Ineffable is my favourite word. It means incapable of being expressed or described in words. It is my favourite word for two reasons. Firstly, because its very existence as a word undermines its own meaning. Secondly, because it perfectly describes grief. Words cannot express my loss, nor can they fix it, but ordering the pain and confusion into sentences and paragraphs – attempting to make it ‘effable’ – is a way of confronting and processing it. As the author, I can take control of the narrative, creating a safe distance between myself and the tragedy, now just words on a page. I suppressed my grief for too long, so now I write to confront it.
I was thirteen when I watched my brother die. I watched with my own eyes as he was pulled from a river, and then, I watched as my life fell apart around me.
Patrick and I were coming to the end of a skiing holiday with our parents. We had probably had our best day of skiing so far – up on a glacier where the sky was a deep blue and the snow so smooth that it was like skiing through milk. That afternoon, we had split from our parents and were making our own way home. It was that time of day when the sun has just dipped behind the mountains and, as if someone has turned down the contrast, it becomes difficult to distinguish the piste, harder to pick out the contours of white on white.
I became separated from Patrick and stopped to wait for him. There were a few other skiers about, but no sign of him. I looked down the mountain, where I could see the run sloping down towards a river that snaked its way through the valley. There was a small bridge, where the run crossed the river and a restaurant on the other side. I looked for his figure in the distance, but again there was no sign. I waited for a while on the side of the mountain, occasionally moving further down. Maybe he had skied ahead and was waiting for me past the restaurant. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t have my mobile with me, so I decided to ski down to the restaurant and use their phone to call my parents.
When I got to the restaurant, I asked a waiter if I could borrow their phone. I tried calling my mum’s number, but there was no answer. I tried the only other number I knew off by heart – my sister’s – again no answer. Then the man told me that he knew where my brother was. I looked at him, confused. My confusion turned to disbelief when he said, ‘Your brother’s in the river.’ I was bewildered. My brother was not in the river. We’d become separated, that was all. Why would he be in the river? What a stupid thing to say. But the man was insistent and urged me to go and look.
If you’ve ever tried running in ski boots, then you’ll know how difficult it is. I can still feel the weight of each boot, the feeling of each plastic toe cutting into the compact snow. A blind, desperate stumble. There were a few people clustered by the edge of the river, but the drop down to the water was steep and I could not see it as I ran. I reached the edge, looked over and to this day, what I saw remains burnt into the inside of my eyelids.
Patrick was being pulled out of the river by several men. Without even thinking, I screamed. I can still feel his name as it tore its way out through my throat, as I thrust the letters, the sounds, pulsing and bloody, out through my lips. But he did not reply. His body was limp and unresponsive. His face was frozen.
From this point onwards, time loses meaning and events unfold before me with the disorientating and hallucinatory quality of a dream, flying past in a blur, or happening in slow motion. My memories of this time are fractured, like a shuffled set of movie stills, but they remain painfully sharp.
I glide through the funeral and the days that follow like a ghost. Detached from reality, the sad, supportive faces of my friends and family hover on the edges of my vision, blurry and indistinct.
The mantra that ‘life goes on’ is both grossly unfair and impossible to comprehend. Why does everything continue as normal? Why does nothing stop to recognise my loss? The world keeps turning, the clocks keep ticking, but my life has come to a complete standstill. After a few weeks, people stop bringing food to my family. People stop asking me how I’m doing. They have their own lives to get on with. I go back to school. I slip back into my daily routine. I ‘get on with my life’. To all intents and purposes, I am okay.
But I stumble through life like a sleepwalker, bumping painfully into everything I thought I knew. And that’s what grief is. A feeling of disorientation. The world I thought I understood is suddenly thrown off-kilter.
Until I discover that the easiest way deal with grief is, in fact, not to deal with it at all. I withdraw into myself and find comfort in denial. I don’t like it when my family cry. I don’t want to visit his grave. I don’t want to talk about it. Because these things make my loss more real.
