Thoreau on Living Through Loss
By Maria Popova
There is cosmic consolation in knowing what actually happens when we die — that supreme affirmation of having lived at all. And yet, however much we might understand that every single person is a transient chance-constellation of atoms, to lose a beloved constellation is the most devastating experience in life. It feels incomprehensible, cosmically unjust. It feels unsurvivable.
In the final years of his short and loss-riddled life, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) wrote in his diary:
I perceive that we partially die ourselves through sympathy at the death of each of our friends or near relatives. Each such experience is an assault on our vital force. It becomes a source of wonder that they who have lost many friends still live. After long watching around the sickbed of a friend, we, too, partially give up the ghost with him, and are the less to be identified with this state of things.
Thoreau’s life of losses had begun seventeen years earlier. He was twenty-five when his beloved older brother died of tetanus after cutting himself shaving — a gruesome death, savaging the nervous system and contorting the body with agony. Thoreau grieved deeply. A lifelong diarist, he slipped into a five-week coma of the pen. He tried to listen to the music-box, which had always flooded him with delight, but the sounds came pouring out strange and hollow.
Eventually, the fever dream of grief broke into a new orientation to death. Two months into his bereavement, as the harsh New England winter was cusping into spring, Thoreau wrote to a friend — a letter quoted in the altogether wonderful book Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives (public library):
What right have I to grieve, who have not ceased to wonder? We feel at first as if some opportunities of kindness and sympathy were lost, but learn afterward that any pure grief is ample recompense for all. That is, if we are faithful; for a great grief is but sympathy with the soul that disposes events, and is as natural as the resin on Arabian trees. Only Nature has a right to grieve perpetually, for she only is innocent.
Having resumed his journal, he took up the subject in the privacy of its pages:
I live in the perpetual verdure of the globe. I die in the annual decay of nature. We can understand the phenomenon of death in the animal better if we first consider it in the order next below us the vegetable. The death of the flea and the Elephant are but phenomena of the life of nature.
This was a season of losses in Thoreau’s universe. His friend and mentor Emerson, who had hastened to stay with him and nurse him in the wake of his brother’s death, lost his beloved five-year-old son to scarlet fever, as incurable as tetanus in their era. Now it was Thoreau’s turn to comfort his friend. Leaning on his new acceptance of the naturalness of death as an antidote to grief, he wrote to Emerson:
Nature is not ruffled by the rudest blast. The hurricane only snaps a few twigs in some nook of the forest. The snow attains its average depth each winter, and the chic-a-dee lisps the same notes. The old laws prevail in spite of pestilence and famine. No genius or virtue so rare and revolutionary appears in town or village, that the pine ceases to exude resin in the wood, or beast or bird lays aside its habits.
An epoch before Rilke insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” and a century and a half before Richard Dawkins considered the luckiness of death, Thoreau adds:
Death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident — It is as common as life… Every blade in the field — every leaf in the forest — lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up. When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither — for their death is the law of new life.
Couple these fragments from Three Roads Back with Thoreau on nature as prayer, then revisit the neuroscience of grief and healing, Emily Dickinson on love and loss, Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss, and Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness.
Published March 1, 2023