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Part VIII: Brain reset: Precious Memories and Strange Experiences


“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later…..The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten.”

Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk

Precious memories…

When memories are all we have left, which ones do we treasure? Resilient bereavement guides us to focus on the best times of joy and love and laughter, memories  that will lift our mood. We may also need to acknowledge the difficult times, when we wish things had been different: remorse and regret are painful emotions that may intensify and extend our grief. Resilient thinking can help us to put those occasions in perspective, so that we can focus attention on the happy memories. Most likely the good times will far, far outweigh the bad.  

Bereavement is a state of altered consciousness, its own kind of madness, acutely so at the beginning. We may be assailed by memories in the most vivid detail. My two most precious memories of Tino are the first time I set eyes on him, and the last.

I was five years old when Tino was born, in the days when women stayed in the nursing home for a week or longer after birth.  My big sister and I stayed with our beloved Auntie June, Mum’s sister; and my little sister stayed with our Nana. Auntie June and Uncle Dimmy hadn’t had children yet, and devoted themselves to our care, taking us to pebble beach to find perfectly round pebbles to make painted faces. Apart from that, I remember almost nothing about this time, until the day we were taken to Nana’s to see Mum and the new baby, a boy, at last!

Walking into the familiar bay windowed front sitting room of Nana’s house all I could see were a forest of dark clad legs, rising all around me like tree trunks. They quickly parted allowing two eager little girls to pass, pushed forward by their Dad. I saw my little sister, then my mother’s welcoming smile, a white bundle lying across her lap, the sweet face of her sleeping infant.  

Tino, our baby brother, was a special, adored child, constantly petted and fought over by his three sisters and sometimes teased mercilessly. I’m sure he had mixed feelings about his childhood (who doesn’t?), though I’m sure he would have felt the love, how could he not? I’ve sometimes noticed that adored children often become adorable people, and Tino was a fine example of that notion. 

In the weeks before his death, Tino made an uncharacteristically concerted effort to see all the people he loved, visiting his parents-in-law and our Dad, in long journeys, to Cornwall or Wales, that were hard to fit in to his busy working life. I wonder… did he know, subliminally, what was ahead?

Six weeks before his death, Pat called with a specific request from Tino: could we go out for dinner to celebrate my birthday? We spent a lovely evening: Tino, as always, full of fun, making us all laugh, I can picture him still.  Leaving the restaurant and walking towards our respective cars, Tino and I walked ahead, holding hands.  He told me he had dreamed of my first husband, Peter, who had dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of thirty-five…(Hmm…..)

Peter was smiling at me, Vou, he said; you remember that smile he had? 

I do. What did he say? I asked.  

Tino told of a brief and touching exchange they’d had, in the dream, about the end of my marriage to Peter.

That’s so nice, I said. 

He wasn’t a bad man was he, Vou?  

No, I replied, nobody is really bad are they? 

Arriving at our cars we hugged closely, exchanged I love you and must see more of you, as we always did. Such a beautiful memory.

Strange experiences….

“It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in….I began to notice curious connections between things. Things of no import burst into extraordinary significance. I read my horoscopes and believed it. Auguries. Huge bouts of déjà vu. Coincidences. Memories of things that hadn’t happened yet…… Sometimes, a few times, I felt my father must be sitting near me as I sat on a train or in a café. This was comforting. It all was. Because these were the normal madnesses of grief.”

Helen Macdonald

From childhood, Tino had a passion for hawks, eagles, falcons.  In his mid-forties, he semi-retired for a few years, to tame and hunt several hawks that he cared for with the tenderness of a new father. These were some of the happiest years of his life, I think, and it consoles me to know he had that time, doing what he most wanted to do, living his life fully, on his own terms.

One of Tino’s most precious possessions, was an author signed copy of H is for Hawk by falconer Helen Macdonald, a memoir of a woman grieving for the recent and sudden death of her father by heart attack, (Hmm…) alongside her account of keeping a new goshawk of her own. Her grief for her father and her taming of a wild bird entwined in an extraordinary, powerfully moving memoir of love and bereavement.

The madness of grief that Macdonald refers to, the dreams, coincidences, portents, reminded me of the anguished months after my mother’s death. During my sleepless nights, I developed a belief that if I focussed my mind, Mum would come back, literally that she would walk through my bedroom door. My distress at my failure to bring someone back to life was compounded by my fear that I was going insane.

Mum appeared to Tino, in a dream, saying: When are you coming home, Tino? He replied, not yet Mum. One of my most consoling images that I still bring to mind is of Mum and Tino together again, smiling at each other. 

In the wider family, sightings of hawks were everywhere in those early months; we reported them to each other with joy and amazement: it must mean something! could it be him? what’s he trying to tell us? he’s sending us a sign!  Even my husband, the least fanciful person on earth, reported a hawk flying close to him, giving him the distinct impression that he had a message for him. 

After Tino’s death, I read H is for Hawk, to feel close to him, and to try to understand him better. Macdonald connects the taming of a wild bird, with the taming of the wildness in her own nature; and this reminded me of the lyrics of Tino’s favourite song: “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers, which was played at his funeral:

Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can
And when it’s time for leavin’
I hope you’ll understand
That I was born a ramblin’ man

The Allman Brothers

There is a world of meaning in these words.  As toxic masculinity comes under such scrutiny, these words remind me of the millions and millions of truly good men, like my brother, who set aside their personal desires, to work hard, often in jobs they don’t enjoy, in service of their greatest passion: their love for their family and their drive to provide for them. 

These are the kinds of things we pay attention to, what we see and hear and believe, in our desire to defend ourselves from the finality of death. Our brains are extraordinary, the lengths they go to to protect us in our grief, until we are ready, finally, to accept our loss.

So we should hold our precious memories close: savour them, recall every detail, relive them, and turn to them when we need consolation. 

Tino with his beloved hawk, Honey.  This picture is being painted by artist Jason Liosatos, our talented cousin.

“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth — and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Next and final blog in this series coming soon: My do it yourself recovery programme: how did it all go?

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7 thoughts on “Part VIII: Brain reset: Precious Memories and Strange Experiences

  1. I just read your text with emotion, deep interest, and some envy (not jealousy) for this wonderful kind of brotherly love (or sisterly….) that is so totally absent in my own life…
    You know Voula I don’t believe in God but I do believe in all the signs you evoke…I have experienced them.
    Lots of love to you Voula, Tania

    1. Thank you Tania. I realise how very fortunate I have been to have a good relationship with my brother… and I agree, I don’t believe in God… but maybe I do believe in some kind of magic.. xxx

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