Fires, grief, stories and sense making

Fires, grief, stories and sense making

I have been reading Gary Hughes’ account of his first week after the fires in the Weekend Australian Magazine (March 7-8). A moving and intelligent account of the dislocation of a disaster like that. I cannot find a version of that article online, but here is his account of fleeing the fires. It is no wonder the guy has won Walkley awards. His account reminds me of the paralysed dislocation I felt after the Canberra fires. Minute in comparison, but with palpable comparisons. My family and friends were spared during those fires, although my father and sister on the other side of the town put out embers near the family home with the rest of the neighbourhood.

The many layers of grief, of letting go, of coping, surviving and thriving are fascinating, layered and complex. And these events are never in isolation. My mother died two days before September 11, burning trade centres another nail in a coffin on the day we were planning her funeral, compounding the fractures and disassociation. It took me a year and a half to find space to begin to grieve for her, sometimes grief takes time. I was unpacking grief when the 2003 fires came to Canberra and added a new sense of heartbreak and disconnection, opening up to then become self protectively numb again. It was nice to hear of seasoned survivors speaking of the anger after disconnect, it’s not personal, it’s almost physiological.

Six months, a year, after the fires I was in a workplace with a man who had lost his home while out fighting fires to save other people’s homes. He was still affected by the fires (of course) and there was a heightened consciousness and degree of conversation about the fires that stirred conflicting feelings. It assisted in spurring on an irrational anger every time a person mentioned their elderly parents. I was in a workplace where most of my colleagues were decades older and a number were struggling with roles of carers and the finite span of their parents. Every time they complained or expressed a fear of their parent’s mortality I wanted to yell across the room “Fuck you, my mother’s dead.” I can only imagine how hard this would be if you lost a parent younger and had to endure peers bitching about parents when you’ve lost one and would love to be in the position to bitch. My unexpected rawness providing new levels of understanding for friends who had lost parents in highschool. The anger was powerful and passed easily if I considered it to be a physiological response, passing through like running water and nothing personal. All of this flows through my mind as I see a new crimson sky in Victoria.

I was speaking to a friend about the numbness and trauma she and friends had been experiencing in Victoria, to be so close and while not personally touched by the fires, psychologically touched and rattled. I remember how rattled I felt by the Tsunami not that long ago, similarities and dissimilarities and sense making processes and how I control information flow.

Sometimes I don’t want to know anything, I will protect myself and close my eyes. Sometimes there is such a hunger to know and consume information and details, be hypnotised by the details and draw on them to make sense of it, make sense of the world, normalise events and contextualise the experience… lay down a map, like sketching a figure, look at the proportions, sketch out the physical space, sketch out the interior space, situate it in an environment, both current and historical. Processes like these spontaneous essay. Connecting this incident to the other stories I know can be life affirming, but also rattling as old wounds become re-energised, if they have not had the time grieve and flow like water through the consciousness so that they are not personal anymore.

I think of people who have been through so much more, people my father helps in war torn Africa who have seen more siblings die than live, witnessed, survived or perpetrated atrocities. I think of people in Afghanistan who have never known peace. I think of the layers of tragedy and grief, of complex survival systems, coping mechanisms, ways of thriving and how they intersect, bump into each other. It’s messy, difficult, magnificent and poignant, how humans love, lose, care and rebuild. That we live and love, make beauty and stories, imagine and will still dance (be it in words, bodies, sounds or sights) is magnificent. Our resilience and fragility is inspiring.

I am filled with admiration. I love how the world develops layers as I grow older, each year, each experience (my own or explored through one of the arts) is a piece of filo pasty, a layering that makes the world more interesting, more complex and extraordinary. As I get older, people become more extraordinary. I am able to see and imagine more layers to their filo pastry. The magnificence and brutality of the world. I cry more at the movies, in sorrow and joy. At times I feel more jaded, less attuned than I did a handful of years ago… but that is a self protective facade, brought about because I feel more, feel a greater complexity and my imagination can draw more lines in the air. Although I am not thrown into the air by my passions the way I used to, my passions have more nuance and depth, they are not diminished (though they are more manageable).

To draw on the wonderful Michael Marshal Smith’s Only Forward. When the wave has crashed, when the storm passes, as it will. What joy when we are able to bring ourselves fully into the present, bring our integrated selves with us and detangle our fragile selves from the barbed wire of the past… how extraordinary to have all those experiences like a magnifying lens to bring to our present selves and wonder at the world around us.

There is so much to learn, so much to remember, so much to make sense of when an extreme event happens (be it love or disaster).  Gary Hughes’ essay was a lovely point of reflection, moving and powerful. His words moved me and took me here. Our words, stories and sense makings are important.

5 thoughts on “Fires, grief, stories and sense making

  1. Liz, you have a real gift…your words create a colourful picture and express ‘it’ just how it is.

    It doesn’t matter what level our grief may be ‘in comparison’ to someone elses, it is very relevant to us individually. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, just as there is no time limit when to begin or when to finish. Does one ever finish? My mother passed away at age 57 – nearly 8 years ago. I still grieve for her but am more at peace with my grieving. I grieve because I have lost my dear friend and mother. No-one can replace her. Being faced with a brain tumour myself I especially need her now. She is not here physically but she is with me spiritually and embedded within my heart. Nothing can take her from there.
    Loss comes in all forms – not just the loss of a loved one. The loss of ability, the loss of a job, a home, a pet. It is all relevant and grieving is a necessary part of life. Yes it is so painful but I know it is possible, somewhere amongst it all, to come out the other side stronger, at peace.


  2. Liz – fantastic writing. Weaving the loss of a parent to a tremendous disease, loss of place and loss of path – topped with the tensions between colleagues in the workplace machine. The Victorian bushfires awoke memories of the Canberra bushfires in my work colleagues, friends and family setting them on edge and through another cycle of grief. Thanks Susan

  3. Your Dad has to be so proud of you, to so elegantly express the depth of your soul in such a deep introspective, yet expressive manner that in bodies the experiences that you’ve witnessed.
    Your style of writing draws one into the world in which you’ve lived, live, and can only imagine. It also is memorizing, offering both a historical value as well as a glimpse of the unconditional thoughts that randomly plague your mind.
    The symbolism that is manifested in your writings reflect your discriminating ability to relate to events that you’ve witnessed.
    You are obviously well read and have the ability to touch realms that aren’t often expressed. You are correct in stating that “our words, stories and senses are important”. I only wish I could be beyond my current situation as our journey has just begun.

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