Recently I had a poem critiqued. The poem spoke of a certain kind of grief and its effect – I won’t go into the details here. But the first line begins: ‘at the first stench of grief’.
The person critiquing my poem wasn’t keen on this. It brought her up short: “A ‘stench’ is very strong smell, and it seems that what you actually mean is something more like ‘hint’ or ‘scent'”, she wrote. I can’t deny an initial rush of protectiveness over my words – no, I thought, no, that’s not what I meant. Why would I say something I didn’t mean?
I then pondered a question: can grief come in hints? Can you get a ‘scent’ of grief? Initially, I answered – no. Grief has force, it collides, crashes into you. Grief has teeth – how can it be described as a scent?
However, plant a thought in my mind and I will begin turning it over, slowly. I’ll consider it while walking down the road, or doing the washing up. I’ll start reflecting on it when I should be doing other things (like now).
And I come to the conclusion: yes. Yes, grief can come in hints. Not all grief is that explosive, horrifying sort. There are more gentle griefs, more subtle losses in our lives that we do not always label, not realising that some small part of us is in mourning. Grief sidles into our shadow and we twist and turn, unable to identify why we feel so…hollow.
A moment of self-examination, and I realise it lurks in my own shadow, occasionally invading my mind with its emptiness. I will catch a hint of someone, somewhere, some time (often all colliding at once) and will reach out, my fingers grazing a vacant space where there once was intimacy, solidity. Sometimes that hint becomes a roar, the scent growing stronger. Not quite a stench, but I can’t always shake it off. Words form in my mind: I miss you. I love you. Why can’t you be here?
I’m not, you probably realise, necessarily talking about death – but loss and absence are not confined to this particular form of bereavement. Sometimes I wish I could gather all those people I miss, those with whom I have identified so strongly, with whom I’ve shared significant moments on my journey and have them all around me, within reach. Those whose souls have attached themselves to mine, for want of a better way of putting it. Impossible, of course. So the cluster of tiny and not so tiny losses influence me just as do the other things in my life.
But in the poem – the poem I wrote, this is not what I was talking about. I was talking about fresh, scorching grief in the face of appalling tragedy and complete loss. The sort of grief that clobbers, overwhelms, makes you physically throw up. Yes, the grief I meant really does have teeth – and I stand by my description. This grief does stink – the stench of it overpowering and consuming. So I accept that grief can come in hints – but not in this case. If the word ‘stench’ brought my reader up short – well, it was supposed to.
I don’t want to talk about grief in measuring terms, lining all the ‘categories’ up in order of strength – this undermines it, devalues it, makes it something it can never be. Rather I would say that grief has various layers, and different guises, each with their own tang or taste, their own scent or stench.
Sometimes grief does come in hints. But other times, it is horribly emphatic.