A Journey Through Grief

by Peter Smith

__

Justin, Jenny and Patricia

53 years ago, I married my sweetheart. After two children and two grandchildren I looked back with contentment on a good marriage and a wonderful family. Then came the devastating news. Following the death of my son five years earlier, my wife Jenny would now also die. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given no more than twelve months to live. In the event, she lived for eleven months after the diagnosis. It was the only thing the doctors got right.

This was a strange and unreal eleven months. Family and friends trooped in to say their goodbyes, in the process bringing much happiness to Jenny. In horror, I watched the awful progress of a disease that reduces a beautiful person to a shriveled husk of pain, while I coped with the dreadful demands of caring for a dying person. I had made up my mind to care for and nurse Jenny at home throughout her illness. I have adequate medical insurance and need not have done this. When asked why, I replied that for 53 years she had loved and cared for me. Now was the time for me to repay that debt in full. She would die in the bosom of love. Caring for a dying person is in itself a journey through pain which could be another essay. Dan Tippens has written movingly of how he has done this and after this experience, I regard him with endless respect. He is a mensch.

Then comes that final, awful moment which you knew would come but still it finds you unprepared. Though overwhelmed by grief your time is consumed by an insane flurry of activity. There is so much to be done. Multitudinous arrangements must be made. Daughter and grandchildren must be helped through the shock, and I must find a way to deliver my tribute through the tears. [1] In an impossibly short time, everything must be finalized. Time is telescoped into a mad rush through grief.

When it was all over, I returned to my dark and silent home. Every nook and cranny was permeated by Jenny’s presence. She whispered to me from the furniture, the undusted ornaments, and the un-swept floors. I endured the dejected, doleful gaze of my dogs. When I returned from my runs there was no one to greet me, ask about the run and show concern for my running injuries. Her gentle caring presence had melted away. There was no voice to reply and share. The center of my life had been torn out, leaving a hole 53 years deep and 53 years wide. This was a chasm of incomprehensible size. Every moment of every day was spent moving around the edges of this chasm, trying not to fall into it. Distantly, I heard the voices of friends, family, and community. I felt their love reaching out to me, but it could not find me where I had gone.

I had to find my own way out. This is my personal journey through grief. It is a description and not advice or guidance. Looking for perspective, I turned to Cicero’s and Seneca’s accounts of grief, since I am by nature a Stoic (Stoicism and Catholicism are natural companions). They seemed relevant because these were philosophers that lived in a high mortality environment and were intimately acquainted with death. Reading them brought home to me that life is a march through death and that no one is spared. I found Seneca’s epistle XCIX to Marcia, On Consolation to the Bereaved helpful. [2] Here is an analysis of it. [3] I found useful insights but also points of disagreement. This was my own path to navigate.

For example, I must note that I disagree with Seneca when he says to Marcia “A son, a little child of unknown promise, is dead; a fragment of time has been lost”. What was lost was not a “fragment of time” but all the potential that could have been attained in the future.

Servio Sulpucius, writing to Cicero about his daughter, Tullia’s death, urged perspective-taking, a common Stoic technique. [4] But imagine, as has happened to me, that you are walking alone through the mountains when you slip on a high mountain ledge, leaving you clinging on by your fingertips above a 200m drop. At that moment of desperation, no amount of perspective taking has the slightest relevance. Every fiber of your being is focused on that one moment. Such is grief. Perspective comes later, in retrospect.

Now, others will tell you that my experience is quite normal and everyday. People die all the time. People grieve and recover, so get over it; resume your life and play your necessary role with dignity and courage. This is somewhat in the spirit of both Seneca’s letter and Sulpucius’ letter. You can see it in the attitudes of the people around you. They are supportive, kind and understanding at first but this soon wears thin. They can’t see that the world has tilted on its axis. They can’t hear that their words are muffled and make no sense. They don’t see that you move in a parallel universe, only tenuously connected with theirs. For each individual, this is an utterly unique, first-of-a-kind experience for which there is no preparation or precedent and where normality has no meaning. This was my grief, and it was beyond the understanding of others. But that also made it my responsibility. If this was uniquely my grief, it was also uniquely my responsibility to chart my journey towards recovery.

