real life

How long is too long to grieve?

Elly Varrenti



You want to come to the opera with me tomorrow night? Free tics.

What is it?

Magic Flute. Mozart.

Thanks. No. I can’t.

Why? You got a better offer?

No. It’s just that…

What? You hate the soprano? You used to sing with the soprano when you were both young and hungry and had dreams of becoming a star. What?

No. I just can’t listen to opera anymore. I particularly can’t listen to Mozart. He was my sister’s favorite composer and since she died I just can’t listen to Mozart. Not even mashed up versions of him in the supermarket. Not without falling in a heap of dirty gasping sobs or little discrete inaudible ones.

Sorry. I didn’t realize…

Actually it’s not just Mozart and opera, it’s any classical music and anything by the Beatles or with Latin American panpipes.  Or anything in Spanish. Or Queen. Not any political songs either. Or …

Okay. I get it. Sorry. Sorry. How long’s it been now since your sister…?

2 years, 6 months and 9 days. But some days it’s like it just happened and I can still feel like I did when Mum told me that day. I dropped the phone. I fell to my knees. It was like what they do in the movies. I ran outside and down the middle of the street with my Ugg boots on and when I reached the bush on the outskirts of town, I cried and screamed at the gums. Why! Why did this happen? She was remarkable. So smart and so beautiful and funny and unusual. Why was her experience of living in the world so unbearable she had to kill herself? Anyway…. And then I just lay down on ground and everything, and I mean everything, just, stopped.


It must be so hard for you and your mum and the little boy.  Time. It will take time. It’ll never go away completely, I know. But I’m sure that in time… I mean, it’ll fade. Sorry. What do I know? Talk soon. Take care. Talk soon.

Elly with her sister

Even friends, close and good friends, don’t know what to say anymore. I have heard that the second year of grief can be worse than the first. Jesus! Really? Why is that? Oh, that’s right! It’s because the reality, the bloody ordinary reality of what has happened and what has been left, finally sinks in. It finally sinks down deep into who you now are and takes up residency in the new post-loss-version of you.

Is it that after 2 years it’s as if every cell in your body has been permanently rearranged? Is it as if your heart has been removed from its cavity and reinstalled at a different angle? Is that why the second year of grief can be worse than the first?

My sister gave me a book – The Atheist’s Guide To Spirituality – and I only just opened it last week. She always reckoned I needed to have more faith. Got as far as the inscription. Just seeing her handwriting was enough.

There are photos of us as kids; she’s the blonde, wiry younger one. I’m the dark, chubby older one. They are on my mantelpiece like a shrine next to the silly silver angel she gave me, and the little wooden cross from Nicaragua. Is it time to take down the shrine?


When Mum had her when I was 7, it really pissed me off. I was desperate for a sibling, some permanent company, but not one that was so much younger and so annoying. I used to ignore her.

There are her manuscripts and other various bits of writing, political stuff mostly. There are her journals covered in colored stickers and slogans. There’s her Bible – its marginalia is a book in itself. But every time I determine to read these things, to give them their due, I just can’t.

If I catch myself enjoying something, I feel guilty.

If I catch myself enjoying something like a film, a show, a book, a friend, a man, a drink, a run, my son, or her son, I feel… What is it? I feel guilty. I feel guilty and ruined. Her suicide has ruined me; it has taken away something, not just her but something else. But when she was alive and very sick I would feel like that too. Guilt yes, and confused and resentful too.

Someone I know said to me that when she started to go out again a few months after her mother died, she would always end up feeling angry with people. Why couldn’t they see how she was feeing? Didn’t she look different now that she’d experienced such life-altering loss? Why did people just keep on doing normal stuff and not notice or even acknowledge her pain?

It’s over 2 years now so most people don’t even ask anymore and I don’t think I want them to because it can be uncomfortable. Embarrassing. How long am I permitted to ‘use’ my sister’s death as a reason for my sadness, my erratic behavior, my whole-hearted lack of commitment these days?

There has been no music in my life since she died. When will I be able to listen to Mozart again?


My son is doing a project on Germany for school.

Mum. I am half German, you know.

Yes. I do know, darling. And I am the other half.

He has chosen Mozart for his project because when he was last in Europe with his father he went to Salzburg and got chocolates in Mozart wrappers. He brought me home a couple he’d managed not to eat.

Mozart was a famous composer, you know.

Yes, he was. Shall I put something of his on so you can hear how amazing he was?

We could listen to it together.  This is The Magic Flute. It’s got one of the hardest songs to sing ever. We can listen to it together.

Do we have to? It sounds boring.

Yes. Yes. We have to. We have to listen to it.

I put on the CD. It is one of hers. My son doesn’t really listen. But I do. I am really listening for the first time in two and a half years and it feels good and bad at the same time.  But I am listening.

If you need immediate help, you can contact Lifeline – 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800, MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78, SANE Australia has fact sheets on mental illness as well as advice on getting treatment. Visit or call 1800 18 SANE (7263).

You can also visit beyondblue: the national depression initiative (1300 22 4636) or the Black Dog Institute, or talk to your local GP or health professional.

Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and teacher. She is a regular columnist for ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program, is a former Age Theatre Critic and teaches writing at Box Hill Institute. Her book ‘This is Not my Beautiful Life’ is published by Penguin and she is currently writing one about shared-parenting due for release late 2013.