It’s not the same as IQ, she says. We’re walking, sharp winter air in our throats and at our cheeks. It’s the process, she says. Identification, realisation, information. The pinning down of that big feeling.
When I was heartbroken I nailed the process. I know I did, because I discussed it in advance, and in great detail with my best friend before beginning it. We predicted the horror of the firsts: first time I see him afterward, first time I see him drunk, first time something happens that only he will understand but I can’t tell him, first time I see him with a girl that isn’t me. Then I proceeded to move through those firsts one by one, until suddenly it was a year later. I’d ticked them all off, and I realised I felt a little better. My best friend and I congratulated ourselves. Nailing the process, we proclaimed (we decided to share the process because it was a bit much for just one person on their own). QUEENS OF EMOTIONAL CLARITY. Quite the title.
When my baby cousin died she was twelve, my lucky number. She wasn’t a baby, in fact, but she was the youngest and somehow would always be the baby one in my head. It began with the kind of phone call that you subconsciously dread, and that you know right from the moment your dad answers, and proceeds to crumple before your eyes, is truly, terribly bad.
Prior to this moment I was happy and a bit drunk, post an excellent game of rugby and a BYO at slightly dodgy Chinese restaurant with over-excited parents and their friends. It’s amazing what your brain can calculate in a single second, through a happy haze of wine and good laughs with good people. A phone call. That phone call does not look all good, says a brother from somewhere on the sidelines of my sudden swooping panic, which seems to happen simultaneously to this assertion. One second. I watch, as if slightly outside my own brain, as words I can’t hear are uttered to my mother. Crumple. I checklist all my immediate family members without even forming their names in my mind which is racing, seething with the sudden poisonous feeling of the ground slipping away under your feet and the absolute certainty that you can’t regain your balance, the sickening dread of an oncoming pain.
Abi’s dead. Just that, no coma or ICU, no question at all, just a swift, cold steel stab to the stomach and a rising burning feeling at your throat and your eyes. We are all outside now, that phone call does not look all good having spread through the party and stilled the music. I move between family members. Why am I not crying, I think, as I cling to the shaking hulk of one crying brother and then another. I hug my flatmates, who are crying too. I feel my own wet cheeks as I cry into their collarbones, and realise that I am crying. Harry is sober, someone says, he can drive us. And then I’m in the car, my bag is being loaded into the boot. Absently, I wonder who packed it for me. My youngest brother holds my hand.
When I wake, a lifetime later, my eyes half focus on Abi’s things. I’m wrapped up in her, in her bedroom, her little room which even through my haze of half sleep is as precious and familiar as thoughts of the girl herself. The heavy feeling slowly returns, takes shape and settles on my chest, as all around me books and lights and a box of hair things take on their sudden new significance as things she owned, touched, loved. It wasn’t just Abi who died. It was her friend Ella, Ella’s mother Sally. It doesn’t feel real.
It just doesn’t feel real, I repeat, when people ask how I’m doing. How are you holding up, everyone says to everyone, and we – a family of writers – return to cliches. No words, we say, no words for this feeling. Attempts to describe it are halting, scattered. We ebb in and out of pain, and it feels better to cry than to feel numb. It doesn’t feel real. Although, despite this assertion, it stays real throughout the week. It’s real when it appears in the news along with other news of other things which apparently are still also happening. When Abi’s friends come to the house. When our family arrives from England, that’s real. Infamous university friends of my parents' arrive, people I’ve heard about all my life but never met. They live up to my expectations, and we drink wine and laugh a lot. There is a lot that’s happy about this week. I sit on my Granddad's knee, four years older than the last time I sat here.
It’s okay to laugh, we decide. Our bodies literally cannot cope with grieving all hours of the day and night, we say, which is why we all experience that sudden blank feeling which feels wrong but is in fact normal. We try to work it out, what helps and what harms: if looking through another album of photos is making it worse or better. We tentatively begin to navigate this strange, uncharted territory, unpacking our new lives like we’ve all accidentally moved to a foreign country but somehow have to just get on with it. I remember, somewhere along the way, that I am a supposed queen of emotional clarity.
