Past, present and future

I drove home last week from a friend’s funeral reflecting on the way that grief will always find you unprepared. It is so particular – to person and circumstance. You can be caught out by its absence as much as by an unlooked for depth and intensity.

At K’s service, I hadn’t anticipated such a sense of loss. We hardly met face to face, had drifted apart after a disagreement over a year ago, yet I found myself, in the silence of the crematorium chapel, filled with sadness for the loss of her voice. So much of our friendship, the respect I held her in, sprang from the sound of it, found most often in her writing: fluent, intelligent, always ready with story or example, full of wit and humour, insight and mischief.

The sense of affront was a surprise too. I ought to be familiar with how arbitrary life can be – but I was angry with death that day – K’s loss was premature; death, rude and unmannerly. After all K was one of us, mid-stride in her life. She should have lived. She ought to have lived.

Afterwards I found comfort in this thought, taken from Iris Origo’s wonderful partial autobiography Images and Shadows. Thinking about her own griefs she writes:

‘All that I can affirm is what I know of my own experience: that though I have never ceased to miss my father, child and friend, I have also never lost them. They have been to me, at all times, as real as the people I see every day, and it is this, I think, that has conditioned my attitude both to death and to human affections.

It is very easy, on this subject, to become sentimental or woolly, or to say more than one really means. I think I am only trying to say something very simple: that my personal experience has given me a very vivid sense of the continuity of love, even after death, and that it has also left me believing in the truth of Burke’s remark that society – or I should prefer to say, life itself – is ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Not only are we not alone, but we are not living only in a bare and chilly now. We are irrevocably bound to the past – and no less irrevocably, though the picture is less clear to us, to the future. It is this feeling that has made death seem to me not less painful, never that – for there is no greater grief than parting – but not, perhaps so very important, and has caused my affection, in its various forms, to be the guiding thread of my life’.

Past, present and future

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