On Denial

Grief is a hard thing to write about, for many reasons.

For one thing, it’s a pretty intangible concept—what is it that you’re feeling when you’re grieving? “Grief” itself isn’t so much an emotion as a frame for it: a word made to weather the changeability of loss.

That’s the other problem with grief—its variability. The experience of grief differs wildly from person to person. Grief will even differ, I imagine, from loss to loss (I’m a first-timer, so I can’t confirm this theory, but it seems to me that there are too many colours of pain in the world for anyone to ever grieve the same way twice). So how are you supposed to write about it?

I can only speak for myself, and if it were me, I’d spend the first few paragraphs talking about why it’s so difficult to write about—a sort of disclaimer, to show the reader that you know that you’re not an emotional everyman, that you make no claims to represent for the billions of other people dealing with the aftermath of death.

Once this writerly loophole had been exploited, I’d take a look at the language that we do have to talk about grief—perhaps the widely-known “stages” of this variable, intangible, invisible experience.

Everybody knows about the five stages of grief. The theory was introduced by psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, and posits that there are five key steps in the walk through grief—these being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Predictably, a lot of experts have taken issue with this theory when applied to grieving for a dead person.

For one thing, Kübler-Ross didn’t actually base it on the behaviour of people who’d experienced the death of a loved one. In fact, the model was based on the observation of the terminally ill (for a surprisingly accurate summary, see The Simpsons).

For another, researchers have found that people experience multiple trajectories following a loss, and have said that Kübler-Ross’s model is too simplistic. The world and grief are complex—who knew?

Still, I like the five stages model. “Stages” is probably over-generous—emotion isn’t linear, and the idea that none of these things bleed into one another seems far-fetched. But I like it, all the same.

I like that it offers a way in, that it’s allowed me to prevaricate for so long while actually touching on a lot of the things that I think are key to understand about grief before you even begin to talk about it, namely

  1. that it’s messy,
  2. that it changes, and
  3. that even experts can’t tell you what to expect or how to come out the other side, so I certainly don’t claim to.

So, that is where I’d start. Over the course of writing about grief, I’d probably write and rewrite, go through several drafts. I’d question why I was even trying, spend a week procrastinating, before deciding that if grief is a deafening silence, that’s no reason why the conversation around it should be.

To talk about grief, I’d begin at the (not by any means empirically-supported) beginning: with denial.

Years before

Six months ago, my dad died.

He was 61. It was a Friday. The weather was grey. To add insult to life-altering emotional injury, I was hungover at the time.

Dad had been in and out of hospital over the last three months, and he’d been optimistic lately of being out again.

(Normally when people ask if the death was sudden, and I say that he’d been in hospital for a while, they nod as though that alleviates the suddenness. Here’s something people might not tell you about death: it still feels sudden, even when it’s not unexpected.)

At first, grief felt like a lot of running around. To be very bluff about it, having someone close to you die is a real trip, but being the one who has to organise everything afterwards adds another element of strangeness.

In the first month after he died, grief was a lot of train journeys back and forth to my family’s house. It was a lot of reading, a lot of TV watching, a lot of sleeping almost anywhere but in my own bed, alone. It was making a lot of decisions I didn’t feel qualified to make, and receiving a lot of condolences that didn’t really feel like they were for me at all.

It might not seem possible to be in denial of something when you’re actively involved in dealing with its aftermath like this, but it is. I was even aware of it—when I was answering calls, planning the funeral, choosing the flowers and the coffin and making decisions about who should speak, what they should say.

3 days after, Clapham Common

I wasn’t deluding myself about whether or not he was actually dead. (That’s what I’d always thought denial was—the flat-out refusal to believe something had happened.)

It was more the feeling that, although I knew the stone had been cast into the water, it hadn’t quite settled yet. It had been in the air for a long time, and now it had finally broken the surface, the cool, hard fact of it was still drifting slowly down through sunlit layers of upper water. The currents were still warm, there were still living things up there—new things he’d written to me or for me that I hadn’t seen, shining envoys swimming through from his last weeks.