But suppressing your grief doesn’t make it go away, it just drills it deeper into you. It will surface eventually and the longer it lies dormant, the longer the pressure has to build, the greater the explosion when it finally erupts. You can’t understand your grief until you understand the enormity of what you’ve lost – and in the first few years after Patrick’s death, I didn’t understand.
Death is so hard to understand because it doesn’t seem real – it is the sort of thing that happens to other people. How can it be happening to me? We read about freak accidents all the time, but we never think it will happen to us. We can all imagine ourselves on a family holiday, but the idea that one of us might not come home never crosses our minds.
The difficulty of dealing with grief is compounded by the fact that other people don’t know how to deal with it either. Some people choose to pretend it never happened, or, when they do mention it, their speech is littered with well-meaning clichés such as, ‘everything happens for a reason’, or ‘they’re in a better place now’ – both of which are false and only serve to make things worse. They have a finite amount of sympathy before they expect you to have moved on and their expectations can be stressful – weeks, months down the line, and you’re supposed to be better. But these misconceptions stem simply from the fact that they don’t understand – nor should they. I wouldn’t wish that understanding on anyone.
Losing someone you love is not something you can ever ‘get over’, it’s something you have to learn to live with. Something you carry inside of you every day. With time, the pain does not get any ‘better’ or ‘easier’, it just becomes more familiar. You get used to it. And there is a strange familiarity to grief, which makes it bizarrely addictive. Feeling my loss is a way to keep my memory of him alive.
Grief is a sneaky thing and it strikes when you least expect it. Even years later, the least little thing will set it going; a song, a smell, a photo – or just nothing at all.
The rest is automatic. You don’t need to lift a finger. A sickening lurch in the pit of your stomach, a shiver down the back of your spine, a sickly moment of surprise. He is gone. Forever.
I cling desperately to my memories of him, tucking them carefully away into the dusty corners of my mind. But each time I unfold them, I find that they are creased and blurred with age. I press down on the corners and peer in closely, hoping I still recognise the person I see there. But despite my best efforts, the outline of his face becomes harder and harder to recall, until photographs are the only reminder of the face I used to know.
Grief has brought me lower than I ever thought possible. I didn’t know what to do with all the pain I was carrying inside me; the weight was too much to bear. I felt like I could not go on.
But grief doesn’t have to deform you – it can shape you. You never really know what you are capable of until you have been tested by adversity. And so, once you have found your way out of its depths – grief reveals you.
I would not be the hardworking and motivated person I am today if I had not lost my brother. Whilst this makes me feel guilty – as though my successes are only due to his loss – it is important to measure what you leave behind by what you inspire in others. Patrick is certainly my inspiration.
Setting up a foundation in his memory was a way for my family to turn our grief into something positive and the festival that we ran for eight consecutive years encapsulated that. It is some small comfort to know that our own personal tragedy has changed the lives of others.
So, whilst it’s easy to be dragged down by it all, I have to keep going. I have to keep moving forwards. I am determined to make the most of my time here.
There is a date that lies hidden in our calendars, a date that we pass by each year without realising. We will never know when it is, but it’s there just the same. It could be many months before it comes around. It could be many years. But it could be tomorrow. We wont know until it’s too late.
Patrick, I miss you. I will live the life you never got to.
Grief is ineffable – not only in the sense that it cannot be described in words, but also in the sense that it should not be. Despite their inevitability, death and grief have become taboo topics that we are too afraid to discuss, but in order to heal we must break the silence.
The very word ‘grave’, that ultimate symbol of oblivion, when used as a verb, can mean to carve or etch upon a surface – hence engrave – and thus, the act of articulation is already inherently bound up in death itself. It is telling, therefore, that this usage of ‘grave’ has fallen into obsolescence; it is no longer something we say.
Words seem hollow and inadequate in the face of grief, but they have power, and with them, not only can I confront grief – I can break its hold over me.
‘Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.’ Macbeth (IV, iii, 209-10)