Grief is the Thing with Feathers

This book has been on the shelf for a while. I took it away with me when I went away for a short silent retreat. The one where I had no company to talk with. I loved reading this book on the first morning in a few hours. I also had a strange parallel process of a magpie coming to peck on the kitchen window of the cabin where I was staying.

The book has three characters: Dad, Boys, and Crow, each with a voice.

Crow visited Dad one day after the recent sudden death of his wife. Dad was in his grief, as were the Boys.

I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.

Four or five nights after she died, Dad reflects on the “organisational fakery of my days”… feeling “hung-empty”… “Being at the epicentre grants a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody else… I felt it would be years before the knotted-strong dream of other people’s performances of woe for my dead wife would thin enough for me to sense any black space again… I thought in support of myself, everything has changed, and she is gone, and I can think what I like.” Dad was about to be visited by Crow. “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

The new normal

Grief is the thing with feathers is a novel that reflects on grief, returning to work, changes in the family dynamic as new roles are learnt, and how vulnerabilities connect the characters. The story was compelling as each character turned into their behaviour in the aftermath of the death and reflected on their relationship with the other.

We hope she likes us.

A touching moment in the story was a letter from Dad to Dearest Boy when he signed off the ending “Are you being good? Don’t worry about doing or not doing stuff; it doesn’t matter.” This seems to address the issues around the behaviour, as the boys wanted to remember their mother. The boy’s reflections on deliberate behaviour evoked a reaction from their father, as it was when their mother was alive, “defined by it, sizeable chunks of cracking on, then greater sinkholes of melancholy.” The deep yearning and searching, ageing her, wondering if they would die the same age as her, they asked, “We hope she likes us.”

Moving on

Dad addresses the common desire from others to “move on.” “Moving on as a concept is for stupid people because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain thrust upon us lets no man slow, speed, or fix.”

From acute grief to acceptance

There is much to love about this book of poems and prose about the three characters, Dad, Boys, and Crow, and their transition from raw acute grief to accepting suffering as an enduring part of being after losing a significant person and relationship. It has a balance of raw vulnerability and humour.

I read Grief is the Thing with Feathers without the acute grief that Dad was experiencing. I was a widow over 26 years ago and without children. However, when reading the book, I could recall being in my body during acute grief and not fitting into the world of normal activities coming and going. The Dad role was compelling, and the character drew me into the story.

As a bereavement counsellor, I read this book through a grief-informed lens. It is a book set in London and may have a familiarity and identification with the location setting for those living there or who have visited.