Literature, Snow, Healing: A Meditation on Grief
My students wonder why all the literature we read is “so depressing.” It’s hard to tell these teens the truth: that much great literature, great art, great music are born out of suffering and teach us how to live with pain.
Some of them already know great pain. They have lost parents, siblings, other relatives. They endure deep betrayals, debilitating illnesses.
Not all pain has to do with death, but it has been much on my mind recently.
One morning last October I walked to our church to sit in our familiar pews among familiar faces and celebrate a funeral Mass for our friend Anne.*
Anne was 62 and had been suffering from several different serious illnesses. She was a beautiful spirit, musical, laughing, genuinely interested in others. Deeply prayerful and faith-filled. I did not know her as well as I know her husband, but I knew her well enough to know that her spirit radiated generosity and kindness. When she died, I wrote to her husband, who was and is devastated by the loss of his other half and true love:
And now death’s wake is only praise,
as when a neighbor writes and says,
“I did not know your father, but
His light was there. I miss the light.”
(from May Sarton’s “A Celebration for George Sarton”)
The light that day in the church poured through the stained glass like honey, illuminating the faces and heads of those who received Anne’s love and loved her in return. It shone on the lectern when the priest gave his homily focused less on Anne’s life than on her death.
“It was the most peaceful death I ever saw,” he said. “She gave her love to her family members and graciously received their love for her.”
Her husband eulogized her as authentic–that she lived her passions. In his homily, the priest told us to “take the best from her and make it part of the best of you.”
Anne’s daughter, herself a new mom, bent in half in her pew, unable to walk out of church after Mass. Her suffering seemed a tangible burden.
When I was a high school student in love with great literature, I considered the idea of grief in the abstract. Then when I was in college, my high school French 1 teacher was murdered by her husband, who then shot himself, with their 5-year-old son in the house. I did not know what to do with the weight in my chest that wouldn’t go away.
After Madame’s death over Christmas break, there was a heavy snowfall. Thick, wet snow bent in half the arbor vitae behind my parents’ deck. My mom asked my brother and me to help with snow removal, so I grumblingly trudged outside in pajama pants and snow boots, heavy coat and gloves, to brush snow off the limbs.
As I did so, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the trees, my teachers and former classmates had done for each other during Madame’s wake and funeral. Taking turns helping each other stand upright again after being bowed with grief and loss. That this is what we are here for: to help each other through the hard stuff.
Last week, I had a karmic moment with my friend Jen, who was our friend group’s point person during Paddy’s illness. Paddy or his wife would send her information, and she would relay it to all of us, and flow messages back to them. I called her to talk through my irritability, my lack of patience, my sadness.
She told me about how Paddy, from his experience losing his brother at such a young age, helped her learn her own grief process when her friend died years ago. These strategies she now teaches to her students through her Writing to Heal classes.
In this way, Paddy, via Jen, is teaching me how to grieve.
I know that he would not want us to wallow in our sadness, to let it overwhelm us to the point of not being able to function in our families or in our work. But it was healing to learn from Jen that it’s okay to have sad days, to let the sorrow come and also to let it go.
My yoga teacher loves the word “equanimity.” I am trying to reach a place where equanimity rests–where grief and joy can coexist instead of being mutually exclusive. Hamlet does not learn how to let his grief go. Hester Prynne does let her grief go, but does not attain any sense of equanimity with joy, either. Tim O’Brien turns his grief into “story-truth,” figuring out how to live with it.
That’s what we do. We read great literature. We listen to great music. We look long at the mountains across the water as their snowcap glows in the winter sun. We lean on our friends and family when we are bent in half by the weight of pain, and they help us stand up again. We do the same for them. And by being present to this pain, we may still experience our joys and loves in the face of loss.
“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” –J. Krishnamurti
*not her name