The Rituals of Grief

with Clover Stroud

So many of us have experienced a before… and an after.

The lovely writer Clover Stroud had her before and after at a young age. When she was 16, her mom was in a horse-riding accident that left her severely disabled until she died… 22 years later. The suddenness of that accident layered with the ongoingness of that level of caregiving bonded Clover and her big sister, Nell in remarkable ways. Then, Nell unexpectedly died.




Clover Stroud

Clover Stroud is a writer and journalist, writing regularly for the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the Saturday and Sunday Telegraph, among others. She also hosts a popular podcast called Tiny Acts of Bravery. Her first book, The Wild Other, was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize. Her critically acclaimed second book, My Wild and Sleepless Nights: A Mother's Story, and third book, The Red of My Blood: A Death and Life Story, were instant Sunday Times bestsellers and rated 'best books of the year. She is currently living in Washington DC with her husband and the youngest three of her five children.

Show Notes

You can learn more about the talented Clover Stroud as an author, journalist, and broadcaster on her webpage. Clover also has a podcast, Tiny Acts of Bravery.

Read more about Clover’s reflections on grief and the passing of her sister in The Red of my Blood: A Death and Life Story.

Clover’s sister owned her own circus, Giffords Circus. Learn more about her sister’s life and her funeral in they BBC article, Nell Gifford funeral: Celebrities among mourners in Gloucester.

The White Horse of Uffington is a geogplyph that stretches 360 Feet from head to tail.

In this discussion Kate and Clover talk about the color of pain being bright. Kate mentions Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss: a meditation of a Modern Believer. Kate also mentions a book written by Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

Kate talked with comedian Rob Delaney about grief and what not to say to a grieving parent in A Heart that Works is a Heart that Hurts.

John Swinton is a theologian and mental health nurse. Kate talks with John about needing more rituals around a living death. Learn more about John’s theology in these two podcast, The Speed of Love and The Art of Presence.


Discussion Questions

  1. Clover describes her family’s experiences after her mother’s accident as going “through a war together.” What other metaphors are helpful when you consider how families navigate trauma together? 
  1. In the Old Testament, the book of Ecclesiastes says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. [God] has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV). Kate and Clover discuss this beauty, including beauty in the midst of deep grief. Where have you been attuned to beauty in your life recently? 
  1. Clover describes the power of ritual, especially as she encountered her mother’s funeral. Some rituals can be found in houses of worship; other rituals spring up organically through our families and communities. Where do you find ritual and familiarity in the midst of suffering? 


Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. So many of us have experienced a before and an after. A time before you knew that life was fragile and could come apart at any moment and a time after. When you can’t go back, you can’t un-know. You are changed. You’re probably thinking about yours now. These are the truths that bond us together. My lovely listening community. We know. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, that happens to us when we’re grown. We don’t experience firsthand those out-of-order deaths. Like my friend, Liz Tichenor calls them. Isn’t that a perfect phrase? Out of order. Or those nonsensical tragedies that take life apart in an instant. But for others, it happens much younger and it changes us, I think. In the best versions, if we can even say that, it makes us more attuned with others, more empathetic, more understanding. Maybe also more prone to anxiety disorders? And when you meet someone like that, you know. You just know they know.

Kate: My friend Clover had her before and after at a young age. She had the dream of a childhood––just, like equestrian delights. But in one day, Clover’s life changed entirely. When she was 16, her mom was in a horse riding accident, and then she suffered a serious brain injury that left her severely disabled until she died 22 years later. The suddenness of that tragedy layered with the ongoingness of that level of caretaking bonded Clover and her big sister, Nell, in remarkable ways. Clover is a gorgeous writer. Her book, The Red of My Blood, describes the year that follows the terrible thing that happened next. Her sister, Nell, her absolutely incredible sister, died. If you like the book, A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, you’re going to love Clover and her incredible mind and writing. She has this way of capturing the exact visceral feeling of grief like no one else I know. The pain, the beauty, the staying wide awake to the life that’s in front of us, despite it all. The, “how do I go on parenting with all of this grief” or the “give me a sign” feeling that we crave when our loved ones are gone. I went to visit Clover at her farm outside of Oxford in England. Oh, my gosh, it was so beautiful. Like, everyone’s home is like a museum. You know what I mean? To the life they have. Seeing her sit in the middle of her museum to all of her love, talking about the things that almost destroy us, but also form us in some remarkable ways, too. I hope you like it. I know you’re going to love her.

