"Taking Flight": On Loss and Fearing Joy
I stumbled across a copy of Sue Rose’s debut collection From the Dark Room in a little bookshop in Camden some ten years or so ago. I remember reading it in Regent’s Park and being transfixed by the poems, which seemed to speak from and to the body as much as the mind. Rose’s intimate, tender sequence about the death of her father particularly moved me at a time when I was navigating my own grief. Or perhaps it’s closer to say they moved something in me. Looking back, this was a time of constriction and distraction as I sought refuge from loss and wrestled with a resurgence of longstanding mental health difficulties. The poems did that thing that poems sometimes do, lodging in my psyche for reasons I didn’t really understand, lines and images speaking to feelings I didn’t know how to make room for.
Like a limb or the blank squint
of an eye, unafraid of sun or grit,
the things that are gone
are gone. Their ache is reliable,
resilient as steel through concrete,
preventing the collapse into sleep
or starting you from dreams
like a tractor in the dark narrows
of morning; there are no surprises.
What terrifies now is joy –
the tall structure still standing,
its supple roll and sway.
Lost is a pithy, paradoxical poem. The machinery of loss is predictable, “reliable” even in its jolting and juddering. In one sense, “there are no surprises” – a sense here, perhaps, of having to succumb to the workings of grief, its relentless and exhausting agenda. But this is precarious territory: grief is immovable as steel, omnipresent, and yet it also has the capacity to shock. Lost centres the bodily experience, the “ache” and “grit” of grief, how it pierces our sleep, the lurching, brutal recognition that “the things that are gone // are gone.” The final stanza has us lurching once again, this time away from grief and towards joy, which has become, in the context of loss, perilously unstable. The poem captures the sense of fragility that can accompany a major loss or rupture. The speaker (and the reader) are now in the shadow of joy, aware both of its possibilities and its potential to come crashing down.
Rose’s poem leaves room for a broad construal of loss: “things that are gone” might equally refer to people, places, homes, relationships, important roles, aspects of health and identity. The ambiguous losses that may come with dementia (both for sufferers and carers). The many layers of loss that come with migration and forced displacement (Jisrawi & Arnold, 2019). I'm thinking about how a catastrophic life event can fracture long-held beliefs, hopes and assumptions. How people can grieve for former versions of themselves, for parts of themselves that have been neglected and cast aside, parts they have not been safe to express. I’m reminded of losses that occur over time, sometimes invisibly: the erosion of confidence, faith, connections, freedoms. The title of the poem perhaps nods to this, encompassing not just those who have lost something or someone, but those who feel, themselves, lost. Professor Darcy Harris' research into "living losses" attests to how such losses can often go unrecognised and unspoken (Harris, 2019). Harris' work also draws attention to how social and political changes that threaten our core values can evoke a sense of bewilderment and despair that is its own kind of grief (Harris, 2022). Political decisions may also, of course, give rise to very tangible losses of freedom and rights.
As I reflect on this poem, I’ve been thinking about the complex interactions between loss, grief and various forms of mental health difficulties. Most would agree that it’s important not to pathologise grief, and to recognise its distinctness from, say, depression. At the same time, often, in therapy, as we piece together the timeline of events and experiences that have contributed to a person’s difficulties, loss experiences of all kinds emerge. A protracted period of poor mental health may also have a cumulative toll, as valued roles and activities become harder to connect with.
Often, it can be difficult to connect with the sadness of loss when we’re grappling with currents of fear or shame; when we’re feeling quite unsafe in the present. Depression, for instance, can be a bleak and harsh landscape, sometimes characterised more by numbness and self-criticism than sadness (or at least the more tender, self-compassionate aspects of it). For some clients, expressing feelings of loss, recognising – with compassion – the particular ways in which their life has been blown off course, may be an important, though painful, part of therapy. Perhaps, this is one interpretation of the ending to this poem – emerging from the “dark narrows” of confinement, reconnecting with different parts of ourselves, may mean confronting what we’ve lost along the way and the frightening and unpredictable possibility of further loss.
The idea that joy can sometimes become something to fear has been taken up by researchers. Professor Paul Gilbert and colleagues developed a “Fear of Happiness” scale and found that high scores were strongly linked to depression (Gilbert et al., 2014). The team have been looking into relational aspects of this, particularly how fear of some positive emotions may be linked to fears around receiving compassion and opening up to buried feelings of grief and sadness. Sometimes, as we allow ourselves to have wants, needs and hopes, we can also become more aware of loss and yearning.
