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Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

In addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riser, Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, 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 Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.

He writes:

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 Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.

BP

Joan Didion on Grief

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne wrote in his 16th-century essay on death and the art of living. And yet we continue to grapple with the paradox of our mortality. But arguably our most formidable and intense confrontation with nonexistence comes when we lose loved ones. In The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) — her harrowing record of the year following the death of her husband of four decades, John Gregory Dunne — Joan Didion offers a soul-stirring meditation on grief in all its unimaginable dimensions:

Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be. … Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves.”

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in 1977 (Photograph: AP via NPR)

And then she dives into the rippling depths of it:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a superb read in its entirety — enormously difficult, but the kind that stays with you for a lifetime. Complement it with Didion on self-respect, keeping a notebook, and the motives for writing.

BP

Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

“Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?… You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once.”

Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

Love and death come to us on common terms — unbidden and total, impervious to protest, naked of pretension. They also come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to love anything is to accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, certain to one day go the way of every other consciousness and every other love that ever was and ever will be.

In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is precisely what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated experience of aliveness consecrated by its own perishability.

Walt Whitman touched on this with his tender, unflinching hand when he asked, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he observed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I think, the luckiness of having lived at all, for death is only possible where life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, once existed.

That inescapable interplay is what poet Mark Doty explores throughout his incandescent book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — part biography, part memoir, part lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with death.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the body as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, through which the song of life sings itself and binds us to the chorus of all other bodies:

Begin with the body: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is constantly breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of skin, eyes, ears, nose, holes in the body for substance passing in and out, no stable and fixed entity that is you, but a moving set of points through which pass water, air, light, food, parts of the bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, hands.

[…]

The world enters us and departs, just as language and image and idea are imprinted upon our consciousness, considered, forgotten, passed on, released.

This perishable, permeable body, with its ceaseless entropic flow, lies at the heart of the paradox of desire — that electric impulse felt in the Body and felt in the Soul, furnishing our most palpable evidence that the two are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so desire becomes a sacrament to the interleaving of love and death, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.

Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic ideal of interminable desire within any given love — a concept by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very thing that gives desire its electric charge:

Even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges… The same body that strains toward freedom and escape also has outer edges, also exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the body the sexy and troubling thing it is. O taste and see. Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The longing of the ephemeral body is the Borgesian mirror in which the eternal longing of the soul is endlessly reflected and reflected back, flickering with the bittersweet beauty of our mortal destiny, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:

You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once. The ecstatic body’s a place to feel timelessness and to hear, ear held close to the chest of another, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us ahead and away, and to understand that this awareness does not put an end to longing but lends to it a shadow that is, in the late hour, beautiful.

With an eye to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we are therefore not separate selves but contiguous territories of aliveness made all the more alive and more contiguous by love, Doty writes:

When the Self dissolves into a world of separate selves and death becomes real, love becomes a pact with grief; what is gained then is the inescapably poignant fact of individuality. There will never be another you, and I love the stubborn particularity of you because you will disappear.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.

BP

How to Feel More Alive Each Day and Night: A Cosmic Nightwalk with Derek Jarman

“Here man has invented the heavens but the moon, not to be usurped, shines sickle bright, gathering our souls.”

How to Feel More Alive Each Day and Night: A Cosmic Nightwalk with Derek Jarman

There is an elemental cosmic loneliness in the pit of every human soul. We spend our lives trying to make it bearable and call our efforts love, or art. (Which might, in the end, be one and the same.) Every once in a while, we are lifted out of the pit into a salutary sense of connection and congress with something larger — a sense of being but one wave among the incalculable lapping lonelinesses in the great sea of being, but one string in the grand symphony orchestra of aliveness.

For many of us, this sense awakens most readily in the natural world, where we feel ourselves part of larger rhythms and larger scales beckoning us to take the telescopic perspective of time, space, and being with the broadened lens of the mind. Whitman felt it most intimately “on the beach alone at night.” Hesse felt it among the trees. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry felt it in the desert. I feel it with my hand against the mosses carpeting the old-growth coastal forest.

Many of humanity’s vastest, most sensitive-souled minds have turned to the natural world not only for creative fuel but for a mighty antidote to melancholy. Few have captured that ecstatic sense of cosmic belonging more exquisitely than the English artist and activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) in Modern Nature (public library) — his almost unbearably beautiful record of leaving London to live in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut nestled between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant in a newly designated conservation area on the shingled shores of Kent. There, on this solitary headland, salving grief through gardening, Jarman discovered the consolations of a different kind of time — not the time of atoms and anxieties, but the time of seeds and stars.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

One spring Saturday, after hanging five new paintings on his walls — “all collages of found objects on gold backgrounds” — Jarman writes in the journal:

A hallucinatory dusk, washed with colours to drive Monet to suicide. At sunset the brightest sickle moon appeared in a gentle blue sky; minute by minute gathering in intensity it stayed until just before midnight.

Night clear as a bell — the blue passed through violet with strands of rose and old gold to become a deep indigo. So etched were the moon and stars they seemed to have been cut out by a child to decorate a crib.

The night sky here is a riot that outshines the brightest lights of Piccadilly; the stars have the intensity of jewels. So flat is the Ness that those stars that lie at the horizon touch your very feet and the moon tips the waves with silver.

The passage reminds me of a breathtaking piece by my composer-friend Jherek Bischoff — a piece inspired by one particular night from his boyhood, living on a sailboat with his parents hundreds of miles from land, when the surface of the open ocean was so still that he could no longer discern the horizon line: the stars in the sky and their reflections in the water appeared as a single sphere of spacetime, inside which he felt to be floating.

From his starlit garden perch between the lighthouse and the power plant, Jarman suddenly sees the familiar landscape with new cosmic eyes, all radiance and rapture:

The nuclear power station is a great ocean liner moored in the firmament, ablaze with light: white, yellow, ruby. Whilst round the bay the lights stretch from Folkenstone to Dover. High above, jet liners from the south float silent in the stars. On these awesome nights, reduced to silence, I walk across the Ness.

Never in my many sleepless nights have I witnessed a spectacle like this. Not the antique bells of the flocks moving up a Sardinian hillside, the barking of the dogs and the sharp cries of the shepherd boys, nor moonlit nights sailing the Aegean, nor the scented nights and fireflies of Fire Island, smashed glass star-strewn through the piers along the Hudson — nothing can quite equal this.

In consonance with his artistic and spiritual progenitor Walt Whitman’s faith in the indelible connection between music and nature and with Joseph Cornell’s artistically formative experience at the planetarium, Jarman adds:

The orchestra has struck up the music of the spheres, the spectral dancers on the fated liner whirl you off your feet till you feel the great globe move. Light-hearted laughter. Here man* has invented the heavens’ but the moon, not to be usurped, shines sickle bright, gathering our souls.

Derek Jarman

In this passage from Modern Nature, Jarman does for the night sky what Rachel Carson did a generation earlier for the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life. Complement it with the great nature writer Henry Beston — Carson’s great hero — on night and the human spirit, then revisit poet Marie Howe’s Whitman-inspired, Hawking-inspired ode to our cosmic belonging.

BP

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