When my father died, many friends and acquaintances offered words of condolence and sympathy. Some shared memories of my father or of theirs. Many offered practical support. Still others acknowledged the grief that I was going through and empathized with the emotions I was feeling.
But one colleague responded quite differently. He said that he has spoken with his father more frequently after his death than he did in life.
My friend found comfort in these conversations with his dad. It was a way to seek guidance, ask unanswered questions and find a degree of closure on unresolved issues from his past. While his father’s physical presence was gone, the emotional and spiritual connection continued to evolve and deepen through ongoing conversations and reflection.
Those dialogues with the dead kept his father’s memory alive. It allowed my friend to sustain their relationship in a symbolic and meaningful way, keeping the connection intact in his heart and mind.
Losing a parent can be among life’s most crushing blows. But it can lead to the kind of introspection that can deepen your emotional sensibilities and help us reflect on that relationship and the moments we shared with the deceased.
Talking to departed loved ones, even if they are no longer physically present, can serve as a way to process emotions, express feelings and sustain a connection even as we seek a sense of closure. This reflects the enduring nature of love and the power of memory in shaping our relationships, even beyond the boundaries of life and death.
Loss and grief, raw, visceral and filled with guilt, regret and anger, are not only universal human experiences but are among the strongest emotional experiences we will ever feel. Who can’t empathize with Lear:
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?”
Or as Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Profound losses leave us paralyzed and mute, unable really to comprehend them, still less to speak coherently about them.” True, she added, we move on: “eventually, we do speak—we breathe, we sleep, we eat, we go for walks in the sun, we find ourselves laughing with our friends—we marry again (as I have), to our astonishment.” But we aren’t the same: “For the old life is gone, the old love has vanished. Grief is the most humane of emotions but it is a one-sided emotion: it is not reciprocated.”
Chika Unigwe in The Middle Daughter speaks an essential truth:
“We never truly heal from grief, it’s one of those wounds that time don’t heal. Time may make you more used to the pain, like it’s a companion you have to hold dear, but the pain, it never leaves. Sometimes, you may catch yourself about to fall when the force of grief attacks you, sometimes you do fall and weep and tell yourself to stand back up.”
A practical, technical or vocational major may have value in the job market, but it won’t provide the emotional or philosophical tools needed to cope with profound personal experiences like the death of a parent. For that, one needs a grounding in the humanities, which delve into the human experience, emotions and existential questions that arise during our most significant life events.
We respond to loss in many ways: With shock and denial. With intense sadness. With anger and frustration. With guilt and regret. Through withdrawal and isolation. With loss of appetite, fatigue and the somatic symptoms that are the products of emotional distress.
We recently exited a period of unexpected pandemic-induced mass death. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the loss of over a million lives in the United States alone passed by without much public acknowledgment or commemoration, for grief and loss and mourning are largely treated in this society as a private, individual or family matter.
But this made it especially eye-opening to read a literature review of “The Many Faces of Grief” during the pandemic. The author, Ritesh M. Kumar of the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, examines 33 studies that examined the various responses to loss, including grief for the self, relational grief and collective grief.
The reviewed studies suggest that for every individual who died, nine others experienced intense grief and many were unable, due to the lockdown, to say goodbye in person or arrange a proper funeral, complicating their grieving process and resulting, in many cases, in chronic, even pathological, grief.
Some responded to COVID-caused deaths in ways predicted by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but for many others, grieving did not involve a linear progression through the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some experienced phases of numbing, disorganization and despair before beginning a process that the author calls reorganization. Many underwent anticipatory grief, as they feared for a hospitalized or institutionalized loved one’s well-being.
Others felt ambiguous grief, the uncertainty over whether a loved one was in danger and whether someone had somehow brought the illness upon themselves, for instance, by failing to quarantine or mask or get vaccinated. Many experienced what’s called disenfranchised grief, the losses that go unacknowledged by a community of relatives and friends.
Loss took many forms. There was the loss of loved ones, but also other forms of personal loss: of jobs, financial security, of sociability and of various life events and milestones. As a result, many individuals experienced multiple losses and stresses that compounded one another and, for some, proved almost unbearable. It seems to me that we still see much unprocessed, unresolved trauma.
