I came across this summary of grief recently in an interview with the Dutch poet Pieter Boskma: “Immediately after the death of a loved one, grief is a kind of friend: so long as the grief is there, the departed is still close by. Your grief connects you with him or her. Later on grief becomes an enemy that forms an obstacle to new happiness and a new life. Until one morning you have to say to yourself: it’s over now, it’s time to make a new start. It’s an illness that you can only cure yourself.”
Boskma covered the terrain of grief meticulously in his 2010 collection Doodsbloei (Death’s Bloom), which followed the death of his wife two years earlier, when Boskma was 52 and his wife 50. Fifty-two is a young age to be widowed (not as absurdly young as 39, but still a good few decades ahead of schedule), and Boskma’s description of the shock and aftermath seems pretty much spot-on. By my reckoning I’m still in the second stage, when the light from behind is fading but the light ahead is still distant and vague. It’s an unforgiving, barren stage, when the loss starts to gnaw at the heart and a sense of limbo takes hold: one chapter of your life is over but there is no sign of the next one beginning.
Occasionally I’ve thought about trying to date again, but the idea gives me the jitters. I don’t want to meet the kind of woman who unabashedly asks why there’s a ring on my third finger. But the alternative is even more dreadful: someone who sees the ring and blanks it. Because then we’re locked into a cat-and-mouse game in which she’s wondering why I’m dating with a wedding ring on, and I’m wondering why she hasn’t remarked on it, because she can’t possibly have overlooked it. I’m not ready to have either of those conversations, because both of them orbit the pitiful truth that I’m still in love with my dead wife.
I don’t know what I want from a relationship anyway. First I’d have to find someone with space in their lives for me and my two demanding children. That whittles down the field somewhat. I’m in no rush to marry again, but equally I don’t fancy 40 years in the wilderness. I could pretend I don’t miss sex, but I’d be a rotten liar. (Though if that was the only problem it wouldn’t be hard to fix, living as I do in a well-serviced city in the Netherlands.) I remember the last time with Magteld with needle-sharp precision: where we were, how we lay, what time of the morning it was, the weather outside as we held each other in the rain-scarred moonlight. But even when sex was too awkward and painful for Magteld, we still found ways to share intimate moments. And it’s the intimacy I miss, really. Waking at three in the morning and feeling an empty space where your beloved is meant to be. A warm and gently breathing presence in the darkness, or a soothing face in the dawn light. I realised recently that I still change the pillows on both sides when I make the bed up and put both cases in the washing machine, even the clean one. I can sleep beside an empty space, but not a void.
What is intimacy, really? I’d define it as the capacity to share the things we’d normally hide. The internet has created all kinds of new ways to connect with strangers from all over the world. I’ve known people online – other writers, in the main – for years without ever meeting them. We share a common interest, laugh and commiserate together, have long, probing conversations – sometimes over the course of several days – and occasionally fall out bitterly. It’s hard to distinguish from friendship, but is it the real thing? The sociologist Sherry Turkle warned in her TED talk ‘Connected, But Alone?’ of the danger of technology ‘cleaning up’ our relationships and dictating how we interact: “Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
There is certainly a danger that real, awkward, messy relationships are being squeezed out by sanitised ‘virtual’ ones. Everyone has a perfect family life on Facebook; everyone’s Twitter feed is garnished with witty barbs; everyone on LinkedIn is teetering on the precipice of a career breakthrough. But that’s only part of the story. The internet has made it possible for communities of real people to form in virtual space, unencumbered by geographical distance. When Magteld was sick with cancer she started blogging about it. And by blogging, she opened herself up to a wide, disparate community of cancer patients both close by and further afield. The internet allowed these people to share their experiences – which were sometimes not just messy, but downright brutal and horrific – unmediated, in a way that would have been impossible before social media came along. When she moved to The Hague in April she already knew people in her new city that she shared a close bond with: one of them even visited her in the hospice. This was very far from the experience of someone living in an isolated ‘virtual bubble’ or being starved of intimacy or friendship.
