Posted by: Louise | December 13, 2011

boundary objects

Back in that other life of studying – all those months ago – I was fascinated by boundary objects. Objects that took on different meanings depending on the vantage point from which you viewed them. Most of my thesis content was a boundary object – the role of engaging with the arts within learning. It could be frivolous distraction from the serious business of learning or it could be a fundamental component of the learning experience, enabling the learner to connect with the content and the experience on a whole new level. It could be a whole range of things in between.

These days it meanders across my thoughts at odd moments.

How do you feel Louise?

Like I am living on the edge – like everyone else is in the thick of life and I am on the edge, with my edgy vantage point looking in.

How do you feel Louise?

Like I am on the edge of something, some new horizon, some brave new world.

How do you feel Louise?

Good. Thanks. In that middle space between work winding down and Christmas activities cranking up a notch. Good.

She was leaving work after several years and had just offered some beautiful parting words (before our last workshop together) – words about life cycles and death (a lot of death) and birth and rebirth. I, in my edgy-edge of something-middle space, was weakening as she spoke. My stoic resolve was weakening. Then someone gave her a photograph as a parting gift, a strange ethereal photograph of a bird or spirit bird or angel bird. And look, they all ‘ooohed,’ doesn’t that look like a little girl there in the bird’s wing with her arm outstretched – a little angel girl. My feet are turning to sand or is it water? I know my head for sure is swimming.

How do you feel Louise?

(Will I tell her?) I am afraid if I talk, if I say anything, as you talk here of life cycles and death and rebirth that it will all come gushing out…

But it is too late for I have spoken and the dam has burst and now I sit and it is all gushing out and my shoulders are heaving with the weight of sorrow and my crumbled stoic resolve forms little piles of useless damp sand around my feet.

Grief is a boundary object. For me these days it is part of who I am, not something I will work through. And I don’t mean that in a ‘resigned to be miserable’ way. It just is. My daughter died. My heart was ripped apart. It is healing, but those facts remain. My daughter will be gone as long as I am alive. Evidence of that tear will always be there. Maybe in a certain distance that I keep, or a bubbling over of emotion or extra care taken in decorating the Christmas tree. The evidence is there when you look. And some days people really look.

For others grief and the loss that causes it is something to avoid, or to minimise or to push over there. It speaks of a limit on our time. It speaks of time passing. It speaks of a world that is more than us and all this is too big, too scary to comprehend.

I came across an article in the Irish Times the other day. I read it at work and cried (a habit – it appears). The writer, Simon Fitzmaurice, has been told he will die and talks of living with death as his companion. Although it is his own impending death he talks of, there is so much in his words that resonates. I have extracted from it here and include the link to the full article below.


I’m in his office and he tells me. Light leaves the room. And air. And sound. And time. I sit on the chair opposite but I am far away. Deep inside. Looking up through a tunnel of myself, as he speaks on past those words.

“Three to four years to live.” I don’t hear him. Is this my life? Is he talking about me? I leave the room, the tunnel all around me, and stand before my wife in the waiting room. The colour leaves her face. Her father is beside her. They come into the room and he tells them the same thing. I don’t hear him. Ruth starts to cry.

Within 10 minutes we are out on the street. Not knowing what to do, we do what we had planned to do before. We go to lunch. Ruth’s Dad will meet us after. We walk through the streets like the survivors of some vast impact. Pale powdered ghosts. We reach the restaurant. Dunne and Crescenzi on South Frederick Street. Our favourite.

I stand into a doorway outside and call my parents. It is the worst phone call of my life. I tell them everything, fast, hearing the panic in my voice. Later, I’ll thank them for coming when they arrive at our house and they’ll look at me as if I’m insane and I’ll become aware, for the first time, that nothing is the same. We enter the restaurant. Sit down like everyone else. We sit there, not knowing what to do, what to say.

The waiter comes over and starts to speak to me. Ruth starts to cry. The place is under water and I can’t hear what he’s saying. Ruth is pregnant with our third child.


We are orphans of the universe. Our species is defined by asking questions, out into the dark, without anyone to guide us except each other.

