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The Decay of Grief

In the forest with my 11 year old the other day, we sat on a log and I asked him which tree along our path he thought might have been my favourite. We had walked past enormous Scots pines, bright white birches, convoluted oaks, holly, hazel, and many others. He had a long think about it, and in the end he chose a ridiculously huge holly that we’d stopped by, where I’d shown him that not all holly leaves are sharp.

I said it was a good guess, but that actually my favourite tree so far was the dead one we were sitting on. It had never occurred to him that a decaying tree might be important, let alone beautiful, and we had quite a long conversation about it. I started off by asking him if any other tree that he could see was able to provide us with such an easy place to rest. I explained the slow and important process of decay, and how after the tree fell it continued to support life for a very long time. How it continued to feed organisms, and how those organisms continued to feed birds and other larger animals. How it adapted and became a home to tiny scurrying and wiggly creatures on the forest floor, rather than the bigger birds and squirrels.

Tomorrow marks 15 years since my mother’s death. I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular walk in the forest, where essentially I was teaching one of my sons about the importance of death. I have a deep, relentless love of trees that has brought me a lot of joy, and has also helped carry me through some incredibly dark days. I truly believe there is no important lesson in life that you can’t learn from a tree. Trees teach us about change, about slow growth, about resilience and adaptation. They teach us about the subjective nature of beauty, about growing around trauma, about being grounded but flexible, and about how to be a home for someone. And of course they teach us about death.

After her death, my mother changed metaphorically from being the tallest tree in the forest, to the fallen log I rested on. My mother and I often didn’t get along when we lived in the same house, and I used to say it was because a castle could only have one Queen. There was room for One, and oh she was formidable. Loud, colourful, funny, and absolutely magnetic. An organiser, a creator, a story teller, an actress without a stage. She filled a room just by walking into it, and her death left a crippling, deafening echo. As the tallest, mightiest tree in the forest she had supported and taken care of an entire ecosystem. She housed creatures, she fed them, she provided strength and direction. She defined her environment, she was unmissable, she was strong above anything else. Mighty. Everything you think the tallest tree in the forest might be.

When a tree falls to its death, it goes through a process just like we do. There is a period of breathless shock, when things look exactly the same yet are irreparably different. Adjustment isn’t immediate, and of course it takes a long time to get our bearings again when our landmarks have changed.

Early on in my grief, I was angry a lot. No one around me would have said as much, as it was all internal. But I was angry at her for dying when I was pregnant, angry at the medical system, at myself, at life, at anything I could be angry at. Many years on, that anger has softened to the point of disappearance. It has decayed, from something sharp and painful to something soft and comfortable.

Early on in my grief, I also felt acute loss and detachment, and could only see what she wasn’t. She wasn’t alive anymore, she wasn’t talking, she wasn’t there, she wasn’t helping, she wasn’t around, she just Wasn’t. Many years on, that has also decayed and softened, and I’m now able to see what she is. I see her in blackbirds, I remember her in songs, I recognise her when I look in the mirror, I feel her when I get overexcited and tell stories to my friends. Over time, with the blessing of things disintegrating, I could see that she is still my mother, she is part of nature herself now, she is energy, she is memory, she is inspiration, and simply put - she just Is.

A fallen tree full of decay isn’t the loss of a tree, it’s just the tree’s next stage. Quieter, softer, something that still gives and protects but in much less obvious ways. It is a lesson in the subtleties of love. I still find strength through her, but it’s in a quiet reflective moment rather than a conversation. I still find the guidance that I need, but it will happen in my heart rather than over the kitchen table. She still feeds me, but its in a gentle atmospheric way.

Grief decays. It will last my whole lifetime, it will be ever present, but it is softer now. It is slower. My relationship with my mother still exists, it has just changed. She still influences me in a soft way, and I am no longer lost in the woods looking for my landmark. I have become my own landmark. When the tree fell, I adapted and kept growing. It is as simple as that. Loss creates decay, and decay is filled with its own beauty… feeding and supporting and nurturing the environment, just very quietly. In a way we need to make a loving effort to see.

I know many people who are pretty fresh in their own journeys of bereavement right now. Death carries different lessons at different times for all of us, and of course we have to walk through all of it alone. It is the most universal, and yet utterly isolating, experience we will go through. We all have completely unique connections to the people we love, and so our grief will not be the same as anyone else’s. There is a lot of advice out there on how to deal with death in the early stages - but then it goes a bit quiet. Everyone just sort of carries on, thinking it is only the early stages that need some navigational help and not considering the long term effects of loss.

So to anyone who needs to hear it, I’d just like to say that your grief will decay, like everything else does. But decay, that process of the beautiful tree slowly turning back into the soil itself, has its own lessons and beauty to offer. Mother Nature brings everyone back into herself eventually. We begin as dust, we finish the same way. By seeing this process in nature, in a fallen tree, we are reminded of the cycles we’re all a part of. Life and death, love and loss, growth and rest, movement and silence. And we can see how death, as part of that cycle, becomes nurturing over time. How grief, like everything else, changes. And there’s beauty in it, when we take the time to be quiet, to sit alone with our senses and the world around us, and just notice it. We can reconnect with our loved ones when we see that their influence is still around us all the time, it just looks different now. It has simply decayed, and we can find beauty in it.

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