Kate: Clover. You have the most beautiful home. Thank you so much for having me in it.

Clover Stroud: It’s really, really lovely that you’re here.

Kate: I think, too, when you’re in someone’s home, you get a sense of the memories on memories and memories. Yeah. And it’s a perfect way to think about the gorgeous book that you’ve written about your sister, who, sounds like, was just a dream of a person.

Clover: She was a really, really extraordinary person. And even saying was, you know, even that thing of talking about her in the past tense. I mean, I do, obviously. But she… and sometimes I feel that since her death after the first year, that, that almost her presence becomes when you’re in a kind of tsunami of confusion and, um emotional chaos, really, aren’t you? That now I feel her presence sort of pulsating in a really more and more positive way. I mean, it will be coming up on four years this year, and it changes the process of grieving for her and then living with her, I suppose, living, you know, with her, her death. And yet her presence at the same time becomes a bigger and bigger thing for me and it becomes richer and more…interesting and more beautiful and sometimes more painful. But yeah, but yeah, it’s just there. She’s there.

Kate: What was she like when she walked in a room?

Clover: So she, Nell had her own circus, you know? I mean, that, first of all, tells you that we’re talking about quite an unusual person. And she was two years older than me. And we were, we were the youngest of five and our elder siblings were quite a lot older than us. So we’ve grown up together very, very tight in the house, a bit like this, with long, you know, lawn with long grass growing out of control and chickens walking in and ponies outside. And our mum was really loving and she really, really loved us and she gave us this kind of…surrounding, this like, coating of absolute love. And Nell was, from a little girl, Nell, was a really unusual little girl and she was obsessed by circus from a really young age. And our dad worked in TV. So there was a kind of air of, you know, films and, and plays and stuff going around the props and things around. And she would often just create shows. She was like the sort of Pied Piper. So if there was, like, a family party, then all the little kids would want to be following Nell. And then when she finished at university, she she was determined to have her own circus. So she went off and joined smaller circuses, like making popcorn and candyfloss. And then she graduated to ringmistress and riding horses. And then in about 1999, she started her own circus, which became a very successful thing. So she was, she was also like a massive diva, You know. She was…she wasn’t an easy person to be around. She was a true artist and an incredibly creative person. So when you say, what would it be like if she walked into the room, she was very serious and quite shy, but it would be as though she filled the room. Her presence and what she was doing filled the room. But she was––we were so, so close. We could have huge rows, like violently huge rows. But because we were so close, within a day, you know, we’d be picking up and talking about plans to meet up with our kids and have a picnic or just chatting. And I miss so much the feeling of being able to connect with her over things that nobody else understands. We went through a lot of deep trauma as young people in our mum. We had this like, perfect, perfect childhood, basically. And then when I was 16 and Nell was 18, mum had a raging accident which left her profoundly mentally and physically disabled. So our kind of beautiful childhood, in the course of a day, it just suddenly, was, was over. But also not over in… I think living, living with brain damage of somebody you really, really, really love is more confusing and more destabilizing and more deranging, really than, than death. I really believe that now, because you lose the person, they’re totally gone, and yet you cannot go through the normal grieving process or the normal movement around death that goes on. And you don’t have the rituals of funerals and, and, and that whole kind of scaffold of, you know, of grief. I suppose instead you’re wanting this person to be alive, and they are alive, but they’re not there. She wasn’t there at all. So, so and she remained, mum remained in that state for 22 years. So… And I think that made me and Nell like,  as adolescents, we had this really strange adolescence of living in a big house and our dad was away working because he had to pay for the whole thing and, you know, support us because we were kids still, so and yet Mum was really just disabled. So we had this strange combination of like, your ultimate teenage fantasy of complete and utter freedom to do exactly what we wanted. And yet within this terrifying, traumatic, sad kind of background of what happened to Mum. And I think that that made me, from the age of 16… Like, I think of it––prelapsarian is the word I often use to describe it, because it was as though the time before was so beautiful. Yeah. And then it ended in the space of a day. And I’m really fascinated by that kind of pre-, you know, pre- and post-trauma experience. And I think because mum didn’t die because she went on living it gave Nell and I a kind of ongoing sense of grief and trauma and death being present in your life all the time. Yeah. And so from the age of 16, I was always really fascinated and interested and interested by people who had extreme experiences. You know, I don’t want to like, chit-chat. I want to get down to the big stuff straightaway.

