“The paradoxical effect of losing a loved one is that their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains… a luminous super-presence.”
By Maria Popova
Perched near the untimely end of a life strewn with losses, contemplating what remains when a loved one vanishes into “the drift called the infinite,” Emily Dickinson wrote:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
I too have waded through the tide pool with its lapping waves of grief. It is impossible to get through a life — through half a life, even — without living through the two most universal human experiences: love and loss, each presupposing the other, each haunted either by the specter of the other or by its ever-present prospect. To love is to live always with the possibility of loss; to sorrow with loss is to have loved.
Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted… Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.
That, too, is what Nick Cave — another lush mind rooted in a large and luminous spirit, another artist of uncommon originality — explores with tremendous sensitivity of insight in answering a young woman’s lyrical question about how to live with the disorientation of grief’s lapping waves, how to parse the almost-thereness with which a loved one gone haunts our days, consecrates the aliveness in all things — trees, birds, wind, night — with the thereness, breaks our heart over and over with the almostness.
The paradoxical effect of losing a loved one is that their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains. That which remains rises in time from the dark with a burning physicality — a luminous super-presence — as we acquaint ourselves with this new and different world. In loss things — both animate and inanimate — take on an added intensity and meaning.
This feeling… of alertness to the inner-spirit of things — this humming — comes from a hard-earned understanding of the impermanence of things and, indeed, our own impermanence. This lesson ultimately animates and illuminates our lives. We become witnesses to the thrilling emergency of the present — a series of exquisite and burning moments, each extinguished as the next arises. These magical moments are the bright jewels of loss to which we cling.
At the heart of the young woman’s question is the central paradox of loss: how in grief we can still be profoundly, transcendently moved by beauty — by a symphony or a sunflower or the song of the hermit thrush — and yet a slender screen of unreality slips between us and these motive forces, us and everything. “It’s strange to feel so connected and yet have a feeling of being so disconnected,” she writes. Cave addresses this paradox not as a disconnect but as the very wellspring of our connection to life:
There is, of course, another side where we lose our resolve — we drop our guard, or just grow tired and descend into that other, darker, less-lovely world, as we disconnect and retreat deep into ourselves… These revolving feelings of connection and disconnection… are the opposing forces of loss that define our lived experience… Many of us inhabit this uncanny realm of loss — and all of us will find our way there in time.
“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”
But we also gain something — out of the burning embers of the loss arises an ashen humility, true to its shared Latin root with the word humus. We are made “of the earth” — we bow down low, we become crust, and each breath seems to draw from the magmatic center of the planet that is our being. It is only when we give ourselves over to it completely that we can begin to take ourselves back, to rise, to live again.
How to move through this barely survivable experience is what author and altogether glorious human being Elizabeth Gilbert examines with uncommon insight and tenderness of heart in her conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson on the inaugural episode of the TED Interviews podcast.
Gilbert reflects on the death of her partner, Rayya Elias — her longtime best friend, whose sudden terminal cancer diagnosis unlatched a trapdoor, as Gilbert put it, into the realization that Rayya was the love of her life:
Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.
There’s this tremendous psychological and spiritual challenge to relax in the awesome power of it until it has gone through you. Grief is a full-body experience. It takes over your entire body — it’s not a disease of the mind. It’s something that impacts you at the physical level… I feel that it has a tremendous relationship to love: First of all, as they say, it’s the price you pay for love. But, secondly, in the moments of my life when I have fallen in love, I have just as little power over it as I do in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you cannot control or command, that will come to you at really inconvenient times, and where you have to bow in the human humility to the fact that there’s something running through you that’s bigger than you.
Gilbert goes on to read a short, stunning reflection on love and loss she had originally published on Instagram:
People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.
Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.
I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.
The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.
When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.
The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.
Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.
I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing.
Gilbert adds in the interview:
It’s an honor to be in grief. It’s an honor to feel that much, to have loved that much.
“All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.”
By Maria Popova
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that transmutation and how do we master it before it masters us when grief descends in one of its unforeseeable guises?
