“They declared that they have found the earthy scent of petrichor, as if it was secretly drizzling in some deep corner of the city undetected by meteorologists. And when it rained on Monday, they smiled with pride and said: ‘I told you so.’”
Eye on Sky; The Times of India (New Delhi); Mar 17, 2016.
Three times recently, the word petrichor has impinged on my consciousness. First, I heard it described on the radio. Then a visiting friend said the word after we had experienced a brief shower during the heatwave. Finally, I saw it on social media written enigmatically by a friend of Shaun’s, who was gently provoking people to wonder about the meaning of the word.
Before then, I never knew there was a word for it: that distinctive, pleasant, earthy scent that is produced when rain falls on dry ground.
It smells the same wherever you are; a curious mix of stone, soil, bark, wet leaves and petals.
The word is Petrichor.
It is an amalgam of the Greek for the words ‘rock’ and ‘liquid’ and it was coined in 1964 by two researchers. They pronounced that the smell derives from an oil exuded by plants which is absorbed by soil and rocks. When it rains, the oil is released back into the air and, along with by-products of certain bacteria the distinctive scent is produced.
If Petrichor had a colour, I think it would be green: a damp-looking, subtle, mossy green.
Though the base notes of the scent of Petrichor are always the same, it is still variable. The other day, after a rain shower, I noticed the Petrichor had a different note; a sour, slightly acidic scent hinting at the onset of Autumn. The petunias and other annual flowers are past their best now, and beginning to set seed and the plant scent element of the Petrichor has become quite strong.
I love that there is a scientific explanation for something as invisible but instantly recognisable as the aroma that is Petrichor.
Trying to find a similarly scientific explanation for the way grief works, however, is a far more complex task. I live in ‘the mourning light’ through living with the loss of James and other family members. But how exactly can I describe that light and the process by which I have reached it? There are so many components to it. They comprise the tools in the armoury of my grief toolbox.
Some are physical and visible: writing for example, and photography.
Some are represented by the connections I have with family and friends and the emotional and social support they provide.
Some are nebulous, like the practices of introspection and self-analysis.
Still others are rooted in my personal beliefs and my mode of spiritual connection through worship and prayer.
Every day life events, such as walking the dog, shopping, socialising, preparing meals, are done with a light-filled heart these days but that was not the case in darker times.
Each facet and element contributes to the light, in a similar way to all the colours of the spectrum contributing to visible light.
I am by nature a pacifist but grief makes me a warrior.
In simple terms, darkness is the enemy and light the friend, and fighting the darkness becomes an everyday part of life after loss. It feels like a battle; some skirmishes being more arduous than others. But I firmly believe that healing cannot happen, and the light cannot brighten, until the darkness has been lived in, examined and turned around, however painful that can be.
Allowing myself to feel the pain in darkness was the first step in comprehension that led me towards light. When the darkness seems endless, there is hope in the realisation that even after the darkest night, a new day will dawn. Is darkness the obverse side of light, or is light the obverse side of darkness? Either way they flip endlessly in their various shades.
Grief made me hyper anxious and fearful. This was (and still is at times) one of the hardest elements to challenge, because anxiety feeds on itself.
It stacks up, so that from the beginning of the day, when the fleeting thought was there, such as “I wonder if Shaun’s journey to work was ok this morning?” by lunchtime this had become, “I can’t get hold of him, I hope everything is all right”, to tea time, “He must have had an accident, I haven’t heard from him all day!” … five minutes later he walked through the door and wondered why I was in a mood! I believe the buzzword for this is ‘catastrophising’ and any griever is likely to recognise it. The relief when fears are not realised simply underlines how draining is the entire process.
Another buzzword in counselling is ‘ruminating’ – not what cows do with their four stomachs, but the way in which you turn negative thoughts over and over in your head. This repetitive thinking is a hard pattern to break. The ideal way to get yourself off the worry train is by shifting focus. Over the years, I have practised mindful breathing when learning a variety of therapies, and if you can transfer the focus of your mind onto the physical act of breathing, it can often be very helpful. Another way to move yourself away from rumination is to engage in a diversionary activity, such as going for a walk, following a recipe or listening to some music, indeed anything that takes your mind off your intrusive thoughts.
Ask any bereaved parent and he or she will tell you that they quickly become experts at the art of diversion. You are constantly finding ways to deflect your attention from the shocking facts of your loss.
C S Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” and he was right. It is a confidence sapper even for the strongest of grief warriors. There is also an ever-present fear of upsetting others with naked emotion; this is largely unfounded, I have discovered, when I have asked about this directly. Most people respond by saying that they are upset for and with you, not themselves, when they are supporting you in grief.
The good news in all this is that grief is not static. It morphs into a resilience that you didn’t know you had and you know you are getting there, when you can feel all right without feeling guilty that you feel all right!
Grief has a dark power that can be overcome with the strength of light and your reactions to it allow for a return to normal living despite loss. If you can summon up the strength and courage to figuratively turn your back on grief’s efforts to subsume you, you are on your way to recovery in the light.
There are facts about my loss that carry me through the darkest of the darkness and through which James’s light will always shine.
I knew him from the time that I carried him in the rosy darkness of the womb.
I nurtured him for all the time he lived in the earth’s light, and now I picture him in a different world of light. This gives me comfort.
Just as Petrichor demonstrates a symbiotic partnership of rock and liquid, so the light, mourning or otherwise, needs the experience of the darkness to shine with true and solid strength.