A light on the shadows of grief

A multi-coloured pen, a book, and an odd feeling of discomfort. … The shadows of grief that can dim our days, and thoughts on how to brighten them.

Recently  I found myself in a situation that made me quite uncomfortable, somewhat nervous even. There wasn’t anything really the matter, but it didn’t feel quite right. I wasn’t immediately sure of the cause, but on reflection – and discussion with my husband – I realised that there were aspects of what was happening now that reminded me of something in the past – a time and place far away – but it had some similar elements. Talking about it later helped shake the feelings of awkwardness; I think we might have even had a bit of a laugh as we compared the two situations.

They had been merely shadows of the past but they had the effect of making a day in the present – that in reality wasn’t so bad – seem worse than it was.

More shadows came yesterday. We’re getting ready for our next training and retreat events so we headed for the stationary shop. I’ve always been quite partial to buying stationary – all of those nice pens and blank notebooks and art materials seem to beckon. They’re like an appetiser for the imagination, that if you have a good quality pen and a beautiful notebook in front of you, the words of a poem or something even better will come flowing. Paint sets and drawing materials and all of those things won’t turn me into an artist, but they too are quite appealing for similar reasons.

In yesterday’s shop there was a box of multi-coloured pens. You know the kind, a fat pen with maybe 4, 8 or even 12 colours. And a shadow came over me for a moment.

When my daughter Catherine was around 10 (I’m not quite sure when) when I went away on a work trip I brought her home one of those speciality pens. It had 12 or maybe 16 different colours, it smelt of strawberries or something, and she loved it. You could be writing a sentence and change colour for each word. Fun. Sadly though, the pen went astray. Maybe it got lost, maybe one of the other children in her class walked off with it. Who knows. She was really sad about it. I couldn’t get her another, as I’d bought it in a different country. So the lost pen was never replaced.

Her sadness at the loss was the shadow that came over me yesterday. Actually, whenever I see a multi-colour pen I remember it. Losing a pen is not really a big deal but for a child, even a little thing can be a big thing.  I think one of the hardest things about being a parent is seeing the sadness or suffering of our child and being unable to change it.

This prompted another memory shadow. When Catherine was a teenager she got interested in nursing and in particular in Florence Nightingale, and I sent away for a book by Florence, “Notes on Nursing”.  When the book arrived it was a nice surprise for Catherine, as although it wasn’t that expensive, at the time I didn’t have hardly any money so she was quite touched both that I had managed to find the book and also got it for her.

Sometime later, the book got lent to a friend, and as happens all too often with books that are borrowed, it was forgotten by the borrower. The friend moved away, it seems taking the book with her. I offered to get another copy for Catherine but she wasn’t that bothered about the book at that point; what bothered her was feeling let down by this friend. Again it wasn’t really a big deal, and I don’t know why I even remember it. Still, that sadness shadow arrived nonetheless.

Life is full of it, isn’t it, bright sunny days interspersed with shadows, yet also darker days that are interspersed with light. It’s part of the nature of our world and we all live with it.  It’s all part of the ebb and flow of our existence and experience.

When you’re grieving, sometimes those shadows can become quite oppressive. It can be hard to see any light, and if we don’t watch out, we can find ourselves walking in the dark. Memory shadows can come unbidden, and they can fog up our thoughts so that we struggle to remember the good moments, the happy times, the better memories.

Of course the memory of a loved one’s pain hurts, whether it was a physical or emotional pain, whether it was something that we realised at the time or not, whether it was something major or something small and insignificant. Remembering their hurts saddens us.

When those shadows come I think the only solution is to seek for the light.

Expressing it seems to help. Sometimes talking about it can help put the subject into perspective; sometimes just the act of sharing it seems to take the “sting” out of a difficult train of thought.

Reflecting on good memories is also important – thinking about our loved one’s happy moments. When you’re in the rawest place of grief this can be harder than you might expect. It can take a conscious effort to remember the many good moments of their life. It is worthwhile persevering though, as it is only the light that dispels shadows.

Catherine was delighted when she held the pen, and delighted when the book arrived unexpectedly. That’s the bit I’d like to remember.


Out of the shadows we look to the light. (Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire)


Light illuminates the shadows. (Inside Lichfield Cathedral during a light show display. This is one of the views looking up and around. The butterfly picture on this page is from the same event.)



One thought on “A light on the shadows of grief

  1. Pingback: How do we live with losses? | A Valley Journal

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