But first I had to let the fire of grief burn through my soul. I understood that I had to feel it before I could deal with it. It was like a bush fire consuming all that lived in me until there was just ash left. Then, at the nadir of my life, with just devastation left, I could make the deliberate, conscious decision to start my journey towards recovery. How long does this take? It depends. At the battle of Cannae, the Romans experienced the most devastating loss of all time. [5] Every Roman family was bereaved. The Senate was forced to declare that mourning – the public manifestation of grief – was to cease after thirty days so that the nation could begin recovery. This underlies the importance of making a conscious, deliberate decision to start recovery and setting a date on this. I made this decision exactly six months after Jenny’s death. Each person has his own timetable.

I started with my photographs. I had taken many photos of Jenny throughout our marriage, showing her in all the stages of youth through to old age. I took out the photos of Jenny that showed her in her prime as a beautiful person. This was the person I wanted to remember since I believed it was most truly representative of her inner nature. See the photo above. With these images came the memories of all the good we had shared in our lives together. These images and memories slowly displaced the images of pain and deterioration, though they were accompanied by many tears. Now something wonderful happened. The feelings of loss were gradually alleviated by gratitude for her presence in my life, for the beauty and joy she had brought into it. My life had been made better by her presence, even though it entailed a necessary loss. I also remembered the happiness I had brought her, and this made me feel that my life had been worthwhile. Grief was being displaced by gratitude. The loss was still keenly felt but the edges of the pain had been softened. Death could not take away past joys, and I should not let grief obscure them. This was one of the key points that Seneca made.

Grief is a strange mixture of emotions, one of which is regret. You feel regret for what you did not do; what you did not do well enough; or what you might have done. You could have been more kind or more attentive. You could have taken her out more often, listened more carefully, etc. I had many regrets. These I dealt with by first recognizing them, analyzing them honestly and then understanding that regrets cannot change anything except cause harm to the person feeling regret. Death is the great interruption which always leaves many things incomplete and unfinished, with the attendant regrets.

Then comes guilt. One remembers the wrongs one inflicted on the other, such as impatience, irritation, or harsh words. Here again it is time to be honest and admit one’s guilt. We are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world, making mistakes all the time and no one is exempt. From her new perspective, Jenny would instantly forgive me, just as she did so readily during our life together, and so I must forgive myself.

The companion of guilt is resentment or blame for the other person’s imagined slights and hurts. As I said before, we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world and so the other person also makes mistakes. Then, if I want forgiveness, so too does she deserve forgiveness.

These harmful companions of grief – regret, guilt and resentment – must be recognized, consigned to the bonfire of the past and reduced to ashes. This is a conscious decision that takes some time to enact. I followed a process of taking each issue, examining it once, dealing with it, putting it away and not returning to it. This takes discipline. It is similar to the old office principle of touching a piece of paper only once. [6] This eliminates obsessive reconsideration that keeps doubts alive.

The grieving sense of loss, that I described above has its own companion, and that is fear. It is fear that the person has simply vanished into a vast undefinable emptiness, making them unreachable forever. This fear multiplies the sense of loss. We are psychologically incapable of accepting non-being. Every morning we return from that cessation of being that we call sleep, and this may be responsible for that inchoate feeling of being eternal creatures whose existence continues for ever. So, we gladly surrender ourselves to sleep, knowing we will return. And yet death seems to be a visible, violent, and shocking contradiction of this inner sense of eternity. We cannot surrender ourselves to death because we see no prospect of return. Now, as it happens, I am a Christian who believes in eternal life, but even these beliefs offer no prospect of return, only a vaguely defined destination.

However, my unconventional Christian beliefs do offer the prospect of return. What I believe is a form of metempsychosis (also known as reincarnation or transmigration), first put forward in the Church by St. Origen. [7] [8] According to this belief the indestructible soul is reborn successively in new bodies, but without old memories. In this way the person is repeatedly exposed to new circumstances, opportunities, and trials, freed from the entrapments, suffering and failures of the past, leading to renewal and character growth, becoming a better person, and resulting in the gradual creation of a better world. Accordingly, Jenny is now a happy infant somewhere, facing a world of new opportunity. This is a great consolation to me. It also makes sense of the existential problem of natural and moral evil.

Atheists would argue that it is exactly this psychological need to deal with death that has given rise to religion and has maintained its appeal. I respect that. But how then can an atheist deal with this problem of death and grief? I suggest that the life of the individual also continues through and is reflected in the life of the community, where they live on in the manner in which they have touched the community. It has been said that no one is dead for as long as there is someone left to remember them. These are also a source of consoling hope. I am interested in hearing other perspectives.