It had a long way to travel, then. It still does. Down to the dark bottom of the world, burying itself in the silted floor to fossilise—or be preserved, I don’t know in which direction this metaphor goes. (Part of me thinks that maybe grief is a rock that never reaches the bottom; it just goes down and down and never stops.)

In that sense, denial, and grief itself I suppose, feels a lot like waiting. For other people also, I think this is the perception—particularly given the linearity of the stages theory. For the grief-adjacent, you feel like you’re waiting it out: waiting for each stage to be over, waiting and waiting, through denial and bargaining and anger and depression, waiting for the rock to hit the sand as though that is the final truth of grief: acceptance, devoid of anything of these prior things. A point of stillness. A fact.

But that hasn’t been my experience. (At least not yet—as I said, I’m a first-timer, and this grief is very young.)

So what is it? In my experience, denial is a necessary mechanism, a kind of self-preserving reflex. In fact, it was what made almost everything I did in those first weeks and months possible.

4 months after, at the memorial

Denial gave me the courage to assert authority, for one thing—to make decisions as though I knew absolutely what the right call would be, because I still felt like at the end of all of it, at an undisclosed point, he would be able to tell me what I’d done right or wrong. Crack a joke, call me a name. It made authority feel like something borrowed, rather than something that was new and mine and the best we could do. That was another thing denial was: the anaesthetic daze before and between pain.

Part of the issue is that “denial” isn’t great at describing itself. Is a scar “denying” a wound? That’s an overly philosophical way of putting it, but a useful way of thinking about it. You can’t live in the pain all the time, and I have no doubt that the brittle barrier I’d shored up between myself and the bottomless pit that all my energy would have drained into otherwise was an essential part of trying to heal.

Six months down the line, I don’t feel what authority I have to be borrowed anymore. I’ve gotten used to its shifting weight, and the idea that it’ll never really feel like it’s mine. Denial allowed me to share the burden for a while, while I learned to take that weight myself.

So how do you write about grief? How do you write about denial?

My answer is that you say that denial is your body’s way of being kind to itself. It is saying to yourself, Here. Come inside. Get warm. Eat. Speak to someone who loves you, let them tell you a joke. Laugh at yourself and stupid things on the TV. Read a new book, or an old one. Take the rest you need.

And when you’re done, then you can brace yourself for everything else you have to do—the entire lifetime that is to come.

Forgetting it is important. We do it on purpose. It means we get a bit of a rest. Are you listening? We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep ever again.

—Ali Smith, Autumn


My piece made Narratively’s end of year top 10!

My piece on the first same-sex marriage in Colorado more than a hundred years ago made it to number 7 on Narratively’s list of the 10 most-read pieces of 2017 on their site! The story of Helen Hilsher and Anna Slifka is very close to my heart, and it’s great to know that so many people have learned about these two brave and boundary-crossing women. It’s so easy to think of the women of the past as having little to do with the desires that women today experience – to explore, to learn, to love whoever they want, and see and do everything they possibly can. We rarely hear those stories; they’re too often written out of history. It was a pleasure to write just one of them back in.

See the other amazing pieces on the round-up on Narratively here, or find the link to my original piece right here.

New publication: “In 1913, She Walked Down the Aisle Disguised as a Man”

Illustration by Ellen Surrey

I’ve written a piece for Narratively on the tale of Colorado’s first same-sex marriage!

“Colorado’s first same-sex marriage happened more than a century ago, when a lovable rogue named Helen Hilsher — posing as “Jack Hill” — married her sweetheart.”

Read more over on Narratively.