Long before Didion, before Lincoln, another titan of thought — the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca — addressed this in what might be the crowning achievement in the canon of consolation letters, folding into his missive an elegant summation of Stoicism’s core tenets of resilience.
In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced to exile on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for an alleged affair with the emperor’s sister. Sometime in the next eighteen months, he penned one of his most extraordinary works — a letter of consolation to his mother, Helvia.
Helvia was a woman whose life had been marked by unimaginable loss — her own mother had died while giving birth to her, and she outlived her husband, her beloved uncle, and three of her grandchildren. Twenty days after one the grandchildren — Seneca’s own son — died in her arms, Helvia received news that Seneca had been taken away to Corsica, doomed to life in exile. This final misfortune, Seneca suggests, sent the lifelong tower of losses toppling over and crushing the old woman with grief, prompting him in turn to write Consolation to Helvia, included in his Dialogues and Letters (public library).
Although the piece belongs in the ancient genre of consolatio dating back to the fifth century B.C. — a literary tradition of essay-like letters written to comfort bereaved loved ones — what makes Seneca’s missive unusual is the very paradox that lends it its power: The person whose misfortune is being grieved is also the consoler of the griever.
I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things have encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself… Staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds.
But what kept Seneca from intervening in his mother’s grief was, above all, the awareness that grief should be grieved rather than immediately treated as a problem to be solved and done away with. He writes:
I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.
[Now] I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.
Let those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness.
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.
In a sentiment of uncompromising Stoicism, he adds:
All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.
Observing the particular difficulty of his situation — being both his mother’s consoler and the subject of her grief — Seneca finds amplified the general difficulty of finding adequate words in the face of loss:
A man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.
Instead of mere words, Seneca proceeds to produce a rhetorical masterpiece, bringing the essence of Stoic philosophy to life with equal parts logic and literary flair. He writes:
I decided to conquer your grief not to cheat it. But I shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.
First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.
We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.
Fortune … falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.
Seneca makes a sobering case for the most powerful self-protective mechanism in life — the discipline of not taking anything for granted:
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.
For this reason, Seneca points out, he has always regarded with skepticism the common goals after which people lust in life — money, fame, public favor — goals he has found to be “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.” But the converse, he argues, is equally true — the things people most commonly dread are as unworthy of dread to the wise person as the things they most desire are of wise desire. The very concept of exile, he assures his mother, seems so terrifying only because it has been filtered through the dread-lens of popular opinion.
Seneca then comes full-circle to his opening argument that grief is better confronted than resisted:
It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.
Seneca points unwaveringly to philosophy and the liberal arts as the most powerful tools of consolation in facing the universal human experience of loss — tools just as mighty today as they were in his day. Commending his mother for having already reaped the rewards of liberal studies despite the meager educational opportunities for women at the time, he writes:
I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defence against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.
He concludes by addressing the inevitability of his mother’s sorrowful thoughts returning to his own exile, deliberately reframeing his misfortune for her:
This is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth — this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.
A poignant perspective on “the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
By Maria Popova
To outlive one’s children is arguably the most unbearable of human miseries. Even the most empathic among us can never fully imagine the incomprehensible anguish of a parent who has survived the loss of a dear life that had only begun to blossom.
Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world.
With heart-rending and utterly disarming despair, the grieving father goes on to wonder whether some evidence of immortality may be found in the principle of energy conservation in science, then adds:
I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child … has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?
May I have a word from you? I need help badly.
Sixteen years after his sublime letter to the bereaved Queen of Belgium, which stands among history’s greatest letters of consolation, the physicist — himself the father of two boys — takes the time to respond to the grieving stranger. With great sensitivity to his pain, Einstein reminds the anguished father that science cannot provide the assurance of immortality he so longs for, at least not in a literal sense — such claims belong to the realm of religion. Unwilling to call on unreason and illusory comfort even from the depth of sympathy, Einstein instead offers a beautiful and benevolent perspective on the oneness of the universe, reminiscent of the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s ideas about the interdependence of existence. (Einstein and Tagore had bridged science and spirituality in their landmark conversation twenty year earlier.)
Fourteen years after answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Einstein writes on February 12, 1950:
Dear Mr. M.,
A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes,