Postcards from the land of grief
Grief can often feel like a gnawing homesickness for a place where you used to live, but to which you can never return. Baptist minister Richard Littledale has written a series of short, candid thoughts and reflections from his own experience of widowhood
In an age where you can take a photo on your phone, upload it to an app, and have it printed and sent with a message from you on the back to anywhere in the world, the idea of actually writing a postcard seems like a quaint anachronism. Even when they were in fashion, I hated writing them. My writing would be as big as I could possibly make it, and I am sure my postcards were every bit as boring to read as they were to write.
So why, at the age of 53, did I start writing them again? The reason was that I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly living abroad. Geographically, I was in exactly the same spot as I had been before. In every other way, though, I had been plucked from familiar territory and dropped unceremoniously in a foreign land. At the end of an eight-year long battle with cancer, fought all along with customary pluck and dignity, my wife and best friend had died. Fiona and I had been together for more than 30 years, weathering the storms of ministry and sharing the journey of faith. Without her by my side, the familiar became strange, the reassuring became disturbing, and I was stranded.
The parallels with living in a foreign country to which I had not intended to move soon became apparent. I would visit the supermarket and buy too much of the right thing or the wrong thing altogether. I would find that other people were working off a different calendar to me, because my milestones and significant dates were not theirs. In social encounters I would feel unsure of myself and uncertain how the game was played. Occasionally I would catch sight of a single man in the mirror – something which I had not been for well over 30 years.
In an attempt to process this strange and unnerving experience, I began to write ‘Postcards from the Land of Grief’ and publish them on my blog.
The first of them ran like this:
I am learning that the landscape of grief is a strangely unnerving place. In part its strangeness is that those things which you had thought would be familiar…are not familiar at all. Grief can turn a soft memory into an unforgiving rock face or a hairbrush into a sword to pierce the heart. Regrets, like injected foam, expand to fill the space you give them. Words spoken or heard are like an old cassette left next to a magnet – muffled by exposure to greater force.
I would go on to write about all kinds of things – dates, experiences, feelings and memories. On one occasion I wrote about the ‘invisible borders which surrounded me:
I am finding that the landscape of grief has just such a border. I can gaze across it at old familiar things. I can watch normal life unfold before my eyes, and I can stand and have a conversation with those across the border as if nothing separated us. That said – it is impossible to cross for now. When it comes down to it, they live there and I live here and nothing can be done about that. I make occasional forays into their land, and they are precious. It turns out, though, that I take the border with me. I am like a cartoon character racing to outrun an elastic band – legs whirring and arms pumping, but the snap of the elastic must bring me back as surely as night follows day.
I wrote because it helped me, but I soon discovered that it was helping others. People began to comment on the blog, and one or two started asking when the collection of them might be published. BBC Radio 4 centred an entire Sunday Worship programme around them, and it provoked one of the biggest responses that programme has ever seen. I had letters and emails from people as far apart as New Zealand in the South and the Outer Hebrides in the North. In the Spring of this year, I delivered the annual Sue Ryder lecture in the Houses of Parliament based around them – evoking a similar response.
In August, Postcards From The Land of Grief was published by Authentic Media, in small hardback format, with gorgeous illustrations by Vivian Hansen and Alejo Porras. People keep asking me ‘how it is going’ – and I think they mean numbers. To be honest, I don’t really know. All royalties are going to Sue Ryder, so I am not as aware of sales as I might be. What I do know, though, is that it is having an impact on those who read it. Some of them are living in the ‘land of grief’ themselves, and others have bought it for friends who are temporary residents there. I leave you with a comment from one reader, recently bereaved, who said that:
Your theology employs both the front door of reason and the back door of imagination.
I sincerely hope that is so. This is without a doubt the costliest book I have ever written. It will be worth it if it can help those in the land of grief, or living on its borders.
The Revd Richard Littledale is the minister of Newbury Baptist Church
Postcards from the Land of Grief was published by Authentic. For more on Richard's publications and writing, visit his Amazon page and his blog richardlittledale.me.uk
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