Women I’m Listening To #1: Lorde’s “Green Light”

Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, transfixed me from my first listen. Everything about it seemed to evoke the exact feeling of premature nostalgia I had felt between the ages of sixteen to eighteen, and I only wished I could have been born a few years later, to hear that album at that age and feel it like an electric arrow to the heart. As it was, I was a late adopter – my first listen was more than a year after it first came out, but that didn’t stop me from buying it on vinyl after a week. I would listen with rapt attention in my bedroom in York, turning the lyrics over in my mind with joy and reverence. It was the record I would put on when I felt hopeless, or when I needed to escape. It’s still my favourite record that I own, despite its second-hand scuffs and the nanosecond-long skip on one track that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. I’ve spoken before about how vinyl collecting is an act of space-making, and I definitely have made a sacred space for that album.

It was a tough act to follow, but now, at last, Lorde is back with something new – and glorious.

“Green Light”, the first single from her sophomore album Melodrama, is the get-up-and-dance song that I didn’t know I needed. It’s the kind of song that so perfectly captures a specific emotion that it makes the urge to dance increase tenfold because you’re not just moving to it, you’re channelling it. Lorde herself explains the emotions behind the song best when she says that “I realized this is that drunk girl at the party dancing around crying about her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is a mess. That’s her tonight and tomorrow she starts to rebuild.” And that’s really what it is – for anyone who’s been that drunk girl, or seen her, or danced with her, “Green Light” perfectly evinces the physical restlessness that comes in the dying throes of heartache. The anticipatory chords that impatiently urge towards the explosive chorus; the lyrics – so classically Lorde – that shake you to your bones and yet are simple enough that you can chant them like an incantation (“Honey I’ll come get my things, but I can’t let go…”). The whole song is a revving-up in the chest: it’s Lorde saying emphatically that she is back, and better, ready once again to make something new and strange out of the familiar.

But it’s not just physical restlessness that Lorde seems to appeal to, it’s a kind of creative restlessness too. The lines where Lorde sings that she “hear[s] sounds in [her] mind” evoked, for me, a feeling of being trapped beneath a weight that you feel instinctively should be written away, but which presses on your writing hand and makes creation impossible. Tavi Gevinson covered this brilliantly in her talk at the Sydney Opera House in 2013: she spoke about how, when she was reeling from a breakup, she held her pain out to other people to try to make sense of it, and they’d well-meaningly reassure her with the promise that “This is what great art is made of!” But when she took the pain home and set it on the kitchen table, it didn’t turn out any original metaphors or genius verse. It just sat there. Instead, she found solace in words from others’ mouths – rewriting others’ lyrics and poetry: being, as I said above, a channel. Taking the hand that stretches out to you through art that says that somebody else has been there before, that the words will come, but they’ll stay with you while you wait.

Lorde in this song seems to be at the end of that waiting. She can feel the horrible now receding and is waiting with her eyes on the traffic light, urging it to go green, hearing “brand new sounds in my mind.” Sounds – not yet in discernible shape, not yet truly something, but approaching, gathering speed. It is a truly marvellous thing to be able to write so beautifully the feeling of not being able to write, or, in line with the song’s more generally-accepted arc, the feeling of being stuck on the brink. Her anticipation is intoxicating, joyous, explosive with kinetic energy: it reaches out a hand and promises that you, too, will reach that brink, will feel energetic and explosive and creative again.

The video to the song heightens this feeling to a giddy intensity. Lorde dances in a bathroom, in a crowded club, through nighttime city streets, even atop a parked car, all while clad in a blindingly brilliant pink dress. It’s beautiful for a plethora of reasons, many of which are covered expertly in Rosianna Halse Rojas’s vlog about the video’s use of light (in which she discusses a beloved favourite of mine, The Great Gatsby).

screenshot-2017-03-04-11-27-34What Rosianna points out and talks about in her typically brilliant and perceptive way is all true and important, and for me is key to the way in which the video so expertly navigates illusion and realism to produce a sense of delirium – of apt melodrama. In the same moment that we see Lorde dancing to the music of her own personal pianist (producer Jack Antonoff), placed beside her, as in a dream, in a grubby bathroom, we also notice the girls lined up behind her in the bathroom mirror, waiting to use the toilets. When she dances alone atop a parked car, a blazing figure bathed in red light, we also see, comically incorporated into the frame, the car’s driver vaping, waiting it out. The landscape of “Green Light” is alternatingly dreamy and mundanely lucid, pulling the feverish, transfiguring misery/joy of its central character into the same visual frame as fragments of the real world, of other people unconnected to her consuming catharsis.

