I'm no longer holding back tears the whole time. But it feels as though I've gone through a process of complete dissolution and I'm having to put myself back together from scratch. I've got high blood pressure, and apparently this can be induced by grief. So I've been trying to reconnect with my body: exercising (running, swimming), stretching, breathing. Singing is really grounding. I see a great bereavement counsellor. Above all I'm trying 24/7 to be a good father. Parenting in grief is both exhausting and nourishing.
I've recently been feeling the burden of the 16 months leading up to Em's death. It's as though I've finally had a chance to take a breath and look back, and I can see that it's been such a traumatic journey. It's not that there haven't been good things that have happened in this time (our wedding was wonderful), just so many overwhelming, bad ones. Emmaline's confusion and pain during her pregnancy with Anouk was huge. The shock of terminal diagnosis, coming at the same time as Anouk's birth, lifted us completely out of our previous lives into a parallel, terrible universe, where it felt like the laws of nature had been ruptured. Then came chemotherapy, radiotherapy, so many drugs, trips to the hospital in the middle of the night, cancer symptoms, sleeplessness, loss of control, so much pain and grief, and death. Up until now I haven't been able to look back, everything's been day by day, problem solving, logistics. Now I can see the last year and a half has been punctuated by a series of traumas. At the moment they're open wounds - over time I suppose they'll become scars.
There's a lot of admin following someone's death, and I've been very slowly working my way through it. But every administrative step is another stage of closure on Emmaline's life and is so painful. I went to the bank to ask them to close Emmaline's accounts, but it took me all day to steady myself for it. I made it in, with Anouk, five minutes before the bank closed. Another day I cancelled Emmaline's phone account. I just felt so grief stricken turning off her phone, and the idea that she'll never receive another call just hurts and hurts. Centrelink is really hard to deal with. I'm still reeling from their decision not to grant me carer's payment or carer's allowance a couple of weeks before Emmaline died, on the basis that she wasn't sufficiently in need of care from me. We were in such a desperate situation, and in that context the rejection was disproportionately affecting. Now when I speak to them I get short of breath and my heart pounds. And I am particularly angry at Bankwest, our mortgagee, for their insensitivity and lack of empathy over the last year. There's many formalities I haven't yet attended to since Emmaline passed away. Telling a random person in a call centre that your wife, the mother of your children, has died is so much harder than what I would have thought. And invariably the phone call has to be followed up with paperwork - forms that demand personal information, certified copies of the death certificate, debts to be settled etc. Official correspondence relating to Emmaline's death always seems to start with a one sentence expression of condolence, which always feels so insincere. I much prefer to keep everything at emotional arms length, or better, to talk to a real person who is actually empathetic. I'm still so deeply grateful to the anonymous man in the Australian Taxation Office call centre who spent twenty minutes sharing with me his experience of losing his wife to cancer ten years ago. It's a really, really hard process, he told me, but things get slowly better over several years.
I'm amazed at how many children's films revolve around the death of parents. It's a central theme in so many of the films I've watched with Nelleke over recent weeks: Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz has lost her parents; Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music has lost his wife, the mother of his children; Anna and Elsa in Frozen lose their parents; Cinderella (Nelleke watched the Disney film) has lost her parents; Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (again the Disney film) loses her mother; Lilo in Lilo and Stitch has lost her parents; Margo, Edith and Agnes in Despicable Me have lost their parents; Nemo in Finding Nemo loses his mother at the start of the film; Brendan and Aisling in The Secret of Kells have both lost their parents; and the Studio Ghibli films My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away revolve around the threat of parental death. This is no comprehensive survey, just films that we've happened to watch in recent weeks. In one way I think it's wonderful for Nelleke to see all these films - they really normalise the death of a parent and if you believe Hollywood then more than half of all kids have lost at least one parent. But in another way the recurring theme doesn't feel very authentic. The dead parent is a cultural motif, not a lived reality. It's as though all these stories are the imaginings of people who haven't suffered such loss. There is little of the burden or complexity of grief in these films. Grief for a lost spouse/parent is huge and chaotic, and there is none of that messiness in the Hollywood version. The one film that we have seen recently that is an absolute standout, that does authentically capture the enormity and complexity of grief is Song of the Sea. I just LOVE this film. Nelleke, Christian and I watched it a couple of weeks ago without knowing anything about it and from the first scene I was riveted. A mother dies leaving her two young children and her husband, a lighthouse keeper. The children struggle to understand what has happened and the father is completely bereft. But their story is intertwined with a parallel story in the fairy world. In fact the entire fairy world is being destroyed by the failure of a fairy family to properly grieve a husband's loss of his wife. In the end it is only by everybody feeling, living and accepting their loss and grief that the balance of the fairy world, and the real world, can be restored. This film resonates so much for me, and gave me a great sense of validation. My grief is so personal, but it feels that big that it should disrupt the balance of the whole universe. Of course in reality the wider world goes on completely unaffected, and its disinterest just sharpens my pain. The only path to healing that I can see is to think and act as though the whole world is in a state of existential crisis following Emmaline's death. The magnitude of my grief has to be lived and felt. Song of the Sea really captures and validates these feelings.