This April, I will be older than my elder sister Nell. She died of cancer in December 2019. She was 46 when she died, two years older than me. This year I will be 47. Nell will always be 46. Writing “Nell died” still disturbs me as it did in the months after her death. She was my older sister. She wasn’t supposed to die. As little girls we learned to talk lying in beds beside one another. We sat in the same bath water, shared the same toothbrush, wore the same knickers, fought over the same toys.
Her prognosis had been good. Days before her death, we were told she had years – maybe as many as 10 of them – to live. I didn’t think about death; I didn’t want to let it jinx anything by letting its shape enter my consciousness. Ten days later, I was in a hospital room with Nell and our father when a consultant knelt by her bed and told her she had a day to live. I wanted to tell death to stop, to block it from entering the room, to scream at death that I wasn’t ready for it to take her from me. But death when it comes, is unstoppable. So I stood by her bed with her as death came into the room and did its thing.
I was undone. My bright world turned dark with a physical, emotional, spiritual pain that overtook it. I felt ripped open and often all I wanted to do was lie on the floor and scream. I have five children so I knew I wouldn’t take my own life, but I fantasised about vanishing into the place I’d come from, before I was born, and finding my sister there.
“How are you?” kind friends said, and I didn’t know how to tell them the truth, which was heartbroken, demented, bereft, insane and very, very angry, so instead I said fine, I’m fine, and they would reply they could not imagine what I was going through. I felt alone, quickly learning that society really doesn’t want heartbroken, demented, bereft, insane and very, very angry people walking around, although believe me, there are many of us, all around you, since the people we love are dying all the time.
Language, I realised, was failing me every time I tried to speak, so instead I started to write about how I felt inside, a record of how I navigated that first year, which became The Red of My Blood. I didn’t know how to manifest this furious pain in my life, but I wanted to record the otherness of it. I rang a bereavement support group and they pointed me in the direction of some downloadable leaflets. I didn’t want to download anything. I wanted to bury myself alive with a golden chariot or send a flaming ship out into the middle of an ocean. I needed actions that matched the enormity of my feelings, because there was a cathedral collapsing inside my soul every day, and I wanted to know how to express it.
This thing that felt like the failure of language made me also think about what we reach for to find comfort or bravery, and where we go when life is frightening. The thing I turn to is horses, which have played a huge role in mine and Nell’s lives. We grew up with scruffy ponies in muddy fields deep in the Wiltshire countryside. When we were teenagers, our mother had a terrible riding accident that left her acutely brain damaged, but if anything this bound Nell and me even closer to horses. They represented a kind of resilience and melancholy bound together which we have both turned to all our lives. So in the weeks after Nell’s death, the place I could make sense of myself was alone outside, on my horse. I could be brave there, almost heroic. I could scream and cry, and my horse wouldn’t judge my snotty face and weird voice. I could terrify myself, too, and that made my heart race, and helped me feel alive.
The other place I found solace was in poetry. In Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest poem in the world, I read: “Death lives in the house where my bed is and wherever I set my feet, there Death is,” which was consoling, since wherever I set my feet, death was there, too. The older the poetry I read, the better I understood that these massive, difficult sensations going on inside me while I was also making a cheese sauce for lasagne, or pulling wet washing from the drum, were feelings women and men like you and me have been experiencing since the beginning of time.
Our society might struggle to provide us with the language of grief in everyday life – I cannot begin to imagine what you are going through – but writers in the Middle Ages had all the words for loss. Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, L’Morte D’Arthur, are full of the images of loss and death and how we survive and endure when we are the ones left alive and those we love are dead. Reading poetry helped me find meaning for what Nell’s death was doing, which was sending me on a quest. Learning how to live without her was the grail I was searching for.
Losing someone you love very much and are closer to than anyone else alive, is lonely. No one can feel what you must feel but you. But while Nell’s death felt like it severed a part of me from the past, I also experienced something completely new, which was an urgent, fizzing feeling of life and colour moving somewhere deep inside me, that I couldn’t explain but couldn’t ignore. It was disorientating but oddly beautiful, like putting a kaleidoscope of vivid light over the lens of my life. And grief wasn’t, I was learning, the dark, muted, muffle it’s often described as, but a strange alchemy of violently colliding colours, which represented all the big feelings I had inside me. And poetry – old poetry, Anglo Saxon poetry and Medieval poetry – was the place I found the words I’d been looking for to express this.
In my head, I started to spend longer and longer with the knights I met in medieval poetry – Galahad, Gawain, Arthur Pendragon, Lancelot. Rather than asking me to download leaflets or telling me my grief was unimaginable, I felt they were showing me how to move into the future. They had left the security of court – with its roaring fires and jesters and banquets – to quest alone as a way of testing themselves in the same way I was being tested by grief.
When I rode into the fields around my home, or even walked down the streets of the small town nearby, I sometimes imagined the knights were with me. They were beautiful and courageous and propelled me forward at a time when every part of me wanted to stretch backwards to the time my sister was last alive. I am grateful to those knights – and the poets who wrote them – since they helped me see grief could, if I chose, be an intensely creative act. Because when someone we love dies, we have an opportunity to create change and evolve, even, much though we might resist that at first. We are left with a life we do not want – since the person we love is dead – but the brutal fact is that this is the only life we have. For a long time after Nell died, I wanted to stretch backwards to return to live in the time when she was alive. I wanted to do this but, of course, I could never get there again. So grief is agony, but after some time I realised this big, unwanted feeling could also be something I could use in a different way, by using it as the impetus to create a life that’s more vivid, because of my experience of becoming acquainted with death, not despite it. This isn’t easy. It requires daily practice to make it happen. It’s also something that will happen to everyone. In our lifetimes, we will all be changed by death. We will all lose people we love who we thought we couldn’t survive without. This is an inescapable fact of life. Our society may not have the language to help us navigate this, but as individuals, we can find our own beautiful, odd ways of getting through it.
Horses, poetry and writing my book were where I found this, but as more time passes since Nell died, the more I learn about these beautiful ways we heal through mourning and the extraordinary and normal places we find comfort. Since his daughter, my sister, died, my father has practised his guitar and sung every day. He now sings at open-mic sessions, and I know this is an expression of both the way he misses Nell, and his love for her.
I also see the teenage boy who is a friend of my son’s, who shapes his grief for a friend killed last year on a motorbike, by sitting meditating on the riverbank where they fished together; the mother who lost her child to meningitis, setting up a charity that will save thousands of children; the friend who is moving forward from her partner’s death in embroidering stunning, multi-coloured tapestries. There are so many ways grief teaches us new ways to live.
And I find solace in the idea that a good life, a vivid life, might be one in which we are, like those knights, called out on our own quest to reimagine and recreate our lives after great loss. Because if you asked Gawain whether his life had more meaning in the safety of court, or out alone as he rode towards the Green Knight’s castle, I think he would reply he was most alive, out there, on his quest. I chose my knights and their poetry to take me across the plains of loss, because they were the symbols that made sense to me. I wonder, what would you choose?
The Red of My Blood, a Death and Life Story by Clover Stroud (DoubleDay, £16.99), is available from guardianbookshop.com for £14.78
Follow Clover on Instagram @cloverstroud