The English Way of Grief

The English, or perhaps the British, have a reputation for being withdrawn, unemotional, but this is to underestimate the reality. It seems to me we have fewer formal rituals, but a readiness to invent stuff on the fly. This is from Grace Dent in last weekend’s i paper, inspired by the murder of a popular member of parliament.

There’s something distinctly un-British about a vigil. these open displays of fresh, still-glistening, hard-do-be-close-to-grief. No, not births at all. In bygone British days – those halcyon times so many of us long to find a path back to – we did not take to the streets with our sadness. We kept our grief under wraps, our lips stiff, and let our unsaid things strangle us like knotweed. and frae ad its own strict hierarchy – he can mourn, she’s got no right to be sad, you should be mourning hater etc. The modern vigil on the other hand , is a come one, come all scenario.

And I’m beginning to like the modern way much more.

The modern vigil denotes the wonky unfairness of tragedy. Death happens, it proves, when you were busy making other plans. It’s all there in the scattering of Poundland tea light and newsagent-bought bouquets, which were harvested in a haze and tied to railings with children’s hair ribbons.

And the notes. The sones attached to lamp posts, written in a mist of numbness, with a non-ideal pen – perhaps a neon pink Sharpie as I saw at Jo Cox’s Westminster vigil – saying the things we didn’;t get to say face-to-face, but are now scribbled through tears and taped to a railing. Like “I love you”. Or “You were a great colleague”. Or “I’m worried about your children”. Or “I didn’t really know you, but from afar I secretly thought you were ace.”

When humanity seems to be at rock-bottom, the vigil exposes us to human beings at their best. Yesterday, in Wapping at a vigil close to Jo Cox’s houseboat, ship horns rang out in unison for 2 solid minutes, while here neighbours stood up on their decks. A mere five years ago it would have been unthinkable for Westminster mourners to leave laptops on the grass outside Parliament playing footage of Jo Cox’s speeches. Or for someone to leave an enormous blank sheet of cardboard entitled the “Banner of Love for Jo”, inviting passers-by to exude some words of warmth and light. But at a point in British history when we’re glued to social-media screens filled with bile-soaked tit for tat, this old-school request for “positive vibes” in felt-tip pen seemed oddly healing.

The power of togetherness cannot be underestimated. Orlando may be 4,000 miles away, so not many of the thousands who attended the Old Compton street vigil this week had lost a very good friend, but this rendezvous was vital. Vigils like these remind us that good people outnumber bad.

And when we move away from our laptops, dos our twitter personas and set aside our Facebook posturing, we are, in the flesh, merely odd-shaped, damp-eyed, vulnerable human beings in need of love. There is, we must remember, more love and unity than hate in this world. Sometimes it takes a death to force us out into the streets and admit it.

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