Our last goodbye- if such a thing truly happened, for in my mind I still draw blanks when I try to process what that could possibly mean - took place on a decidedly average afternoon. Abi had been with us all week, back in her bedroom although in the unfathomable coffin. In death she was still ridiculously beautiful (which I would refuse to write for fear of the cliche if it was not just devastatingly true). We – my four brothers and I – are encouraged to go down to her bedroom and say goodbye, before the funeral and the closing of the coffin. The idea lolls about in my head like some staggering, drunken thought which can’t quite take a firm shape or keep its balance. Coffin. Goodbye. Funeral.
We file down to her room, silent and pained, dreading it all and knowing, in the way you know your siblings, that all of us are far too emotional to come up with anything like the right words. The moment feels too huge to catch up with, storming ahead with a force that blows us backward. Like trying to run in a dream, with feet glued to the ground.
Out of all us, this moment is hardest for Rufus to understand. At least the basic concept of death I can fully grasp, while for Rufus, who has Down Syndrome, the thought of not seeing Abi again because she is gone forever is much more complicated. The main thing he recognises in us over the course of the week is our genuine sadness, and he tends to focus much more on our grief than his own.
We sit with Abi, helpless in the knowledge that no goodbye is ever going to be enough for how we feel. No one speaks, and it crosses my mind that in all likelihood no one is going to be able to manage a single word. The thought of sitting here in our silent pain as the minutes drag past is torturous, yet somehow I can’t get my mouth to move, speak, let it go. I’m thinking too much about the magnitude of forever, and in my head I’m already looking back on this moment, regretting or wondering or wishing that I had said it better, done more.
Rufus, of course, finds the words. In one of those ridiculous, perfect moments that life sometimes knocks you over with, he recalls a prayer. It's a prayer that our grandmother always says whenever she tucks us in to sleep at night, to comfort us in the vulnerable minutes before sleep and dreams. Rufus says it to Abi, our precious little friend, who is already gone but who we want to comfort and protect forever.
God Bless, and Angels keep, guard you safely while you sleep.
It’s a dramatic and sudden release from the stilted awkwardness of our silence. We cry with each other as Rufus speaks for us; his perfect, simple love being infinitely stronger than our grief or complicated hopelessness. Abi, he says, we love you. We will miss you. The words come tumbling as our collective love grows in the room, a sudden energy which we all feel between us. The six of us are unbelievably connected in this moment, and goodbye seems unimportant in the face of our overwhelming love. Rufus speaks a simple truth, and in this moment I understand what emotional intelligence means. It’s about recognising, in yourself and in others, where love is needed, and giving that love in the truest way you can. Finding, somehow, amongst the muddled up feelings and moments of sheer panic, the ability to be real.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? My aunt poses this question, a quote from Mary Oliver, to her friends and family at a time when life has never seemed more precious, or more wild. I can’t stop thinking about it, the quote that seems too poetic to have come out of a situation like this; a situation that in reality isn’t poetic at all, it’s an empty bed where your daughter should be sleeping. Precious I can understand – in the aftermath, I had the overwhelming sense that I wanted all my friends, scattered over the world as they are, to be locked away in a room with me where I could keep them safe. I wanted to ring my ex-boyfriend and say please, please be careful when you leave the house today. Don’t do anything dumb.
It’s the wild that gets me. Wild, untamed, unpredictable. Roaring and chaotic. How can our lives be like this? Will it go on, this fierce, strange life where we don’t all survive? Where people that are too important suddenly vanish, and leave us stranded in the wake of their beautiful, glittering lives? A life where the universe can change everything for you in a heartbeat, dice rolled and then – earthquake. Car crash.
I post a photo of a Sumner sunset, ludicrously spectacular at a time where happy days feel very far away. A friend comments, perfect in her wisdom as always: Sad times, beautiful things. That’s all this is, really. When our lives are their most terrible, crashing over us like the wild wave that was a bit too big to tackle, we surface for a moment to find this sky over our heads. It’s the moment in the bedroom, wrapped up in Abi and her things. The prayer recalled suddenly to mind.
Abi, our happy, funny, favourite girl – I love you. I will love you always, which is more than a bad goodbye or the pain I feel. I won’t think of you in your coffin, with its spectacular polka dots and love-notes. I won’t think of you as an angel either, up with Grandma somewhere (as much as I would like that). I will just think of us together, hanging out, watching the boys swim in the river at Clarence. And I will take you with me wherever I go, and live in the best way I can for the both of us. However the process pans out.