Kate: Yes, exactly. Precisely. Yes. And to have somebody all intertwined, I mean, to have a sister, to have a sister. And have a sister that you’ve been through the beginning and the end of a world with.

Clover: Mmm, mmm. That’s such a good description. It’s such a good description.

Kate: It’s different to have a two-peas-in-the-pod kind of feeling with someone who then, you know, shares the stories. “Remember that stupid cartoon…what was the book that said…” All that stuff. But then to have them not just as a friend and confidant, but as a witness. I think that’s a different thing altogether.

Clover: Yeah. It is. It is a witness. And it is like having been through…we went through a war together. Yes. And the war didn’t really end, because that’s the other thing that I learned about trauma, which is that, that once it’s kind of right inside you… What happened to my mum was so and because we were adolescents as well as we were forming ourselves as adults.

Kate: And becoming.

Clover: Yeah, becoming. And it became who we are. And I really feel that this traumatic experience is part of my DNA. It had an utterly devastating effect on every single element of my life, and it sort of destroyed the heart of my family, and I think about it all the time. And yet it absolutely formed me and has been a massively motivating creative force in my life. You know, Nell started a circus. She probably would have started a circus anyway, because that’s the kind of person she was. She started the circus, I went off and lived in a horse-drawn wagon for two years, buying and selling horses. And I went to, lived in Texas for a couple of years and worked on a ranch there as a cowgirl, did a lot of travel in southern Russia. We both went towards quite kind of well, very extreme, quite dangerous…

Kate: Existentially fraught and real and alive.

Clover: Yeah, Utterly alive. Yeah, Utterly, utterly alive. Yes. Mum died in 2013, and I remember thinking… It took about ten years of thinking, “Mum’s going to, like, she’s going to get better. Maybe with the right therapy and art therapy.” After about ten years, we realized she wasn’t going to get better. And then I remember really coming to the very difficult thing that I wished for, which was for my mum to die for this whole thing to be over, for her pain. She was in great physical pain. We were all in great every kind of pain. I wanted her to die, and to hold that thought of this mother who you and I was the youngest child. And I absolutely adored her and adored every element of her, and she gave me this, this, like, Teflon-coated love. But I wanted her to die. And then when she died, I thought was pressing up against the glass wall. And I was going to break through this glass wall and on the other side there was going to be a kind of peaceful place where you’re not living with a brain damaged..and the language of brain damage. And she was constantly, sort of, on…she was constantly getting infections. And, you know, she was constantly about to die for 22 years. And then when she died on the other side of that glass window, I found there was more trauma and more loss. You know, it wasn’t as though you broke through. And then and then there was a peace of ease.

Kate: You had a moment when you’re when you’re talking about your sister’s funeral, about when people want to put a pin in the precise moment where this will hurt the most. Like it’s right now. This is it. I like, that’s, that’s just––my heart stopped there from me because that is, I mean, it’s such a, it’s such a hope. Every time we think, oh, no, this is the moment where I feel burned alive, surely, then, this is the moment. Yeah. And it’s part of, I mean, I think it’s part of what our minds and our hearts are doing where we say, like, I have summited this mountain, it can finally go down.

Clover: Yeah, but actually, you realize, there’s another one!

Kate: That’s right! Exactly.

Clover: And that realization is so valuable. And I think I got to the top of the mountain when I was a teenager. And I think one of the things I’m interested by. At what point in your life do you get to the top of that mountain where you realize there’s another one? Because in 2013 Mum died, and then in 2015, Nell was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And it seemed just impossible to believe that having, that after having been through what Mum had experienced, that now, Nell was now going into this kind of place of like she was kind of facing the, facing the darkest thing possible. And she really dealt with that by really, really flinging herself into her work and into her creativity. And her creativity became kind of––so she has, she creates this beautiful circus, which is not a kind of––when you say circus, I think people quite often think of something a bit shabby or a bit depressing. But her circus was beautiful burgundy wagons, it was like a kind of dream fantasy of what a circus should be. But she had a circus. She was also writing cookbooks, she was doing massive embroideries, she created hundreds of paintings, which were sold off, she dealt an exhibition after her death. Wow. She, her… It was as though being close to death for her, kind of… Creativity was the place that…where she found some kind of, some kind of solace, and some kind of… I don’t think she found peace. I don’t want to say that she found peace because it wasn’t peaceful for her and I know very well how much anguish she was in, but she found a place to exist. To be there.