Professor Barney Dunn and colleagues at the University of Exeter have been developing and evaluating a new, multi-pronged therapy approach for people with long-term depression. Part of this approach involves helping people spot all the pernicious ways in which depression interferes with their enjoyment of and immersion in what might otherwise be positive experiences. I don’t deserve this. It’s not important. I’m getting too big for my boots. It’s too good to last. It was better when… These kinds of thoughts are all examples of “dampening appraisals” (Burr et al., 2017) – thinking patterns that, basically, rob us of fun. Behind these may be lurking fears: what might we risk in letting our guard down? What judgments might we open ourselves up to, from ourselves or others? What – if we allow ourselves to rise up – might it be like to fall down?
Dunn and colleagues are looking into ways in which therapists can help people with persistent depression tone up their capacity for joy. Often, a lot of our focus in therapy is on dealing with the difficult stuff. Rightly so, of course, but it seems there is increasing attention in the research literature (and the therapy room) being given to the idea that some people might benefit from more help in moving towards positive emotions and overcoming blocks and fears that might be getting in the way. (I'm conscious as I write that I'm sort of skirting round the question of what "joy" and "happiness" actually mean. I don't think I want to open that particular can of worms right now(!) but will just acknowledge my own perspective here, and the fact that what happiness means and how we relate to it is of course personal, variable and influenced by social, cultural and religious factors; Joshaloo et al., 2014).
I’m speaking only from personal experience here but, for me, poetry can be one avenue through which to enrich and amplify joyfulness. Poems can often surprise us, lift us out of auto-pilot, shine a light on the textures of sensory and emotional experience. This idea of “seeing things afresh”, which is part of mindfulness-based approaches, very much chimes with the poetical ambition to describe experiences in new ways. And if this brings with it sadness, and fear, then perhaps poetry can, in a small way, help us to feel less alone with these feelings. For me, a poem offers a kind of container for complex feelings, much like a therapy hour. I’m sure it’s partly why I write. Of course I also hope that at least some poems will also reach out, speak to others. But it would be wrong to pretend there isn’t a personal and emotional investment, and part of that – I think inevitably – stems from a need to feel my way towards and into loss. I’m not fond of the word “processing” – loss and grief, in particular, are deeply personal and often far from linear journeys – but it’s something approaching that. Perhaps part of it is simply listening – to the rumble in the dark, the ache and the fear. But it’s something more active too, something closer to reconnection or assimilation – a making room for those most awkward of companions, pain and joy.
I’ll leave you with another poem from Rose’s collection, “Taking Flight”. It’s an ambiguous title, admittedly, but I’m choosing to interpret it positively (and there’s lots in the poem that is unequivocally positive) – an answer, if you like, to Lost. A reclamation of possibility, new life ahead.
Perhaps you stand
on the indeterminate rim,
hills below and above,
wind fills your dress, billows
in your sleeves, lifting
the material of you like a kite;
you turn your sight away
from the contours of the land,
green of dead water, dark terraces,
a house, perhaps,
its roof of dull mosaic, smoke
from the chimney lifting, breaking,
and you take to the air,
whole and beautiful,
recalling, as you broach the sky,
the feel in your hands
of a small brown bird,
wings stilled, heart labouring,
when you took it from the room
and, palms splayed,
offered it to the free air,
you remember now its burr
of wings, joyous applause,
ascending into the blue.
With thanks to Sue Rose and Cinnamon Press for permission to share Lost and Taking Flight. The poems are included in the collection From the Dark Room (Cinnamon Press).
Please note, the reflections in these blog posts are not a substitute for personalised professional advice. For information on mental health services and support in the UK, please contact your GP and/or see NHS advice here.
Burr LA, Javiad M, Jell G, Werner-Seidler A, Dunn BD. (2017). Turning lemonade into lemons: Dampening appraisals reduce positive affect and increase negative affect during positive activity scheduling. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 91:91-101.
Harris, D (ed.). (2019). Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications. Routledge.
Harris, D. (2021). Compassion-focused grief therapy. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 49:6, 780-790.
Harris, D. (2022). Political Grief. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 30(3), 572–589.
Jisrawi & Arnold (2019). Loss and Forced Displacement. In Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications (ed. Harris, D). Routledge.
Joshanloo, M., Lepshokova, Z. K., Panyusheva, T., Natalia, A., Poon, W. C., Yeung, V. W. L., ... & Jiang, D. Y. (2014). Cross-cultural validation of fear of happiness scale across 14 national groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(2), 246-264.
Gilbert P, McEwan K, Catarino F, Baião R, Palmeira L. (2014). Fears of happiness and compassion in relationship with depression, alexithymia, and attachment security in a depressed sample. British Journal of Clinical Psychology. 53(2): 228-44.
Gilbert, P. (2022). Meeting the Challenges of a Multi-mind and the role of grieving. In Compassion Focused Therapy: Clinical Practice and Applications, ed. Paul Gilbert and Gregoris Simons. Routledge.