Anatomy of Grief

I went to a funeral yesterday. The service was to say goodbye to Denni Schnapp, who committed suicide on 17 January, after years of struggling with depression. She was 48. She had been a member of the T Party writers’ group for many years, and that’s how I knew her.

There were maybe a dozen people representing the writing group at the funeral. Funeral services are, of course, always sombre affairs. Denni was an atheist. Her funeral service was humanist – celebrating her life, and giving everyone permission to mourn her death. Accepting the person she was, and the way she chose to die, without judgement.

Following the service there was a wake, held at the pub that had been Denni’s local. There I met others who had shared Denni’s life, and it became clear that there were so many facets to her that I had never known about. We knew Denni the writer. Others there had known Denni the scientist, Denni the scholar, Denni the traveller. It seemed she compartmentalised these facets of her life, presenting the face that was most appropriate. There were very few people indeed who knew every side of her.

The tragic news about Denni reached us two weeks ago. I can’t communicate the story behind this quite as eloquently as a fellow T Party member has already expressed on her blog, so go read it now. Come back when you’re done, and I’ll finish my story.

For two weeks after Denni’s death I felt like I was wading through treacle. Getting out of bed every morning was a struggle. I dragged myself through the business of the day, finding it hard not to fall asleep at my desk, and yet when night came I lay awake, unable to sleep. I attributed this to the weather. It was dark and cold in the mornings. There was snow on the ground, and January is a notoriously depressing month. I had some variation of Seasonally Affected Disorder, maybe.

I realise now that I was in a state of grief. This revelation came as a surprise. Denni was not a close friend. The death of my grandparents did not hit me as hard as her death appeared to. But in retrospect, I suppose one expects to outlive one’s grandparents. I reached the age of 26 with four living grandparents – I’d had many years to prepare myself emotionally for the inevitability of their passing, and when it came (and they all died with a span of three years), I was sad, but I could accept it. The death of someone who was of my generation, someone with whom I shared the common interest of writing, has affected me in ways I could not have anticipated.

Denni was someone I knew socially, and I realise now I did not know her well. But I’ve chatted to her. I’ve drank with her, most notoriously at Heather Graham’s infamous pierside party at HorrorCon 2010 in Brighton, where there was a free bar. I’ve critiqued her work and had her critique mine. She had a towering intellect, to the point that the rest of humanity seemed way down the evolutionary scale. She wrote hard SF stories that often featured groups of humans adapting to life on an alien world. The research was meticulous, with every detail of the ecosystem considered and accounted for. She was fascinated by humanity, but often seemed unable to connect with it – in the way that a scientist might study a beetle under a microscope.

The way she chose to die should not have surprised anyone who knew her – she had broadcast her intentions often enough in the public domain – but her death still came as a shock. Mental illness is a tragedy. I often say I get depressed, but my kind of depression is pretty lightweight from a clinical perspective. I have days when a black cloud hangs over my head for no apparent reason. When getting out of bed is a struggle, and I go through the motions of life feeling no joy. But I have never – not for a second – considered ending it all. When it comes down to the bare bones, I want to live. That most basic of human instincts – survival – will always kick in. And intellectually I know the black cloud will move on, as suddenly as it appeared, in a few days. Because it always does. Those who suffer real depression, clinical depression, have some chemical imbalance in the brain that seems to over-ride that survival instinct, and sometimes it leads to them feeling the only release is death. Because Denni was an atheist, she did not even believe that she was going to a better place. I find it incredibly heartbreaking that for her, complete oblivion was preferable to the pain of living.

All of these feelings have been churning away in my brain for the last two weeks, but I was not able to differentiate and define them. Only when I was on my way home yesterday after leaving the wake, did the cloud suddenly lift and I was able to identify it at last. It was grief. Grief for someone who passed through my life and left an indelible impression.

I now feel I understand grief in a way I never have before. Death is painful, but inevitable. Grief is a part of the process. Grief affects people in different ways. It can’t be predicted, and it can’t be denied. The only way to be able to move on from death is to embrace the grief, and let it take its course. The lady who led Denni’s funeral service began with words that pretty much reflected this sentiment. I now understand what she meant.

Goodbye, Denni. I feel privileged to have known you. I am sorry that you could not find peace in life. Those of us whose lives crossed with yours are all the richer for it.


1 comment so far

  1. Gaie Sebold on

    Thank you for this. I haven’t been able to write about Denni’s death yet; I haven’t been able to process my own feelings. I just keep feeling I missed the chance to know someone really special much better than I did.


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