Kate: Well, it’s a beautiful way to put it. She found a place to exist.

Clover: So The Red of My Blood is about the first year after her death. And it’s like, what grief feels like. And I wrote it partly because I couldn’t––I wanted to read that book myself. And I was in a place of such, such pain and such kind of fear of, where was this going? Was I going to feel as as as in pain and as, and as kind of crazed and as miserable and broken? I remember looking at people who’d been through great loss and thinking, “Well, how the hell are they doing this?” Like, what are they doing?

Kate: Yes, “What is this?” Yeah, because it felt like there’s two questions: Can I, can I possibly survive the weight of this love? That always feels like an ongoing question. And then, and then the feeling of “Where can I find you? Where can I find you, where can I find you? You’re so good at describing that feeling. Are you here? Are you here? How many sparrows in the whole world can hold the memory of you, reminded me of something. Is it this rainbow? Is it that star? Where do I find you? Especially because we feel so… Love makes us feel so permeable, you know, so it can’t just be, well, death is the end of love, it just never is. So the chasing and feeling, and feeling like, the hurricane of it makes so much sense to me when you describe.

Clover: The hurricane, exactly. And the kind of, the torrent of feelings, but also the torrent of beauty that came with it. I mean, that’s what I was really aware of when I first started thinking about how to write about grief. I thought about various books I’d read about grief, and they often had a kind of, grayish or blue dark-ish cover with maybe the outline of some leaves or an outline of a winter tree or something. And I thought, that’s not what grief feels like to me. That’s not what I’m feeling like now. I’m feeling as though I’m, like, going to explode with the amount of pain in my head. And that pain is bright colors. And, you know, when you’re, like, walking around and you stub your toe on the edge of a table, that is a colorful feeling as well, isn’t it? That doesn’t feel like the most, that extreme pain, or cut yourself really badly––that is a colorful feeling.

Kate: There’s so many, there’s, I feel like in my mind there’s a little list of when people say it. Like, um, poet, Christian Wiman calls it “my bright abyss.” One woman I knew who wrote a beautiful book in the last few months of her life called The Bright Hour. And it was the feeling of, like, the shimmeriness of dusk. And she’s looking at her kids. And I, I felt the same way. I thought I was going to die in nine months. And the brightness is such an intense part of my memory and my experience. Like, okay, I don’t mean for this to be like the… My brother-in-law, um, murders bears with a bow and arrow as part of one of his businesses. And killing bears is an intense thing. But they, they have this moan that they do right when they’re hit, like they know, because they know. And the sound they make is almost unlistenable. It’s so visceral, really. But it’s so beautiful. It’s called the death moan. But they’ll all––but it’s, it’s a song. And I did feel that way, sometimes, where––and some of it is like “ahhhhhh” and then some of it is… but it, it demands something. It’s like it’s asking for something back from the world, I think. And it’s not just an “I got robbed” sound, but there is something about…about the crystalline quality of that kind of love.

Clover: Mm hmm. Yeah. And the kind of… When Nell was diagnosed, she had stage four cancer, but she had, and her oncologist had said to her a few days before she died that he was keeping the cancer at bay. Although it was moving fast, he did give her like five to even potentially as an outside chance, ten years. So we’d been feeling quite jubilant. But when she died, she died very, very suddenly. She…she was in hospital and she got liver failure, basically because of the chemotherapy. And she had been kind of fine, she’d been traveling, she’d been buying horses for her show. She’d been like, with her boyfriend in Cuba. And then she was in hospital. And then the doctor rang me and said, “You have to come now.” And she had a day to live. And I remember being in the hospital in that kind of very gray, generic hospital kind of corridor with a feeling of a massive… And it almost sounds like a cliche, like the idea of the Angel of Death, but it was as though I could feel death coming into the room in the same way that when you give birth, there’s nothing you can do to stop that birth coming, death was coming in the same way. And it was like her, she had an extraordinarily beautiful death. And I feel very privileged to have been in those moments with her when all of the closest family was with her. And we sang to her and read to her and prayed with her. And she became, you know, she went out of consciousness eventually. But in the aftermath, I felt as though, I felt as though I was going to die of pain. I felt as though I was going to die of pain. But I also felt as though everything was so much more. The world around me was, was what we were talking about, this kind of glittering colors. Not all the time, you know, but there were moments, if I looked, when it was there. And sometimes I want to say to people, in the early stages of grief––which is obviously a very difficult thing to say to them, because you have to you can’t say it’s everybody––but like, be alive to what’s happening to you now. This is an extraordinary time of your life, of YOUR life.