What I have described above are the main stages of grief and recovery, as I have experienced them. They are:

–the agonizing pain of loss

–the gratitude of remembrance

–the confounding emotions of regret, guilt and resentment

–the fear of non-being

–the hope that it all makes sense

–perspective taking, becoming reconciled with the new reality

–beginning a process of renewal

Finally, having worked through this tumultuous storm of emotions I entered a period of perspective-taking where I started to become reconciled to this new reality, allowing renewal to start. I understood the natural inevitability of death and even its necessity as an instrument of progress. In a broader sense, death is what makes renewal possible, even if we rebel against this notion on an individual level. I discovered that pain and suffering are transient and that beyond this lies recovery. Jenny showed astonishing grace and courage in the way she endured her suffering. I was filled with admiration for her. The lesson I drew from this is that it is in the nature of life that we are all called upon to suffer. [9] This is an inevitability; but we can do so with grace and courage, thus being an example to and inspiring others.

I understood that I had lost that part of me that had made me more than myself. Now I had to learn to conduct life on my own. This was a forgotten skill and reacquiring it was a lonely, painful process. But, I had to embrace it.

Having at last become reconciled to the devastation in my life I could begin to turn my attention to repairing it and renewing myself, without guilt. I knew that Jenny would want this.

My first tentative steps were just to start doing things. Motion seems to mask and displace pain. In particular, I started making things. I created electronics projects and programmed them. I designed things and fashioned them, coaxing them to work and do something useful. I started to experience joy in creating things. We are a creative species that finds fulfilment in acts of creation, and I was returning to one of the most basic urges of our species, one that defined us and our community. [10] I exposed myself to beauty, looking for instances wherever I went and learned once again to take joy in it. Then I started to return the love which had supported me though my grief.

I found that creativity, beauty, and love are the nourishing balm for a damaged soul, bringing joy to it. They are like water in a parched desert, bringing renewal and growth.

An important part of my renewal I found was to redefine and clarify the narrative of my life with Jenny. [11] [12] I cannot emphasize enough the importance of narrative construction and renewal. I recast the narrative so that it is dominated by grateful remembrance on the one hand, and hope on the other, while eliminating regret, guilt, and resentment. I banished loss from my vocabulary, replacing it with gratitude. As part of recasting this narrative, I talk as much as I can about Jenny to my family. I bring out the photos often, and they reinforce whatever it is I am talking about. I remember with gratitude her gentle kindness and her loving support. I recalled all that we had shared and replayed the story of our life together. I understood how much my life has been made better by the role she played in it, and this gave me a profound sense of gratitude.

Re-energized by the gratitude supplied by this narrative foundation I have returned to my life, creating as much as I can and run even more than before. [13] [14] I socialize more. I look for and enjoy beauty wherever I can find it. I treasure the love of my family and friends. I am especially grateful to them.

The chasm is still present in my life, undiminished in size but the edges have been softened. I have put up a guard rail around the chasm so that I do not fall in. In quiet moments I still weep but not as often. I have journeyed through grief to gratitude.

Postscript

This has been a description of a personal journey. It has not tried to address the broader philosophical questions raised by life in the context of suffering, loss, death, and the problems of natural and moral evil, except to describe one person’s reaction to them. These general questions are better dealt with in a separate essay. To all the grieving, hurting people out there I can only say, I feel for you and my best wishes go with you as you navigate your own journey through grief.

Notes

[1] The tribute I delivered at Jenny’s funeral.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uj3WMlkKPf_iAMcPMBHqLXsz70vC5TCa/view?usp=sharing

[2] A Stoic take – Seneca’s epistle XCIX, On Consolation to the Bereaved

https://archive.org/details/adluciliumepistu03seneuoft/page/128/mode/2up

[3] See this analysis of Seneca’s letter to Marcia – Seneca on Overcoming Grief

https://dailystoic.com/seneca-overcoming-grief-facing-death-true-nature-life/

and Living Without the Dead, finding solace in ancient Rome, a detailed examination of Roman grieving culture.

https://comingbacktolife.mcgill.ca/article/view/7/53

[4] Servius Sulpicio, writing to Cicero about his daughter, Tullia’s death.

https://www.bartleby.com/9/3/27.html

[5] Aftermath of the Battle of Cannae. The Romans set about recovering from their devastating loss.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae#Aftermath

[6] Touch the paper once is an old office rule for productivity.

