Living and Loving Through Loss: Beautiful Letters of Consolation from Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists
By Maria Popova
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic memoir of loss. But however uncertain its guise may be, its arrival is one of the central certainties of existence — no human life is unplundered by loss, in one form or another, at one time or another. And when grief does come, when its tidal force anneals us to the rawest axis of our being, it seems like nothing at all can unmoor us from its all-consuming gravity. Consolation of the bereaved is therefore an immensely difficult art and one of the most generous human gestures, perhaps even the most acutely life-saving.
Gathered here are several such masterworks of consolation, beautiful and heartbreaking and aglow with the resilience that is the hallmark of life, from some of humanity’s greatest minds and largest spirits.
In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.
But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein offered thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library), the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.
Shortly before his fifty-fifth birthday, Einstein writes:
Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.
And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.
Undoubtedly the most unusual and the hardest kind of consolation is that whose subject is one’s own imminent death and whose object is a loved one about to be left bereaved, for it requires one to simultaneously face the anguish of one’s own looming nonexistence and to rise above it in order to soften the loved one’s impending loss. To grieve one’s own death while consoling from the grave-to-be is therefore a supreme act of generosity and self-transcendence.
That is precisely what trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), crowning figure of Figuring, did as she lay dying from breast cancer shortly after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous refusal to keep silent about the government’s assault on nature. Even as she faced her own death, Carson was most concerned about her best friend and beloved, Dorothy Freeman.
In September of 1963, several months before her death and shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson sent Freeman a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):
This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.
In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:
You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.
Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.
Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.
In addition to pioneering modern computing, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) remains the greatest code-breaker of all time. His decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have saved anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives in shortening WWII by two to four years. But despite his humanitarian heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.
Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.
When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.
All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely. That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library).
Turing writes to Christopher’s mother in a letter from April 20, 1933:
My dear Mrs. Morcom,
I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.
Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:
It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.
Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.
As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.
One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.
In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”
That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi. A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to rise from the depths of his or her personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter, later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library).
Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Your sincere friend
Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a man of multitudes, brilliant and flawed, but among the strongest and most unambivalent animating forces of his life was the love he had for his younger sister, Letitia.
In 1862, Letitia lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | free ebook), Dickens envelops his sister in equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.
I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do… I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.
But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.
The beautiful and unclassifiable relationship between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) blessed both with a lifetime of love, but it began with the heartache of death. When the composer Robert Schumann — Clara’s beloved husband and Johannes’s revered mentor — succumbed to mental illness and died in the asylum where he was committed, Clara was left to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school. Johannes, fourteen years her junior, became her closest confidante, her most steadfast source of affection, and her sturdiest pillar of support through the grief.
In a letter from the autumn of 1857, Brahms sets out to remind her of the wider, longer view of life, which grief so swiftly narrows and blunts. While such perspective may not be the most helpful in the immediate aftermath of loss, and may in fact compound the pain of the bereaved by making him or her feel rushed through the process of grief, here Brahms is offering it after more than a year of bereavement, as a gentle and loving invitation to reawaken to life’s fullness against the backdrop of somnolent hollowness that grief casts.
My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you. It is not true… The more you endeavor to go through times of sorrow calmly and accustom yourself to do so, the more you will enjoy the happier times that are sure to follow. Why do you suppose that man was given the divine gift of hope? And you do not even need to be anxious in your hope, for you know perfectly well that pleasant months will follow your present unpleasant ones, just as they do every period of unhappiness.
After he weighed the pros and cons of marriage, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) decided in favor of matrimony and was wedded to his beloved, Emma Wedgwood. They went on to have a long and loving marriage, made all the stronger by their devotion to the ten children they had together. Darwin’s letters reveal that while he loved all of his children intensely, he especially cherished his eldest daughter, Annie — a sensitive and unselfconsciously awkward girl, kindhearted and voraciously curious about the world, in whom he saw much of himself.
In 1850, Annie fell ill with what was most likely a type of tuberculosis. Despite the Darwins’ frantic efforts in every direction of a cure, she died on April 23, 1851, at the Malvern spa where she’d been taken for treatment. She was ten. Her father was at her dying bedside and her mother home at Down House, caring for the other nine children.
Although the loss plunged Darwin into a depth of misery from which he never fully surfaced, his first priority was to console his bereaved beloved. In a letter included in Adam Gopnik’s magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library), Darwin writes to Emma the day of Annie’s death:
My dear dearest Emma
I pray God Fanny’s note may have prepared you. She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 oclock today. Our poor dear dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, & God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her. She expired without a sigh. How desolate it makes one to think of her frank cordial manners. I am so thankful for the daguerreotype. I cannot remember ever seeing the dear child naughty. God bless her. We must be more & more to each other my dear wife — Do what you can to bear up & think how invariably kind & tender you have been to her… My own poor dear dear wife.
Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with loss, a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief, and these uncommon children’s books that guide kids through the messiness of mourning.
Published March 13, 2017