Kate: Yes. That’s really wise.

Clover: And this is like, you are the kind of, I think that that early stage is almost like pre-funeral, and Nell died just before Christmas. So there was––she wasn’t buried until after Christmas. We actually had a whole month, where you feel as though you are split open and everything is kind of bubbling and sparkling.

Kate: Aren’t we all so beautiful? I kept thinking that, like at a grocery store, like everybody at the, in the hospital. I’d just look over and somebody is just like tucking a little strand of hair. And I would think, “Aren’t we just so beautiful?”

Clover: Yeah. Yeah.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: And then you were describing the funeral as being, what was supposed to be a moment of like, “And then I did the work. And then the work will lead me to this place where now I can like, seal up maybe a little bit of this open wound, and then it will slowly get easier.” Later, when you were like, “I would plan a funeral every single day, just to have something to do, as opposed to whatever the hell this is.”

Clover: That’s the ritual, isn’t it? And that is the ritual. So I was brought up in the Church of England. My, my grandfather was a vicar, and we grew up right next door to a church. Mom used to make us go to the church, this village church. And Nell and I would sit there, bored, really bored children in church. And we went every Sunday. And when, and then, after Mom died, I kind of stopped going sometimes. But then when she died, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I am so grateful for the fact that I understand and know these, that these words of some prayers and some psalms and some hymns, like, are completely familiar to me. And walking into a church is familiar to me. Because what you want, what I want is, and I think what a lot of people want around death is, is ritual and solemnity. And that’s a really hard thing to find in the world that we live in now. And the kind of…bereavement support groups like don’t fulfill the thing that you want, which is to send a burning ship out into the middle of the ocean.

Kate: Totally. Absolutely.

Clover: Or to be in a room with, like, candles, which are six feet tall, and chanting and darkness and incense. That’s what you want. And actually that’s what I kind of want a lot of days, just in normal life, to be able to feel normal life as well. And where do you find that solemnity and where do you find that ritual? I don’t re––I mean, I do I do find it when I go to church. Sometimes I, sometimes don’t find it when I go to church, but I look for it in my life now and cannot always access it.

Kate: Yeah. You know, when you were describing the…interminable pain of ongoing, of your mom’s ongoing suffering, it reminded me of my friend, John Swinton, is a theologian and mental health nurse. And he worked with people with severe brain disability for years and years before he started writing spiritual books. But he, but he said that was one of the…that was one of the areas that needed most, kind of tending to, is because there was no ritual around a living death. Then so much of it, then, had to be invented. You know, he would work with people who would then, like, go to the river and, and like, and, and, and host a funeral for the person that they used to be in order to just even create any traction around, how do you get to do the ongoing work of grieving without having to keep that one original open sore open in the same way forever? So I think that makes sense that like, the rituals that support us do good work, and then when we don’t have them, we really do feel the absence of them, I think.

Clover: Yeah, it’s funny because too, so, where we live here, I live near a place called the Ridgeway, which is this ancient route, which is thousands of years old. It’s up on the hills, and then that route is like, covered with standing stones and all of this chalk horse, Uffington White Horse, which was, which was put on the hill 4000-ish years ago. We don’t know why. It’s the outline of a horse. There are standing stones at Avebury, there are standing stones at like, this place called Wayland Smithy. Being around that landscape does help me to kind of touch a feeling of something ritualized, I suppose. And I have found myself going to that place. And also because my relationship with my mum, because we grew up, you know, I grew up near here. So my relationship with my mum and my sisters very much embodied within that sacred landscape, I suppose. And I feel lucky to have, to have that. And kind of sometimes I want to like, lie down in the earth and kind of press yourself right into it in a very physical, almost erotic way.

Kate: Rob Delaney, the other day, whose beautiful book about grief and the death of his son is so stunning, and I was like, I said something like, “What can people do to be supportive?” And he’s like, “Well, they can pick my other kids up for a minute to babysit so that I can go lie in the earth, face down and have it absorb me and then have the snails drink my tears.” And I was like, “Yes! That’s healing.”

Clover: Yes, that’s it! Exactly.