The internet hasn’t made us frightened of intimacy: we always were. It’s just given us new places to hide. We’re legitimately wary of investing the kind of trust needed to build a lasting, mutually nourishing relationship because of the potential for things to go wrong. I fear intimacy far less than I fear loss, but intimacy carries with it the risk of loss and pain. And so we have constructed a ziggurat of ostensibly safer alternatives. After I turned 30 I realised that at some point I’d stopped making friends and started networking. Instead of hanging out in bars and typing numbers into my mobile phone, I frequented the kind of events where everyone leaves with a clutch of business cards stuffed into their wallet. People don’t meet at these events for love or friendship – though that’s sometimes a side-effect – but to find people they can do business with. It’s an altogether less intimate arena. At the same time, the process of meeting people recreationally becomes increasingly formalised: if you haven’t found love yet, you’re encouraged to join a dating site or go to ‘speed dating’ evenings, so that your recalcitrant love life is cordoned off in a ‘safe zone’ and doesn’t impinge on more serious matters, like your career.
I don’t have any personal experience of speed dating, but it seems to be at one end of a spectrum of technologies that has accelerated and institutionalised the ways we form relationships. Dating websites are driven by algorithms that try to match people, on the same principle by which Amazon tries to identify the right food processor for your kitchen. The same trend is visible offline: an advert in a newspaper magazine for a matching service pledges a “guaranteed number of contacts” and an intakegesprek (introductory interview), reducing the business of finding love to a jobs fair. The internet, however, has created all kinds of new possibilities in the realm of human interaction, from Craigslist ads to bloggers’ conferences. It has made it easier to share private information publicly, reflecting and shaping the confessional age we live in (which is far from a bad thing, incidentally, if you compare, for example, how rape victims were expected to respond to their ordeal 50 years ago with today). The challenge is to distinguish the genuine, lasting and substantial friendships from the fake, fleeting and superficial.
Often when we’re burdened by stress we mistake it for hunger and end up bingeing on the wrong foods – craving a short, sharp energy rush rather than healthy, slow-burning nutrition. Similarly, when we’re feeling lonely and isolated we’re drawn towards easy-access, superficial relationships when what we really need is intimacy. It’s not a phenomenon that arrived with the internet: soap actors talk of receiving long, heartfelt letters from fans about their personal crises, presumably because there’s nobody in their close circles they can engage with. Anyone who’s spent serious amounts of time on Twitter will know how easy it is to become obsessed with increasing your number of followers, retweets or replies. There is the danger of being sucked into a kind of relationship pornography that provides relief, but no satisfaction. But at the same time the internet offers private spaces – email, chatrooms, direct messaging – where more intimate and sincere friendships can be cultivated away from the spotlight. Magteld found people through her blogging who would otherwise have been invisible to her. Technology doesn’t have to be oppressive: we just have to become smarter at using it and develop more sophisticated forms of human interaction rather than constantly succumb to the pull of the ‘like’ button.
Not long after Magteld died a friend observed that I was lucky to have experienced true love, even if only for a short time. Our marriage wasn’t idyllic and went through several difficult phases, but we were lucky enough to enjoy times of real love and intimacy, even when confronted with the worst possible scenario. Looking back, I can draw a lot of comfort from that. Grief can be an obstacle, as Pieter Boskma puts it, but it can also be a corrective to the urge to restore what has been lost too hastily. An obstacle is a place to stop, think and negotiate the next stage of the journey. I’m in no hurry to make a new start: I don’t want to accept the kind of fast-track companionship that douses the loneliness but doesn’t nourish the heart. Frankly, I’d rather hang out on Facebook with people I know I have something in common with. Meantime, I’ll continue to value my friends, online and offline, for who they are: people I can connect with, even across a raging sea, sometimes superficially, sometimes more intimately. With one caveat: you can get pretty close to people on the internet, but you can’t fall in love. Not properly. For that you have to engage with the real world. And I can’t put it off for ever.