Time is a trick. From an outside vantage point we live a certain length of time, one that we measure in minutes, hours and seconds, birthdays and anniversaries. But we don’t live at a vantage point to ourselves, we are immersed. We live in fits and starts and jumps, like dreams. And the lives we inhabit are measured in moments, irrespective of time. How we live is strange and uncertain and not written on any map…

…We had a plan. And it was working. We were happy.

But that was before. This was after. Never before had I felt that split, but now a fault line had opened between our past and present, and there was no going back. Death, which before had lived on some distant horizon, was now in our living room. We were lost, within the familiar surroundings of our lives. Ruth and I cried a lot, at night, in bed.


Human time is not measured by clocks and watches. Time slows down, time speeds up, and the mystery of how we live is ever present, despite our will for it to be otherwise. Our lives are not the legacy we leave behind, or the value of the work that we do. Our lives happen in-between the deeds and ideas that define us. Each of us feels it, the mystery, the strangeness of life on earth. Of life and death. We feel it when we travel, we feel it when we stay at home. We feel it when a loved one dies or when a loved one is born. I’m sure we all crave more certainty than we have but that is not human life. That is the ticking of a clock.

When you are told you will die within a certain period, time slows down. Life becomes dominated by the last time. Is this the last time I will read a book to one of my boys? If not the last, how many more? How many? Everything is heightened. I stand outside in the darkness and watch my son playing in the window. I stand until the cold is in my bones and wonder is this the last time that I’ll stand? I’m in my life and outside it, in the moment and self conscious of the significance of every moment.

‘That’s the thing about your death . . . it pulls in all your loved ones’
Simon Fitzmaurice
The Irish Times – Monday, December 5, 2011

The full article is available to read here.


  1. Just spent a bit of time reading this, the article and some general info. The image you present of death as his companion is so striking to me. Thank you for sharing this Louise.. sending love and light…

  2. You are the most stunningly gorgeous writer. You always take my breath away and leave me nodding.

  3. I’ll be coming back to re-read this post – you put so well so much that can be hard to express.

    These words, “Grief is a boundary object. For me these days it is part of who I am, not something I will work through. And I don’t mean that in a ‘resigned to be miserable’ way. It just is.” Yes, yes. Thank you for these words – they are beautiful and amazing and make me feel a little less crazy.

  4. “They can condescend to the sick, who are desperate to believe that the power to be better is within their grasp.

    But it is an unfair responsibility. People get sick. I wish that all things happened for a reason and that all things are in my power to change, but I don’t believe it. And it’s an arrogance and a burden to tell someone who’s sick that it’s their fault if it’s not.”


    There is so much familiar. This is a story we are living at my home, have been living for ten years. The diagnosis and the details are not the same as this man’s, but the rest…

    I know about getting that news from the doctors, about the fight to believe it, the fight to fight it, the desperation “to believe that the power to be better is within (your) grasp.” I also know surviving long past what was predicted. And – trying to make a life within not knowing how long life might extend.

    You can’t give up, so you go on. You want to go on; for your kids, your husband. You don’t want to go on; you are so tired.

    Unlike this man (maybe?), I seldom talk about it anywhere any more. It hangs over us, but I don’t want to talk about it, much. What good does it do?

    Also unlike him, I don’t feel it has pulled our extended family together. Our family in this house, yes, but not the rest. They are splintered and fragmented into camps of ignore, pretend, minimize, deny, and attack.

    I come back again and again to what you said – to paraphrase – you don’t want to speak about the things that matter most unless you can be correctly understood. That makes sense to me. This is why I seldom talk about…all of it. There are too many ways to be mistaken.

    Thank you for posting this. It explains, more than anything else could, why the suffering and their words are a haven for me.

    You are part of that, Louise. Your grief makes mine more bearable, but I wish it weren’t so and you had Laura, instead.

    Thank you for putting into words what I, mostly, can’t.

    Cathy in Missouri

    • I am sorry, Cathy, sorry that you do not have your health. I had an inkling from way back, hidden somewhere in a comment. To be part of a haven feels a privilege. Thank you for that. If you ever do feel the urge to talk more, I am here….

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