Kate: Yes. And have the snails drink my tears sounds exactly like what I want to do. Especially if I’m just on the edge of…I don’t know, I think we just, like, come to the edge of how we know how to be a person. And we need something else to kind of take some of the weight.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: The things that people say that, that like, exile us from feeling understood or loved or held in any way…you’ve had some strong feelings about the phrase “I can’t possibly imagine,” in which maybe they don’t want to imagine.

Clover: Yeah, well that’s, I mean, exile is a really interesting word to say, like, because when you are grieving in the beginning but you do feel exiled from normal life, don’t you? And I walked around this kitchen with my, you know, my five kids and my husband are all here. And they were sad. They were really, really, really sad. But it, but, but they weren’t…hadn’t lost their sister who they lived with through everything. And so, so I felt that in here, amongst the people who loved me and held me the most. When you go outside and then have to go to Tesco’s or go in to do something, it’s as though, you know, the world is just carrying on in the most offensively blithe, uncaring way, and you are in a place of exile. I describe it as like, drinking, as though you’ve taken some poison or you’ve got an awful secret that you didn’t want to share with anybody else because you don’t want to completely ruin that day as well in the same way that it’s ruining your day. And the place…that is… that’s the sort of loneliness of grief, I think is a real shock. And that’s why these kind of conversations are really, really important to remind us that the grief that we share is a common experience. And I think Nick Cave wrote something recently about, you know, his kind of diabolical grief over the death of his teenage son. There was something really extraordinary, he said, about understanding that what he was experiencing, which felt so peculiar to him, and so personal, and so much worse than anything anybody had experienced was a normal grief that many, many thousands and, you know, people are experiencing at the same time. And that way of trying to find the point of connection with other people. So when people say to you, I cannot begin to understand how you’re feeling, they’re saying, I can’t begin to understand how you’re feeling over there, in your pain, and I want you to stay over there in your pain. Don’t let your pain come flooding into my life, which I am holding in some way. And I think that it’s so important when you meet people…when they’re grieving, when they’re bereaved, even just in life, they don’t have, you don’t have to be in pain to do this, is to try and connect. But, but when somebody has lost somebody they love, don’t say I can’t imagine. Oh, even worse was “I couldn’t cope without my sister,” you know, as though, “Oh I can, I can cope fine without my sister, it’s okay, this is what it looks like,” you know. Because actually what I was feeling was, I’m not coping without my sister. And yet, you know, we have to. You have to. Because the extraordinary thing is, is that the beautiful, magnificent, appalling, devastating life continues, you know, and that fact, that rolling forward of time and needs and life is is so grotesque and yet is so amazing and so extraordinary.

Kate: Is there a UK version of––because one of the..I’m an American religious historian and one of the most predominant American cultural scripts in response is just, just a positive mental reframing. It’s a therapeutic pushback that will then say, well, if I just help you reframe, you’re going to, then, then the positive momentum will carry you away. Yeah, you know, so it’s, any iteration of like, well, negative grief, catastrophic loss will yield negative but positive allows us to… Is there a UK version of like keep that to yourself, thank you so much.

