Years ago in Kinlochleven, after a long day on the West Highland Way, I had my first dose of Scottish television. It did not disappoint.
First was a kid’s game show called Scary Sleepover. Three kids around 10 years old spend a full night in a rigged-up haunted house as the production staff do everything they can to terrorize them. It starts simple – mummies popping out of closets as they walk by, that sort of thing – and gradually worsens into the small hours. Each child must perform a specified dare somewhere in the house alone. In this episode, one girl is dared into a completely dark walk-in closet as we watch her in night vision. She must find a small gong and bang it. The room begins to shake violently, and voices whisper unintelligible fricatives from every side. Fingers brush her face.
At three in the morning, after the children have rested on their beds for a too-silent hour, a realistic disembodied head suddenly rolls out of a cupboard above one girl’s bed and lands squarely on her stomach.
If any one of the kids decides she would like to have no friends or self-respect for the remainder of her school years, she can push the “Panic Button” at any time during the ordeal, thus ending the entire team’s hopes for the grand prize, which I seem to remember was simply getting out of the house, ever.
I flipped the channel. An elegant English actress named Sheila Hancock was being interviewed, the widow of an elegant English actor named John Thaw. I felt that I should have known them both if I were any kind of respectable person, but I didn’t know either at the time. (Now I know them, so fans of Inspector Morse etc. may relax.) She’d written a book about their lives together, including her descent into a seemingly bottomless grief when he died.
The show was hosted by a blow-dried, insufferably high-spirited couple of the Regis and Kathie Lee mold. I’ll call them “Richard & Judy,” since those were their names. You could just picture their agent, hyping the R&J magic, that chemistry between these kids, you’ve gotta see it to believe it! Tonight was obviously not the average topical night for Richard & Judy. Both were working hard to achieve appropriate human facial expressions of empathy for Sheila’s loss, and only managing a sort of blow-dried, insufferably high-spirited approximation.
“Sounds like you went through some very dark days,” said Judy (no doubt suppressing a flash of enamel and a wink at the camera), “but it must have been some consolation to know how very many fans of his and yours were grieving along with you.”
Sheila’s eyes closed a bit, and she sighed. Yes, she said, sometimes. But there were other times…
Some people who tried to help simply didn’t know her well enough and only ended up…
She paused again.
She said that several people had independently sent the same poem to help her through her grief. “It’s called ‘The Next Room’, or something like that, and the idea was, don’t grieve, you haven’t lost him, he’s only in the next room waiting for you.”
Yeah, I know that one. It’s a classic of death denial, an excerpt of a sermon delivered in 1910 to comfort Queen Alexandra as King Edward VII lay in state:
Death Is Nothing At All
Death is nothing at all.Everything remains exactly as it was.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Sheila Hancock was having none of it. “It made me so angry to have to read such nonsense, I’d just be positively livid and hurl the wretched thing in the trash,” she said.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror years later, she said that what she missed most about John was sitting in front of the TV together. “We used to have a lovely little rampage,” she said. “We were very in tune with one another, so if there was a politician on the radio who we disagreed with, we’d say in no uncertain terms what we thought of him. ‘What the f*** is he talking about?’ John would scream.
“And I’d be shouting, ‘He’s talking rubbish – this is crazy.’ It’s not so much fun having no one to share that with.”
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
I could imagine Sheila in the last pew in 1910: “‘He’s talking rubbish. It is NOT ‘the same as it ever was.’ This is crazy!”
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
After throwing the well-intended poems into the trash, she said, “I’d feel guilty. But he’s not ‘in the next room,’ he’s not ‘waiting for me,’ and I find it perverse and childish to suggest that he is. I have no belief whatsoever in the hereafter…” She rolled her eyes. “Now I’ll get hundreds of letters assuring me there is such a place…” Her voice trailed off.
She’d walked away from the easy consolations. And now, in addition to grieving, she had to fight off the barrage of intentions to drag her back to them.
Someone who hasn’t been in her exact situation might protest that the senders of the poem meant well. But if you have been a nonreligious person grieving a loss while religious friends insist that you’ve got it all wrong, you know how it complicates and invalidates honest grief. You are crying over nothing, it says. Silly rabbit.
Richard or Judy quickly moved the conversation to face creams or the Royals or some such, and off to commercial.
I flipped back to Sleepovers again and went from pretending real terrors are fake to pretending fake terrors are real. The boy on the team had crawled through a trap door into a dark passageway and was now standing in six inches of water in pitch darkness, bumping into floating disembodied hands, several of which clawed at his ankles below the waterline. His task was to find a dead eel in the water, an actual dead eel, and bring it back into the room.