Perhaps my favourite of these moments in the video – though by no means its most dramatic – are those in which Lorde is dancing alone in the street to music from her headphones. It seems like a trivial detail to point out, but the visual presence of the headphones and her phone, clutched desperately in her hands as she dances, indicates that this is not a usual dance track video. Lorde’s is not a performance in the vein of so mascreenshot-2017-03-04-11-32-20ny pop videos in which the song appears to fill the scene like the voice of God, the singer staring directly into the eye of the camera, and the absurdity of the situation is only neutralised by its unspoken recognition as long-abiding music video trope.

Instead, what we get is the exact feeling of reckless abandon that Lorde described in reference to the song’s conception. This intensity of emotion does not belong to a separate dream world, it belongs to ours – it is solitary and ludicrous and funny but these things do not diminish it. In fact, it ties in to one of my favourite moments in Tavi Gevinson’s speech, and something that she has said in many interviews: when the audience laughs at a page from one of her journals, she turns to Screenshot 2017-03-04 11.32.53.pngthem and says, half-embarrassedly, “That’s not funny!” When things that are coded feminine are constantly held up to ridicule and women’s emotions dismissed as hysteria, girls taking ownership of their love and enthusiasm and their ability to feel recklessly for things makes me so happy. These all-important moments of puncture in “Green Light” serve to highlight the absurdity of this intense feeling, even making it (as in the case of the vaping driver) funny, but to me this seems only to elevate the experience, to make it freeing, shameless. It is an indestructible display of vulnerability and it is absolutely beautiful.

Screenshot 2017-03-04 11.28.38.png

One commenter on the YouTube video of the song suggested that this song is a radical – and radically negative – departure from the stripped-back straightforwardness of Pure Heroine. Some song, he remarked, from a girl who used to sing about how much she hated parties and celebrity life. Isn’t the glamour of the video hypocritical? We thought she was above this!

Personally, I think that if “Green Light” is anything to go by, Lorde is as aware as ever of the “real life” that her inspiration springs from and that her songs voyage out to meet. This is not an inaccessible pop video brewed in a world of its own. It is Lorde’s world, and it is also, she wants us to know, ours, and she is as unapologetic for her honesty now as she was when “Royals” first brought her to fame.

Old Haunt


Something about the greyness outside
of the bookshop’s windows on a Thursday afternoon
makes me think of you:
a pressing silver gloom
that clings to the glass
and makes evening approach faster.
Dust gathers thicker;
an unseen clock ticks louder.
On shelves pillowed with dust,
warped and well-loved
spines breathe against each other
as the door opens and closes,
opens and closes,
and the cold bellows of the rain
draw brown leaves, swirling in eddies
onto the brown mat.
We lay like open books once;
lingered for an hour
in this same weakened, weakening
midweek light: a world away,
but one which echoes still
in bookshops on a Thursday
or anywhere, in the dead hours of the afternoon.
I pull a paperback,
fan its pages against my fingers in a whisper
of secrets stored between white sheets
when a clock ticks out of sight –
leave it with its pages clamped shut,
and a trace of regret,
like the umbrella somebody left
shivering in the doorway.

This poem took shape out of a few lines I came across saved on my computer a few nights ago, when I was trying to jolt myself into writing creatively. It wasn’t easy, and it’s certainly not perfect, but I decided that it’s high time I fulfilled the original purpose of this blog, which was to kill the perfectionist impulse and get my writing read by someone other than myself – in other words, to show my work. So, here it is.