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/21/touch-it-once-method-for-tasks-can-boost-productivity.html

[7] Metempsychosis, also known as transmigration or reincarnation, though the different words can convey different meanings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metempsychosis

[8] Flesh and Fire, reincarnation in the early church. This is a detailed description of reincarnation beliefs in the early Church which sound quite quaint and farfetched today. I don’t subscribe to the details but I quote this to show that the early Church had earnestly considered the question.

https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2019/03/19/flesh-and-fire-reincarnation-and-universal-salvation-early-church

[9] Psalm 22, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Arguably one of the best known of the many psalms of lamentation in the Book of Psalms.

http://web.mit.edu/jywang/www/cef/Bible/NIV/NIV_Bible/PS+22.htm

[10] The Creative Spark, how imagination made humans exceptional by Augustin Fuentes. Being creative is fundamental to who we are.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31626670-the-creative-spark

[11] Narrative exposure therapy is an important tool for treating trauma.

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-narrative-therapy

[12] See also The Effectiveness of Narrative Exposure Therapy.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6450467/

An amusing aside to this is what is known as rubber duck debugging,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

This is a narrative technique for debugging software. Some programmers talk to their rubber ducks! Atheists might claim that rubber duck debugging is the other impetus for religion. But no matter, vigorous internal narrative plays a vital role in ordering our thoughts, settling our emotions and making sense of them. If you are hesitant about talking to your rubber duck, talk to your dog instead, but he might not understand.

[13] Gratitude is the source of happiness. A TED talk by the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast outlines the case for gratitude.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtBsl3j0YRQ

[14] The brain changing effects of exercise. The best thing you can do for your brain is exercise the body. A TED talk by neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki.

https://www.ted.com/talks/wendy_suzuki_the_brain_changing_benefits_of_exercise

A final note. Readers will note that this is, for the most part, a non-religious account of my journey through grief. A religious account would employ metaphors, language, and concepts unfamiliar to most readers, so I have omitted this.

13 comments

  1. Powerful, devastating, and heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing such personal thoughts and reminiscences and for writing about them so beautifully.

  2. Thanks, Peter, for a very moving essay.

    I lost my son, Pablo, 20 years ago at age 15. That grief has never gone and never will. The least I can do for him is to grieve his loss every day. I owe him that.

    1. SW,
      thanks.
      My heartfelt sympathy. Losing a child is a most grievous loss that has no equal.

      I owe him that

      Your compatriot, Pablo Neruda, said(For All to Know)

      Someone will ask later, sometimes
      searching for a name, his own or someone else’s
      why I neglected his sadness or his love
      or his reason or his delirium or his hardships:
      and he’ll be right: it was my duty to name you,
      you, someone far away and someone close by,
      to name someone for his heroic scar,
      to name a woman for her petal,
      the arrogant one for his fierce innocence,
      the forgotten one for his famous obscurity.
      But I didn’t have enough time or ink for everyone.

      You have named your son and by doing that you honour his memory.

      1. Peter,

        Thank you for your words of sympathy and once again for your so eloquent essay.

  3. Peter:
    A moving document. You were very fortunate to have had such a long and happy marriage. I filled up a few times. The texts that you gathered show that the imputation of coldness to the Stoics is false. The gratitude to his parents by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has a warm dignity that reaches across two thousand years.
    Thank you.

  4. This was an extremely moving post to read through. Illuminating, shattering, and enlightening, and an admirable tribute to your wife and to the long and rewarding life and love that you shared. Grief is an educator for the soul. Thank you for writing it.

  5. Peter,
    I am sorry for your losses. I hope that the healing continues for you. You can not be “made” whole, but you can ever recognize your wholeness.

    “I closed her eyes; and there flowed a great sadness into my heart, and it was passing into tears, when my eyes at the same time, by the violent control of my mind, sucked back the fountain dry, and woe was me in such a struggle! But, as soon as she breathed her last the boy Adeodatus burst out into wailing, but, being checked by us all, he became quiet. In like manner also my own childish feeling, which was, through the youthful voice of my heart, finding escape in tears, was restrained and silenced. For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that funeral with tearful plaints and groanings; for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, wont to be mourned. But she neither died unhappy, nor did she altogether die. For of this were we assured by the witness of her good conversation, her ‘faith unfeigned’ (1 Timothy 1:5), and other sufficient grounds.” Augustine, Confessions, Bk IX, chapter 12.

  6. Thanks very much Peter.

    Those of us who have been lucky in life, as I have, need to be reminded that a “tumultuous storm of passions” lies just a whisker away.

    “I understood how much my life has been made better by the role she played in it, and this gave me a profound sense of gratitude.” Yes.

    Alan

Comments are closed.