The dark side of the whiteboard - Versed in the art of grieving

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Shakespeare had a knack for getting it right. In The Winter's Tale, the line "thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born" sums up the cruel vicissitudes of life, as indeed does The Lion King, but less succinctly and with more CGI hyenas. As writers are quick to point out, wherever there is life, death is scuttling away under its floorboards. In her visionary work, Manifesto for a New City, the poet Julia Darling imagines a world where our lives are no longer run by "car parks, carrier bags, suits and credit cards"; instead "the air of the new city shall smell of pies", "schools will be small" and "doctors will be cheerful". But even in this utopia, "Everyone shall make their own coffin and use it as a table". She died soon after writing this.

I'm dogged by such sobering thoughts because while the rest of my colleagues spent this summer getting married, moving house or expecting their first Boden catalogue, my holiday was tempered by death. A close friend died of cancer. Her funeral took place last week, so I was saved the awkwardness of persuading the deputy head in charge of diamond-ranking bereavements that a friendship can match the sharing of DNA in the grief-measuring stakes. It's bizarre how stingy school managers can be over funeral leave. They must have a pretty low opinion of teachers if they think we'd bunk off double chemistry for an afternoon at the crem.

Like your earlobes and mortgage, grief gets bigger with age. When I was young I could handle death. It was a novelty, a sombre holiday away from ordinary life. As a 10-year-old, I approached my grandmother's funeral like a wide-eyed tourist, crossing the borders into an exotic land peopled by strangers muttering foreign condolences, dressed in the national costume of mourning. As a social event it was a let-down. Uncle Billy, a jolly dockworker, failed to produce his usual grin or a half-eaten box of chocolates.

Occasionally, we would return with some ghoulish souvenir: a marcasite ring from a distant relative, or a silver medallion depicting St Christopher, a feckless patron saint who had patently failed to keep that particular traveller safe from harm. I was always glad to get home. I belonged to the lucky bag land of the living, not the dolorous world of the dead.

Fags, fried food and a faulty heart finished off my dad; depression and an overdose took away my mum. By 26 I was on my own. Now every new death resurrects old feelings of loss, pain and abandonment. At my friend's funeral I was inconsolable. I wasn't just grieving for the woman who had gone, but for the large chunk of my past she took with her. Drunken school nights wasted on Woodpecker where we'd plan how to lose our virginity - she wanted to give hers to the Thin White Duke while I would have squandered mine on the lead singer of Mud or for a packet of St Moritz. She finally lost hers to a bisexual sixth-former; mine went to a trainee electrician whose dad sold fish and chips.

Her death leaves me drunk on memories and with no appetite for the day. With apologies to Sylvia Plath: grieving is an art like everything else. I do it reluctantly well.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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