking that it seemed like a horrendously sad holiday organised by a shitty tour operator. I was signed off work, not yet a funeral to plan, impossible logistics to manage - I simply lived in my own protected bubble, the biggest task each day being how to keep going, morning until night, and over again.
I was instead taking solace in gentler tasks, listening to the radio, building wobbly towers out of wooden blocks with my nephew and cooking endless batches of fajitas – my favourite meal, a simple meal I could muster the energy to cook. In simpler times, I would create the spice mix myself with cumin, cayenne pepper and paprika, heat the tortillas in the oven until they are warm to touch, alongside slowly frying the peppers and kidney beans until they are so soft they almost melt. I would cover the entire meal with grated cheese and gorge happily, salsa dripping down my chin. This time around I sought comfort in a pre-packaged Old El Paso spice blend, pouring the packet onto the vegetables. Cutting corners was not a concern at this time and I breathed a sigh of relief when the sweet smokiness filled the kitchen.
"The country is in a state of grief, it is now a collective experience, with stories of sadness, trauma, tales of injustice and governmental failings increasing all around us."
Fast forward to now, three years later, and lockdown has a reminiscence to it. The country is in a state of grief, it is now a collective experience, with stories of sadness, trauma, tales of injustice and governmental failings increasing all around us. But in contrast, the blossom is falling, wild garlic has been growing in abundance, and the buds are coming back on the tree branches. We are being told there is nothing we can do, other than stay home and slow down, just like I had to do when I first found out about my dad. Despite the ongoing noise, the world around us feels eerily quiet.
I'm Still Here
Experiencing a grief anniversary, another year passing without a loved one, is always difficult but in lockdown it has been surreal. As a form of ritual, I would normally find myself going to the cemetery as a way of marking the day. Instead, I am compelled to remember my dad another way; cooking his signature lamb curry with fluffy basmati rice and homemade naan bread, charred spots speckled across the warm dough. This is followed by a bowl of buttery, golden syrup-covered popcorn just like he used to make me when I was little, and finally planting a hydrangea in the front garden in his memory. No grand gestures this time around, but peaceful small activities, sharing tiny moments with my friends and family through video calls and photos.
"if we can allow ourselves, our time at home could be spent reflecting, remembering, carrying out small gestures to think of others. It could also be spent doing nothing at all."
Whilst I refrain from focusing too much on those weeks that followed that first phone call about my dad, I realise I have been experiencing the same stillness seeping back into my everyday existence. In our modern social media-obsessed life, adhering to the capitalist structure of the daily grind – work, eat sleep and repeat - it can be difficult to authentically remember birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates. It can be hard to make a meal from scratch, too busy to be able to enjoy every process. It can be unimaginable to take comfort in sitting down for a cup of tea and a good book. But this lockdown serves a timely reminder to slow down. If it is possible, if we have capacity for it, if we can allow ourselves, our time at home could be spent reflecting, remembering, carrying out small gestures to think of others. It could also be spent doing nothing at all.
For some, grieving in lockdown will be even more difficult than usual. There is more time than ever to think about the person you have lost, and perhaps, like me, you are unable to see the people who comfort you the most – the people you can reminisce with, share stories, meals, frustrations, joy and tears with. While this time in isolation is associated with an extremely painful time in my life, I find myself wanting to capture that feeling of stillness once more. Perhaps to soothe myself, and to live more gently while I have the chance.
I Am in the Garden
By Hannah Borkin
Outside of a full-time job as a Researcher, Hannah runs a supper club and workshop series called Grief Eats, for people navigating loss in their 20s and 30s.
Grief Eats is a collective space, interweaving a love of cooking and an experience of grief. Grief Eats provides an environment to share food, memories, and experiences across and around a table, as well as writing, photography, recipes, and musings on the topic of loss.
The beautiful images included in this piece have been specifically created by Gwennaelle Cook, who specialises in mixed-media and analogue collage. The collages all explore the theme of stillness.