Clover: I think the version is, is to just not mention that person or to, you know, cross onto the other side of the road when you see the person who is in pain. Or to just ignore the fact that…or there is a thing of like, oh, people often say, you know, “I’m expected to move on.” Oh, you must be you know, it’s been a while, you must be feeling better or you must be moving on. And what often you hear is a kind of howl of desire from people who are bereaved to be allowed to talk about the person and mention the person and say their name. And I think it’s really important when somebody has died, and maybe particularly if it’s somebody that you didn’t know, but say your friends or colleague or their dad, who you might not have known to talk about him and say, where did he like to go on holiday? What do you like to do together? Like little details. What did he like to wear or… And obviously, you have to find the appropriate moment of how to do that. You can’t just like, first question, but to give somebody an opportunity to articulate their relationship with the person they’ve lost is really, is really, really important. And I think, you know, we were so embarrassed in this country by sex and death and we’re so embarrassed by talking about death because we think we’re going to upset. You know, if you talk to me about Nell’s death, it’s going to upset me. Yeah, it is. But like, of course it is! And it should do. And that’s the whole point. And to feel the stuff is the whole point of life. And you can’t…you can’t be a human being without feeling acute pain. And the more that we allow that pain to, you know, to like, come into us and flood through us and become part of us. And when I, when I wrote the Red of My Blood, I really wanted to like… I felt as though death was done. I wanted, as though I couldn’t see. I wanted to like, put my hands on the face of death and feel the shape that death made and what that was like to live with death, with me in the room. So I’d seen death do its thing to Nell, take Nell away. And I wanted to be really close to death. Not to, not to kind of move on and run away and feel like, okay, the funeral’s done, right, let’s get back to normal. But to really, really live with that presence. And there is that first, we were talking about a moment ago about, the immediate aftermath when the physical loss of this person. Yes, she’s a monumental person, like, where have you gone? Where have you gone? Where have you gone? And I’d say the first six months of the grieving process was like trying to stabilize my mind around the fact that she had gone and looking for her and looking in all the signs and sometimes believing. When I saw these two deer, that’s her. And then feeling just so angry with myself. But it was, it was when I sort of stopped directly looking for her, stopped wanting her voice to answer me. Because when somebody dies to start with, you think you can… you think, you know, I really used to go walk out on the fields around the house here and talk to her and think that the sky was going to kind of crack open and a hologram was going to appear, you know, that I was going to hear her voice. And you’re just left with this, like, deafening silence. And it was when I sort of stopped looking, and I write about it as being out in the field. And horses are a really big parts of my life and like, looking for a horse, if you try and look––or say you’re in the house and you’ve lost your car keys, if you look directly for your car keys, you never find them. But if you sort of stop looking, you find them. And it’s like walking around in the dark of night looking for a horse in the field. Like if you look for this big black outline, you can’t see it. But if you look outside, you start seeing it. And that was when she…I really felt she returned to me as a…as we’d been as adolescents in a way, before cancer, before everything that happened to her, before the really, really acute pain of the last few years of her life was there. And there was a really extraordinary liberating beauty to that kind of return, I suppose. But it’s not a…it also, I think that makes it sound a bit trite, you know, it makes it sound as though over the course of a year I found a resolution and now I’m living happily with the memory of her. That is not the case.

Kate: No, I totally believe you. I really believe you. Other people, I wouldn’t believe. But you…

Clover: I’m living with really, really, really deep sadness and pain of her death and of her loss. And yet, I am aware that there’s a kind of, in grief and in death, not my death, in her death, there is a kind of breaking of the self that goes on. And for me, that goes on, and of my life. And it is in this sort of, you know, I also describe it––it’s like, it’s sort of, you know, your own personal Troy, or it’s like a cathedral collapsing, or it’s like something massive, completely collapsing. And from that place of utter collapse, you have to create something new. You can’t just like, stand up, dust yourself down and carry on walking. There was no way when Nell died that I could go back to the life that I had before, only Nell was dead. Like, that wasn’t an option at all, that would be that would be too, too horrifying, the idea that my life should be the same except she was dead. So there has to be a creation of something new. And I think that it’s in that moment of kind of––and I think it almost is a moment, when you, when you start moving with the life, that your own life, the living life around you, and you start…you start allowing that life to, to feel its energy and its vigor. And I feel as though living with her death is like, you know, you’re being given this really…it’s like me handing you the most beautiful, exquisite gift, but you really do not want that gift. You don’t want to look at it because that gift is, is Nell’s death. It’s your, you know, someone you love, their death. But if you take that gift, if you kind of allow yourself to accept it, you have to also, at the same time, continue to swallow on a daily basis a really bitter pill of somebody, of her, of her death, of her absence. But there is something really, really beautiful that’s being handed to you. And it’s very, very hard to take it. And, and it’s, yeah, it’s a gift that you don’t want. I would do anything to reach back to my life where my sister was alive. I don’t, I didn’t want to take it. But this is also your, you know, it’s your… This is your life as your one, probably your one life, you know, and realizing yourself, you know, you have to realize yourself. You have to realize the, the time that you have, you have to realize the fact of your own existence and move forward with that.

Kate: What if…what would you say to someone who’s too scared? They would say, “That’s fine for you. You seem like a deep person who is willing to existentially face…” They wanna be like, “You have a set of characteristics that allows you to do that, but I don’t have those set of characteristics.” I mean, one, it doesn’t matter. We all have to, regardless of whether or not we have a special personality. But like, what would you tell someone who’s scared that they can’t. They can’t live without… With all that love.

