Don’t Fear The Griever
When nosing about on Facebook, I am always struck by how much posing and pouting girls seem to do nowadays. Like a peacock trying to impress a mate, it’s all out there on show: moist lips parted, perky pushed boobs out, shoulders pulled back, tummy sucked in, all whilst wearing something that could easily pass for a nightie. I must sound very old-fashioned, but many of the poses these girls assume wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of the type of magazines which in the late 1970s were on the top shelf of the local newsagents, but which occasionally would appear hidden between copies of Jackie to freak-out an unsuspecting teenager (me), courtesy of sniggering schoolboys.
I grew up in a selfie-less generation. The nearest we got to a selfie was taking photographs in a Photo Booth in Woolworths in Northumberland Street in Newcastle, and no way would I have stripped down to my scanties to perch on a tiny stool hidden behind a curtain on the ground floor near the door. The entire process was fraught with difficulties: even if you did manage to get the stool to the right height and keep your eyes open despite the blinding flash of the shutter going off, there was always the threat that whilst hanging around waiting for the strip of doom to land, some lad would think it hysterical to do and hit and run of the delivery slot, grab your photos and deride them before you did. In an attempt to thwart any photographic terrorism, one technique was to grab them the moment you saw even a tiny edge of glossy paper appear and stuff them in your bag, thereby risking a thumb print on the still-wet photo or worse, a blob of bag-fluff stuck to your face, undoubtedly obliterating the one good shot out of the four. From about the age of fourteen, I used to keep an example of each strip in the back of my photograph album and here they are. It’s all anoraks, checked shirts and jumpers; not a pout or a perky boob in sight.
I find it worrying that so many young girls feel under such pressure to look perfect and live perfect lives. I only had the odd lad intent on sniggering to stress about; now, a bad photo on social media is available to be publicly shared, shamed and derided. Is it any wonder girls spend hours setting up the perfect shot so that online they look like the sexy sirens they long to be, instead of the reality, which is that they are dumpy and lumpy and spotty and gauche, but absolutely gloriously normal and gorgeous in a way that the young can’t see but those well past our teens look at with wistful envy?
During interviews for my book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis I’ve sometimes talked about how frightened people are of those grieving, how uncomfortable it can make people feel to see someone brokenhearted and in pain. Grief is uncomfortable to witness (but even worse to experience), and this image of raw grief doesn’t fit into our increasingly airbrushed Facebook/Instagram-style lives. The older I get, the more I’m all about embracing imperfection, of being my authentic self. You wouldn’t get me – a middle-aged widow – doctoring my photos, would you?
I recently bought a new Mac (keep with me, we’ll get there in the end, I promise you) and in looking at what files to keep and what to ditch, I came across some photos stored in an App called Photo Booth. I haven’t looked at them for years, and since I ditched the old Blackberry and got an iPhone I’ve never needed to sit at my desk and take a photo because I can take selfies anywhere.
When I first got the Mac, I thought that Photo Booth was the best thing ever and spent ages sitting in front of the screen taking pictures of me and The Hound with different special effects eg:
But after JS drowned and for reasons I can’t remember, occasionally, and after a bout of crying, I would take pictures of myself sitting in front of the Mac looking grim.
This is the last picture I took before we went on holiday, when I was still a wife. Because I don’t have naturally straight hair, I suspect that I was just back from the hairdresser and wanted to mark the moment when I looked groomed, instead of looking as if I’d just put my fingers in an electric socket.
And below is the next photo, the first shot after I came back from Barbados, a widow instead of a wife. I can’t tell you when it was taken because there is no time or date stamp on these shots, but I would imagine it was about three months in, because the mega zit (more of a giant growth so large it could have had its own postcode) that appeared on my cheek just after JS died and stayed for weeks isn’t there (though the scar still is), but also because I couldn’t do anything much except stare into space, cry and drink for three months.
And then came lots of snaps of me in tears. I suspect that in some of these I had been out and come back, judging by the amount of smudged mascara going on. I certainly didn’t wear make-up to walk the dog. Here are a few examples:
Did I put any of these on Facebook during that time? As if! Guess what I used as my profile picture? A photo which was taken when I got back from having my make-up done in September 2011, six months after the accident and when I was still crying and vomiting and praying to die in the night in order that someone else could live:
I look perky don’t I? A very merry widow. And they say the camera doesn’t lie. But it does, because the photos taken DIRECTLY after the one above are these:
At the time, I emailed one of the crying shots to someone saying, “This is the real me!” They emailed back saying that they wished I hadn’t sent the sobby shots because they found them too upsetting.
Am I saying that if we are grieving we should post photos of how we really feel, how we are really living? Of course not, or my timeline would have been full of snaps of me drunk, sobbing and being sick. There are times when we want to keep it together either because we feel we want to out of respect for ourselves or others (such as at a funeral), or because putting on some make-up and a pair of heels makes us feel (temporarily) better. Any relief, however fleeting, however faint, is welcome. But unless we face up to the fact that watching someone grieve is ugly and uncomfortable but not something to run away from, grief will always be something to be feared. This desire to make things better, to smooth life over is why, I believe, most people flounder when confronted by the heartbroken and come out with statements such as, “Don’t cry,” or, “He’s in a better place,” or, “You’ll meet someone new soon,” all of which was said to me within days of JS’s death. People are embarrassed by such an outpouring of raw grief, which is strange given that death and grief are so commonplace and something that can’t be avoided however much money we have in the bank or wherever we live or have been educated. Given how normal death is, you would think that we might be better at dealing with the fall-out from it. But we’re not; many of us are scared and embarrassed and downright uncomfortable around the bereaved.
As ‘Rose’ says in When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis:
We don’t think about death until it shakes our world, it’s just not something we talk about or want to think about, and since that has happened I think, why don’t we, before, so we can have some sort of understanding, something for when it does happen, because it’s a fact of life. It shouldn’t be whispered about or not even talked about. We learn so many things, maths, science, etc. I think something that we should be educated about is death.
I think that Rose is right, but quite how we go about it being educated about death, I’m not sure. They say that for the world to really change you need to educate the young, that it is the young for all their pouting and self-obsession with looking fabulous in photos who hold the key to future change.
Bereavement as part of the school curriculum anyone?
It’s a thought.