The Memorial Bench

Snippet 2: Grief and Loss

On a stroll today I pass a heavy oak bench I installed as a memorial on this Nature Reserve, shortly after I started as a Ranger here about 18 years ago. The woman I liaised with over the donation of the bench, its position and construction I remember well. Over the few phone calls and site visits with her to the reserve, she often gulped back recollections of the loss of her husband. The tenderness often welled up within her as we spoke. He died in his early 50’s.

When the bench was installed by a myself and a colleague I remember it was a cold, clear and sunny morning. The bench smelled as newly cut wood does, a pleasant aroma of sweet sugars and earthy tones. Its edges were sharp and crisp and it stood out in the muted browns and greens of the surrounding vegetation. It was heavy too. We struggled to get it to the position which involved strapping it to a sack-barrow and heaving it up and down some muddy slopes.

Over the years, the bench was used to rest and reflect by many walkers, the wear around the footfall becoming pronounced. Although I never met the lady again after the installation of the bench, I know she passed by occasionally as the engraved plaque would be polished and occasionally some linseed oil would be brushed into the exposed surfaces.  I imagine she would sit and ponder the view across the lake and maybe reflect a little on the life with her parted husband. A series of reflective moments I hope would lighten and sooth the bitter grip of grief.

As I stop for a rest all the years later and take in the view as countless visitors have done before me, I notice the plaque is now burnished and there are 2 screws missing. The husbands name is still legible but the short engraved eulogy has faded and is difficult to read. The edges of the bench are finally giving way to the elements. Its youthful glow has given way to a muted grey and brown, equally beautiful, with moss adorning its crevices. It is still strong and robust. The trees and grasses have grown up around it, swallowing and enveloping.

I wonder where this lady is today, the widow who had to say goodbye to her husband prematurely whilst no doubt they had other plans. I assume the grief became tolerable as the need to tend and visit the memorial became less urgent and necessary, letting the bench slip into decay as the world swallows it up, moment by moment. It slowly became forgotten. Did she meet someone else or remarry? Did she already have children or move away to start a new life? Which dreams did she curtail and which ones were refreshed anew.

In those first and only meetings with her 18 years ago I’m sure she felt the rawness of grief would last forever. When grief has us in its grip we struggle to find any reprieve. It blinds us to all else, all other possibilities. Over time, it dissipates, eases and fades. The harshness fades into the recesses of our memories, gets locked away. There are moments which tweak the raw nerve and bring the feelings back to the forefront, but these become less often and decreasingly intense. We move on, learning to live again.

This bench is a reminder of a person who loved and was loved. A reminder of a wife, companion, friend and lover who has now moved on, who, despite the loss has the potential to build another life. A reminder that forgetting is sometimes a good thing, the vividness of grief has to pass into memory and be lost without guilt, otherwise we would be constantly consumed and paralysed. A reminder of the inevitability of death but also the hope of renewal for those that remain. A reminder that this life in finite, tender, precious and fleeting. A reminder that time moves forward however hard we try and slow it down. 

The cold wind is picking up now and the trees that have grown up around the bench begin to sway. The geese chatter in the distance, the blue tits dart to and fro from a hanging feeder. I take a sip of water from my flask and walk on.  

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