Clover: It does happen. And a friend of mine said to me a few weeks after Nell died, “I promise you it will get better.” I just remember thinking, it won’t, it won’t. This is it. I, my life…you know, there was Mom’s accident. There was Nell’s death. And now my life is ov––is kind of over. And I will go on living and I will look after my kids and I’ll be with my husband and I’ll probably be to have, like, some nice time. But my life is, is… And I kind of always felt quite peaceful about that. But I felt––and…because I couldn’t imagine joy and I couldn’t imagine happiness, I couldn’t imagine the excitement or mischievousness or lust or peace or anything. I couldn’t imagine any, any, anything nice other than this feeling of like, a deep kind of emptiness, an angry, dark, disbelieving emptiness that lasted for a long time. And then life, like pushes at you, pushes at you, it pushes at you. Sometimes, you know, I’ve got five kids, so sometimes I had to deal with all of them. How do you deal with the kids and get their packed lunches and help them with their university entrance and their driving lessons and find their peacoats whilst also feeling as though you are…like your heart is loads of fragments of broken glass inside you. How do you do that? And I spoke to a bereavement counselor. Well, I spoke to Julia Samuel, who’s actually like, one of THE experts, because I thought, I want to speak to somebody who… I don’t want to waste time with this like, I want to speak to the best, basically. And she said, go and give yourself, you know, go up to your room or whatever, quiet place and look at videos and look at Instagram videos of hers and look at her photos and just allow it to flood into you and give yourself that space to really feel every single part of the pain and scream and, and just let your body feel it all. And it is very, very physically painful. I mean, the physical pain of grief is extraordinary. And then, go and look after the children. And so create kind of like these precious places, like literal places that you can go to.

Kate: Oh, love. Thank you so much for this absolutely gorgeous conversation. The cracked open feeling. I, I have felt it. And it felt so beautiful to see all that love pouring in and out of the way that you… The way you describe not just being…it having happened, but being willing to be so radically changed by it. That is a kind of courage that I see all over you. And I’m so grateful to know you.

Kate: I love the way that Clover describes the enormity of her loss. Like a cathedral crumbling. Everywhere, dust. The landscape has been permanently changed. You can’t possibly look in a mirror without seeing yourself differently. So, if that’s you. Well, first, I am sorry. And I thought maybe we could bless that. A blessing for anyone who’s experienced this kind of loss. All right. Here goes. God, we are heartbroken in the face of so much grief. What could we possibly call blessed? Could we try? Blessed are we who allow ourselves to feel it. The impossibility of what was possible a second ago. The late decision, the casual stroll, the easy exchange and ordinary duty. A decent choice or a nothing one. The sweep of hours on a day that was like any other. Until it wasn’t. This is the place where nothing makes sense. This is the place where tears show up without permission. Blessed are we who allow our hearts to break. For it will be some time for this brittle unreality to release us back into the land of the living. We have seen and lost what we never should have. Blessed are we. Even in the moments when we are convinced, absolutely sure that there is nothing untouched by the ashes of loss. God, you are an architect. And everything I have is in ruins. Promise me that someday, something will stand. After so much fell.

Kate: All right, my loves. Thinking about you this week. Thanks for being people with me. This is a community like nothing I could have dreamed. Thank you. If this conversation was at all helpful for you, would you do me a favor and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify? It is a few annoying seconds of work, but it really makes a huge difference to how people find us and how people understand and support the show. And if you want to make sure that you always get the next episode, be sure to hit the subscribe button while you’re there, and then, behold, the new one will appear any time one drops. If this conversation resonated with you, my team curated a support guide that might be a gentle place to find some language and community while you’re in any kind of grief. So if you go to, you can find our grief support guide waiting for you. And of course, we would love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail and we might even use it on the air. Call us at 9193228731.

Kate: And really, thank you so much to all the people who make this an amazing group project. I have incredibly generous partners at the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment who make this kind of storytelling possible. I absolutely cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that, you know, that these kinds of stories about faith and life is what they want to support. So thank you. Thank you also to my academic home where I’ve been since I was 25. Duke Divinity School. Thank you. And to my podcast network, Lemonada, where their slogan is, “When life gives you lemons, listen to Lemonada.” And thank you to the team that I love so very much to the absolutely indispensable Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Westin, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, and Katherine Smith. Okay, darlings. Next week is going to be fun. I sit down face to face with one of my dear friends. It’s the writer David Brooks. And we talk about knowing people: how to foster empathy, how to deepen our friendships, how to show up to other people’s pain in life. I think you’re really going to like it. Okay. And then in the meantime, come find me online. I’m at @katecbowler. C because my parents gave me the middle name Christiane, when they were going through a diploma phase. Okay, This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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