Country Life: on loss, and solace
'Closure' is a word so often used in the media and self-help pages these days that its etymology bears examination. As a noun, a closure refers to something used to stop something - a bottle, or a road; in philosophy, as controversially espoused by Hilary Lawson in Closure: A Story of Everything, it's an end to the pursuit of reason. It's used in mathematics, in parliamentary procedure, in business law and in computer scripting.
But most often we see it used in the everyday media - police officers and politicians hoping that a particular outcome will 'offer closure'. Grieving families search for closure, or aggrieved families accuse a particular court judgment of denying the same. Sportspeople acquitted of a charge, on the field or off, seek to 'move on' and 'obtain closure'.
It has become, to use Don Watson's term, a weasel word. Its meaning is obscured, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through ignorance or misunderstanding. And it has become a right, demanded and expected. We 'deserve' closure. 'I just want some closure', as though one can dip into the sugar bag and get a handful. It's a meaningless, glib, easy response by our media pundits, and a plea leached of all possible common empathy made by the desperate and the bewildered.
What we seek in loss, and what should be offered, is solace.
Let me describe by example, for solace is more complex than we may imagine, less rigid in its definition, malleable and for a great part, surprising in its origin.
My wife and I live in a very old house in central Victoria. For the best part of ten years, we shared the house with a large echidna. It lived beneath the floorboards of the skillion kitchen, and would often send our dog into paroxysms of anger at night as it dragged its spines along the undersides of the boards, slowly moving to its nest. The creature amused and intrigued us - was it a male? Where did it wander? How old was it?
Echidnas are terribly interesting. They have a keen sense of smell, but are nearly blind. Their hind legs face in reverse, in order for them to dig themselves into the earth quickly and completely. You may approach them quite closely, if you are quiet, move slowly and stay upwind of them. The claws of an echidna are immensely strong, capable of tearing ant and termite nests to pieces overnight.
Early last summer we were working in the front garden of our property when I noticed the echidna slowly walking up our dirt road. Occasionally it would stop and make a terrible grunting or wheezing sound, then slowly plough on towards the house. It reached our gate and sensing us, stopped and dug into the garden, still making frequent noises. We looked at it closely. Was it in pain? Was it searching for a mate? Our ignorance made us cruel, and we left the echidna where it was.
The next morning I came out to find the creature still in the garden, still moaning, for want of a better, less anthropomorphic, word. Realising my error now, I called the local wildlife service, who came and euthanased the echidna. It had been struck by a vehicle, and suffered massive internal injuries. There was nothing to be done for it.
We were horrified. This is of course not an uncommon end for a native animal, especially an echidna, which are slow and confused on roads. But we had come to be fond of it, and looked for it when we were around the house outside. Even the dog had come to grudging respect, after trying to grab it once and learning by bitter experience how well-equipped to defend themselves echidnas are.
My wife wept. How could someone strike a poor creature and leave it to suffer on the roadside? Why were people so ignorant of the world around them? The pain we felt for the dead animal was visceral, for it was the pain of our security that had been breached. The echidna was integral to our sense of home, to our daily life.
I wept for my inability to console my wife. It was a random death; inexplicable, awful. The creature had suffered because we were insensible to what was going on, and we had made its last hours excruciating. We were both mortified, and in the days and even weeks after, sought to alleviate and replace the image of that echidna, dragging itself in its death-throes, back to our house, to somewhere instinctively safe, in order to die.
But there was no answer - no 'closure'. Nor could there be. The echidna had lived, and it had died. It had died terribly. There is no other answer than that. Nothing could reverse what had happened, terrible and sudden. It had been destroyed, and all rationalisation would not erase the manner of its death. For all intents it was a small death in the world, an animal that amounted to no more than Larkin's hedgehog.
Time passed, and in time, the memory of the echidna became less painful. Then yesterday, as I returned from work, my wife ran to me across the property. She had seen a new, young echidna - small, still clumsy - wander across the yard, near to the workshed. It sniffed around a verandah on a building, then, haltingly and slowly, climbed onto the verandah, about a foot off the ground, and wandered curiously.
In attempting to climb off, it moved to the edge of the verandah, misjudged the distance to the ground and to my wife's delight, simply rolled off and onto the ground, somersaulting once or twice before ending on its back, legs waving. It righted itself and wandered back down the fenceline, before moving across to the house, pausing, and then digging in back under the kitchen.
Solace comes in fits and starts. It cannot be demanded or pursued. We can never know how or when or in what strange form loss will afflict us, and we cannot excise its pain by revenge or by formula. Grief must have its course, and in time and in its way, solace will inevitably follow.
Published Dec 14, 2011
Written for ABC Rural blog