Ten days ago I was on the bus on my way home from Zaatari Village where I’d been helping to run an activity day for Syrian refugee children living there.
I was sitting with my face pressed up against the window as I watched the crumbling homes and the UNHCR-provided tents whiz past me and out of sight. As always on this journey, I was berating myself for the inadequacy of my own experiences of pain as compared to those of the children in that village who have lost so much: homes, family, friends, futures.
What I didn’t realise is just how much I should have cherished that utter ignorance. I’d become so used to the guilt of being the lucky one, the one who’d never experienced loss, that I forgot that one day it would come for me too. Playing with the children in Zaatari Village, I never thought that it was my own family that was in danger. I didn’t know that back in the UK my Dad had just died.
How do you talk about grief? At the moment I don’t really feel. Mostly there is numbness and even when the tears come I know that I am tiptoeing around the real pain. My body is stubbornly protecting me; my head is too scared of the vulnerability to really dive down to those depths of human hurt. So at the moment I exist in a grey space in my head, where there are no feelings and where hours last for days.
In this strange space there is a lot of time to think. Mostly I think about my Dad, but I also find my thoughts returning again and again to the people who taught me about loss, and about its relationship to love and to hope. These people are all refugees and it is in their lessons that I find comfort now.
I was fifteen when I began working at a refugee service in Newcastle. I returned home from my first day there completely exhausted and fell into bed at 6pm. I’d been confronted with more human pain than I’d ever witnessed before. I remember one man I met that day particularly clearly. He was probably in his forties and had arrived in the UK only recently. He sat at the desk opposite the support worker.
“I just can’t find them,” he was saying, referring to his wife and children who were still in Uganda, as the support worker looked for more numbers he could ring.
The conversation continued for a while. It wasn’t particularly hopeful.
“They’re my children,” he said, quietly, before he left.
I remember that man because I remember thinking I had never seen a person more on the verge of collapse. His eyes were exhausted, frightened, shocked. His movements were gentle but quick as though he feared that his time was almost up. He sat slumped, almost defeated. He was not a small man but in that moment he looked tiny and frail on the chair.
This is just one person out of the many I met whose grief appeared like constant shadows on their faces.
It was a particularly cold winter that year. I remember another man, he was in his early twenties, sitting quietly, looking out the window.
He turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen snow before.”
But there was no excitement at the sight of these unfamiliar flakes — only exhaustion at the approach of yet another phenomenon that was new, strange and unfriendly. We spoke for another five minutes or so. In every word he said you could hear the ache for home, for all that he’d lost.
Working at the refugee service was the first time that I witnessed loss. At first it drained me, but then slowly I began to see something horribly, achingly beautiful in the way that human beings react to loss, in the way that we grieve. I don’t want this to sound dismissive or patronising because I know that grief does not feel beautiful to the griever and indeed in many ways it isn’t. But at the same time I do believe it is evidence of a heart being broken, and in that sense it is a potent reminder of our humanity. Grief, in all its horrendousness and pain, is a shocking proof of love.
It was this that taught me that love is brave, so incredibly brave. The men whom I mentioned earlier, they were hurting because their hearts were breaking, and their hearts were breaking because they had dared to love, and now they had to deal with loss.
All love carries with it the prospect of loss, and yet we do it anyway.
We continue to make ourselves fragile, vulnerable to this kind of pain. I saw it all the time at the refugee service and I see it in Zaatari Village: people who have lost people, and felt pain because they loved those people, continuing to love: this is bravery.
It was witnessing grief, then, that taught me so much about the the strength of love and, over the past few days, reading back through my Dad’s old sermons and speeches, it seems that he also learnt about love through loss.
My Dad’s father died when my Dad was in his thirties. He remembered watching his parents as they spent their last few moments together, and it was one loving caress from his father to his mother that stayed with him. In that touch he saw the depth of their love, the goodness and the purity in their love and, most importantly, he saw the bravery in their love because he could see how much it hurt them to say goodbye. He saw that daring to love another person this much requires a stoic acceptance that one day you may have to cope with a colossal loss.
At that time my Dad was a Jesuit, a type of Catholic monk, and he later wrote that it was at this moment that he started to see his celibacy almost as cowardice, because he would never know this love and in this way he was protecting himself from such painful and profound loss. This was what set my Dad re-thinking his role in life, re-thinking his choice to be a monk, and ultimately arriving (luckily for me) at the decision that having a family, being a loving husband and father, was not only the best and most brave thing that he could do but also totally in harmony with priesthood and his religious life. (When my Dad left the Jesuits he did not give up priesthood but entered the Anglican church instead.)
It was witnessing loss that led my Dad to see the incredible value in human love.
So as I said, I am in the grey space where there is nothing. I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. But as my family and I move through this, I will remember these lessons in loss taught to me by people who had lost almost everything: that it only hurts because we are human, because we love, and that in itself is beautiful.
This may sound like an odd way to deal with loss, but the only way I know to cope with the most horrible aspects of life is to try to create beauty in their place – to find something good.
So I will remember that there is no loss without love; that a heart can’t be broken if there was nothing there to break; and that this pain is really a reminder of all the beauty Dad brought to my life and to the lives of my Mum, my sister and my brother.