As an amateur digital photographer, I enjoy creating images and recording what’s around me. This week I went to see the tropical butterfly display in the glasshouse at Wisley. This has become an annual event at the gardens and is very popular with snappers and non-snappers alike. Photographing the butterflies is something of a challenge. Firstly the humidity in the glasshouse fogs the lens; though it will eventually clear. Butterflies are notoriously camera shy and will perch on a leaf just ever so slightly beyond your camera’s point of focus… but despite this, in the event I was pleased with my shots.
But it was a butterfly I saw outside that really caught my attention. It is most unusual to see one of our native butterflies in February, but it was a sunny day and I imagine this Red Admiral may have been fooled by thoughts of a false spring.
I realised as I photographed it that images could have a place as a representation of grief. Photographers learn about depth of field – particularly in close up shots. Depth of field is the area of sharpness (from near to far) within a photograph. With modern cameras and a little knowledge of their settings, it is possible to focus on the foreground and put the background out of focus, and vice versa. Selective focus sees a chosen part of the image thrown into sharp relief against a blurred background. In theory, a lens is able to focus on only one object at a time and I wonder if grieving is so very different. The early days of loss for me were like this image:
I well remember that every single waking moment included something of James in it. Nothing else around me held any significance. I was not interested in what was going on around me. Local, national or international happenings blurred into the background – and that was entirely right for that period of mourning.
The ideal place to be in grieving is akin to the photograph that is a ‘storytelling exposure’ – an image that shows broad depth of field. The butterfly and the surrounding background are all in reasonable focus, balanced and equal.
Every day my son walks with me in my mind and in my heart; almost ten years on, this is not to the exclusion of all other thought and/or activity. I have not left him behind but the size of the place he takes up has changed. I recently heard Sarah, a bereaved mother who lost her son eleven years ago say that during sessions her well-meaning grief counsellor tried to get her to ‘leave her son behind’. Like me, Sarah feels that her son comes with her, is part of her and is with her every day. I totally agree with her when she says, “He’s not here to live his life; I am. And I owe it to him and to myself to enjoy life”.
Perhaps only other bereaved parents can fully understand that our children remain part of our lives and that even though their lives with us are over, they remain as part of our present and indeed our future, to enable us to balance out our grieving whilst continuing to live meaningfully. Our grief evolves over time so that is not as desperate as it was early on, and it is a great relief to arrive at this more comfortable place. From the outset, we need to hear from others that there is hope of achieving a balanced existence again.
There are times though, when I find it difficult to focus on my grieving. This is happening to me at the moment. James feels a bit remote, a bit blurred in my mind. I need to be able to call him closer, to be able to throw him into sharp relief again. Perhaps it is nature’s way of giving respite from grieving; for grief is hard, wearying work. We live it all the time, and some days or weeks are more difficult than others. It is not always possible to work out why, but perhaps the passage of time is significant here. The spells of less intense grief seem to have increased over the past few years, which I take to be a healthy sign, not a sign that I am forgetting, but that I am moving forward.
I took one of my favourite images of James when on a visit to Brighton where he was at Uni in 2004. This is definitely a storytelling exposure … the little boy in the background reminds me of James when he was young, and James looks so happy and relaxed. It was a lovely day that I hold close in my heart.
So … if my grief for my son is a bit blurry, perhaps I need to take the time to look at some photos, or recall in my mind some of our time together, to bring everything back into focus and relocate it to the ‘right’ place for my day to day life.