I have been trying to get to grips with a loss in our family. What makes it really difficult, isn’t the grief exactly, but more that I don’t really know the person I’m grieving for. There are many reasons for this, some which I won’t go into because it’s not my story to tell, others that rely largely on geography and the awkwardness that presents.
My extended family scatter the UK (and in some instances, the world) to the point where we have fallen into the cliché of seeing one another for births, marriages, and deaths, and sometimes not even these. I think this has given me a inherent bitterness about getting to know people who end up leaving to other countries; I feel torn between holding them deeply in my heart, and losing that piece across a vast ocean or landmass, unlikely to see them much, if at all, ever again.
My dad’s side mostly belong to the north-west of England, my mum’s mostly the south-east/Greater London. My husband’s family also covers parts of the midlands, and the sweep of Wales. We also have extremely close friends dotted over England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the States, Africa, Australia, Asia… you get the gist. Seeing people is hard when an in-person catch up could cost your family upwards of £1000. It might be easier in the UK, but there’s only so much you can drive two young children up the M6 before you want to tear your hair out.
I am sad to say that I have missed a number of weddings of those I love, easily a few family funerals, and far too many birthdays, births, and opportunities to reconnect. It is something that hurts me more than most people realise, and I do not ask for pity because the truth it: that’s life in the 21st century. People move, communication is often digital, and we have to work twice as hard to keep those we love close (albeit not physically).
Yet the latest loss to my family is different for me; it stands apart as something I am struggling to process. It is for a man, my uncle, of whom I have only one real memory, and little else. Wonderfully, that memory is beautiful. I remember, as a blur, dancing on his feet at a wedding. I can’t have been more than four years old, and I am staring up at him as he holds my hands and spins me round.
It is a short memory, but it is the only one I have of a man I never got to know.
There was another occasion in which I struggled to collect my thoughts and feelings. Someone I knew in university went missing. He was never found, despite his family putting every effort into every possible avenue, and I can only assume they have since presumed him dead.
It was difficult for me because my relationship with him had been unfortunately hurtful for me. I had felt used, manipulated, dismissed, patronised, and angered by this person. It was such a damaging relationship that is seems an obvious trigger for the depression that I spiralled into almost ruining the last year or so of my undergraduate degree and certainly affecting my result.
I have, I think, been able to move on and forgive him for his influence, but his disappearance shook me. I did not know how I was meant to feel. Should I feel guilty for the tension I still felt about him? Should I be grieving alongside friends of mine who seemed honestly saddened by his potential loss? What about the lack of closure that came from a disappearance, that meant I was forever still anxious whenever I thought I caught a glimpse of him on the street, in a bar, on the tube…
This is not an experience that is exclusive to me, obviously, and I am lucky in that I have one good memory rather than a host of bad ones. It simply feels as if I am grieving the lack of memories, rather than the man; I am grieving a situation in which I never found in him an uncle that others loved; I am grieving the geographic distance between myself and those I care about.
I can’t feel guilty about not feeling worse, or more upset, because I’m not sure feeling bad about not feeling bad even makes sense. It’s not wholly my fault that I didn’t have a better relationship, and honestly sometimes there is just not enough time. There are some incredible people I met once or twice, and would loved to have kept them in my life for longer, but events conspired against me. Instead I have the memories of them, their inspiration, and their love, to keep me going into a world that often feels pretty bleak.
Life is short. I am not yet thirty but I’m learning all too easily that if you don’t grab moments to share with people, those moments pass by. I thought many times of visiting my uncle, turning up out of the blue, introducing myself, and attempting to build even a shred of a relationship. Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.
Typically I am hoping to learn and be better at connecting with people from now on. I have a list of people I want to invite over for dinner or to catch up. However, I am more than aware that this is often the effect of death: it jolts us momentarily into a heightened awareness of life, the need to carpe diem, and these revelations are not always lessons that stick.
Even so, what this loss does offer is a strange opportunity to reach out to people I barely ever see, to people I miss, to memories they have with I man I never found in my life, but have lost. I have one memory but it’s that one that helps me enjoy the times my daughter dances with her daddy (or anyone else she can drag into it). I have one memory but it gives me hope that she will hold onto those beautiful memories from when she’s young too. I have one memory but I can gain the stories that are contained in other people’s memories, and treasure them just the same.