“We lie mostly submerged…”: Navigating grief and coping with death.

img_7707This is a post about how I remember my aunt, Frances, who left Ireland for London in the late 70s, made her home there, and ended up dying there, alone and far too young, in a flat in Stoke Newington. It’s about not about her – it doesn’t feel fair to pick her over for my material here – but it’s about how I miss her and it’s about the strange kind of grief that comes from a loss outside of your everyday. Because she was a special extra in my life – she wasn’t part of my day-to-day, she was always something fleeting and unfamiliar.

She was a part of the wave of high-achieving Irish graduates who looked to London for the jobs, money, and lifestyle that Ireland couldn’t offer. She was a child psychologist working in the toy industry, so her present-giving capacity was impressive. She brought me a talking doll of such size and weirdness that my teacher brought it around the whole school for everyone to see. She brought me my first walkman. She drove over for Christmas in a soft-top sports car, and took me for a drive around our estate and got me to wave a hanky at all my friends (“Just like the Queen”).

She was tiny, and glamorous, with a particular sweet smoky smell that I know now was down to cigarettes and booze. It was only as I became a teenager that I realised it probably wasn’t normal for the booze smell to be a permanent thing.

I’ve been thinking of her a lot recently, because of an Instagram photography project I’m taking part in, Family Photography Now, run by The Photographers’ Gallery.

One of the directives was to do with a relative you have never met, who is formative in the family’s memory. I thought and thought about how Fran never got to meet my girls, or to see me as a proper grown up. I thought and thought about it, until I was furious with grief at the idea. I almost didn’t participate in the challenge, I was so teeth-grindingly angry. On the final day, I decided to face my rage and take the photo.

It wasn’t a good day for a photoshoot. Grace was tired and cross. She had been at a summer playscheme, and had her face painted. She didn’t want to take her facepaint off. She didn’t want to sit for photos. She didn’t care about my aunt who was long dead and just a fading image on weird 80s photo paper. But I was fuelled to a point of blinding focus by my anger, and the strange wistful quality of the late-summer afternoon light. I wanted that photo. And unusually, the photo I got was pretty much what I had imagined when I set out to take it.


Grace and Frances 


Since I took the shot, I’ve kept the photo of Fran out. She’s impossibly young and alive in it. When she died, years and years ago now, she had been sick for a long time. I didn’t understand much at the time, and so many times since I have wished so desperately that I could have understood, and helped. I heard whispers, knew fragments – a bad break up, a terrible freak accident, work drying up, long-term health problems. I didn’t know about the drinking – how it consumed her and it eventually killed her. I didn’t know about her mental health problems. I didn’t know about the quiet desperation that led to all the old scars detailed on her autopsy report.

When my parents arrived back from London with her body and some of her possessions, I picked over her things to try and find my way to her. I read her books hungrily – carried her copy of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan in my bag for months. I examined her daily diary, probing the mundane details of her last and lost days. I rifled through her photos, slipping piles of my favourites into my pocket – she’s piled on a futon with her friends, in a tangle of limbs and a fug of smoke, feeling the throat-ripping joy of cheap whiskey and laughing, always laughing. I read her old letters, writing a mental list of the people in her life; I used them to build memories of her  – imagined her at university age, her gleeful delight at lying in bed on a Sunday morning, ignoring the mass bells’ plaintive peals. Holidays with her best friend in the Caribbean – I stole her souvenirs, still have them on my shelf through four house moves over two countries. I rifled through her make-up bag, smudged on her eyeliner, appropriated her fancy make-up brushes; it was shockingly intimate, like I was wearing her skin.

I’m still angry. I Google her best friend – older now, with the same laughing eyes and curls, a prominent feminist academic. I would love to meet her, but know it would only be an act of further theft; I want to steal her knowledge, and her memories. I Google Fran’s old flat, that she bought for herself and clung on to until the morning that she got up, and then lay down again and died.

I went to the Coroner’s Court with my mother for the inquest. We didn’t talk a lot, but we were warm and together. We travelled on the DLR, unfamiliar London unspooling around us. We were hopelessly early and went to a proper London caff for a fry-up, just for something to do. The place was steamy and packed, full of builders on their tea-breaks. It must have been obvious why we were in the area, tense in our overly-formal clothes, and we sought comfort in our hot mugs and the sympathetic smiles of the proprietor.

Later that day, we heard about how her body was healthy. There was no definitive cause of death, though her poor little body was scratched and broken from years of various sicknesses. She was tired I think, too tired to keep going.

Out in the lobby, we met another overdressed Irish visitor. He was faultlessly polite yet disarmingly open; we swapped grief. His brother, he told us. A long time in London – no, no visits. The drink, you see. What did for him in the end. Selfish bugger, excuse his language.

He was only here to apologise to the lady policeman who found his brother’s body. High summer it was, and the brother had been lying in the flat for weeks before he was found. The smell must have been terrible, he thought. And her only a little young girl. He wanted to shake her hand.

I still love London. But I’m still angry.




Add yours →

  1. That’s beautiful – I feel I got to know Frances a little too.


  2. Your words are so powerful and you invoke such a wonderful time and place with them. Your photos are amazing too. Never stop writing.


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