The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme. — John Keats
It’s not every day you get an email saying that a friend of yours has died. I’ve only ever had one. I’d moved from Wellington to Belfast three or four months before, and I hadn’t spoken to Nick, the sender of the email, for a good few months. I was excited to see his name come up in my inbox and, if I remember rightly, I was a little tipsy at the time. I’d been drinking wine with Sean, the Californian, who I’d brought home from a bar a few nights before, and who hadn’t left.
Sean had offered to cook dinner — a Californian dish — and had been down to our local Tesco to gather supplies. He’d come back toting several bottles of wine and enough food to feed a medium sized family. His intentions were clear: he’d be staying another night, at least. I didn’t protest. My flatmate had gone back to France to visit her family; I’d recently been through a shitty break up resulting in the man who’d broken up with me returning to New Zealand; and the sex was good.
While Sean was cooking, I attended to the ambience of the small terraced house for which I was paying far too much rent. I freshened up, like women do in the movies, and sauntered around as if I did this kind of thing all the time. I put some music on and, as you do when you find yourself in front of your computer and those in your company are occupied with other tasks, I checked my emails.
Nick’s email had the subject line “Bad News.” I clicked on it with the usual impatience, the kind of nonchalance that might lead to hearing that he’d snapped that surfboard I’d given him while surfing somewhere in the Wairarapa. Or that his cat, who was once my cat, had run away and hadn’t been seen for a week, and that she’d moved in with the bogan neighbours who leave food out for their dogs. It was none of these things. Instead, it read: “Hi Love, I’m really sorry to tell you this way but I don’t have a number for you and you should know as soon as possible that Andy died in hospital last night.”
Nothing can prepare you for an email like that. Just as nothing can prepare you for a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation, or even a handwritten letter, that tells you a loved one has died suddenly, unexpectedly. To hear by email that Andy was dead might be the most surreal experience I’ve ever had, aside from the self-induced surreality of my early 20s forays with drugs. I’m not sure what I did in the moments following. I might have wailed. Or cried silently. Or I might have just stood still. All I know is that I was glad this poor Californian man, whom I’d known for less than 48 hours, was with me, although I’m confident he would have liked to have jumped ship at that point.
As if to add to the surreality, later that night, while I was on the phone to New Zealand, Sean had an email from California saying his grandfather had passed away. Sean told me he would leave for Scotland the next morning. He asked if I wanted to join him, and for a few hours I thought I would. We talked about it, how it would be good to get away, do some driving through the countryside, air out some of our collective grief. I desperately wanted to run away, to leave that shitty little house in what felt like, at that point, a shitty little city, and get away from myself. If there had been drugs in the house, I would have wanted them. I wanted to be drunk, to dance, to have wild, rampant sex. To get away from myself.
I didn’t go to Scotland with Sean. Somewhere in me, I had the wherewithal to know that while I might be able to get away from myself for a time, I’d still have to come back. And I had no money. And no clean underwear. I suddenly feared being in Scotland with this man who might end up being a total cock and not have enough money to get back. Instead, I waved goodbye to Sean on the street outside my house. As he drove away in his shitty little hire car, I knew I’d never see this man again. Despite telling myself I was an independent woman, I’d grown attached, like a limpet, desperately needing something or someone to hold me. He couldn’t hold me. But in that moment, as I stood on my street in a quiet east Belfast suburb, while everyone was at church or watching television with the curtains closed, it felt like even the ground couldn’t hold me.
Later that day, I bought a packet of cigarettes and started walking. I can’t remember where I walked or what direction I went in. I just knew I needed to be out of the house and moving my body. Over by the university, I bumped into a guy I knew. James and his girlfriend Emma had seen me coming, and had crossed the road to say hello. They were chipper; they’d just been playing pool with some friends. They asked what I was up to. I lit another cigarette and told them that I was out walking, that I’d just found out a friend of mine had died. There was a long pause, and their gazes fell towards the footpath. Oh, okay then, well, we’ll catch you later, said James, and his feet started moving. Emma followed.
Grief is desperate and private and solitary and extraordinarily lonely, at times. And unlike love, it won’t let us get away from ourselves. We can’t dance it off, or party it out, or fuck our way through it. It won’t let us have the “feel of not to feel it.” But as Keats might have it, the depth of our grief is equal to the love we feel for the person we have lost. You simply can’t have one without the other: grief and love, like life and death, are always one and the same.
Lynley Edmeades has a PhD in English from the University of Otago. Her poetry, essays, and scholarship have been published widely in New Zealand and beyond, and she is currently working on her second collection of poems. She will be the Ursula Bethell writer in residence at the University of Canterbury in the second half of 2018.