In the face of loss, we’d do well to turn to the humanities. Among the humanities’ most important functions is to deepen and enrich our emotional and moral sensibilities—to expand our moral imagination, our capacity to envision different moral perspectives, while fostering reflection and spurring our personal and moral development.
That, however, is not, in general, how we teach the humanities at the lower-division level.
Shame on us.
Grief and mourning, like every element of life, have an anthropology and a history. Belief in reincarnation or salvation, an afterlife or heaven and hell, or in ancestral spirits shaped responses to death. But there was also a more stoic view, never stated more eloquently than in Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
In earlier societies, there were rich traditions of rituals and customs to provide comfort, support and a structured framework for individuals and families grieving the loss of a loved one.
For Jews, there is the mourner’s Kaddish. It is recited to sanctify and praise God, rather than to mourn the dead. Then, there is sitting shiva, a week when close family members come together and receive visitors who come to offer condolences. Typically, mourners sit on low stools or the floor to symbolize their grief and vulnerability. Following shiva, there is a secondary mourning period called sheloshim, which lasts for 30 days from the burial. During this time, mourners gradually transition back into their daily routines, but they continue to refrain from festive activities and may not shave or get haircuts. Then Jewish mourners mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one with a special candle-lighting ceremony called yahrzeit.
Forms of grieving have changed over time, whether one speaks of the reticence and sense of resignation that the 17th-century English and colonists were encouraged to display or the highly visible public displays of grief that characterized the Victorian era: Through the mourning attire known as widow’s weeds. The period of seclusion. The mourning jewelry, the brooches and lockets that might contain the deceased’s hair or a miniature portrait. The wreaths made of hair, the funeral photography, the mourning stationery.
Literature and philosophy offer especially valuable lenses onto the existential questions raised by mortality and loss. They can encourage us to reflect on who we are, what it means to be human and our place in the world. They can also teach us about resilience, vulnerability and the consequences of our actions.
Don’t process profound loss by yourself. Read great works that delve into the psychological aspects of grief and that attempt to find meaning in the face of loss.
For example, John Donne’s Sonnet X (“Death be not proud”), his meditation on the triumph of the soul over physical death and his declaration of the power of faith and the afterlife in the face of mortality. Rather than something to be feared, the 17th-century metaphysical poet suggests, death is not as powerful as it may seem. It cannot truly conquer or annihilate the individual; it is merely a transition, a temporary rest or sleep from which individuals awaken to eternal life.
Or Milton’s “Lycidas.” Written in memory of a friend who drowned at sea, it speaks to death’s inevitability, nature’s indifference to human suffering, the transience of fame, the souls journey after death and mourning as a creative act.
Or Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” with its profound reflections on the universality of death and the unfulfilled potential of those who are now forgotten.
Or Shelley’s “Adonais,” written in memory of John Keats. It is, of course, about the injustice of early death and nature’s indifference to the pain of human existence. But it’s also about elegy as an act of mourning and the immortality achieved through poetry.
Or Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” a poem that grapples with questions of faith, doubt, despair and acceptance and the theological implications of suffering and death and the mysteries of creation.
Or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” with its references to the cyclic nature of life and death, death as a universal experience, and death as not the end but a transition to another state of existence. It also describes the way that nature itself mourns the death of Abraham Lincoln and how poetry can serve as a source of solace and healing.
Or Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, with its deeply moving meditations upon the randomness of death, how grief can strain and alter relationships, the difficulty of preserving memory, and the irrational, illogical, unfounded thoughts that can emerge in the aftermath of a loss.
And certainly read Meghan O’Rourke’s New Yorker essay “Good Grief,” which discusses how individuals navigate loss in the contemporary world:
- How grief has become individualized, with mourners free to choose how to grieve in their own unique ways.
- How, in the digital age, social media platforms and online memorialization have provided new outlets for expressing grief and connecting with others who are mourning.
- How advances in medicine may extend the lives of loved ones while also prolonging the grieving process.
- How even as society has become more open about acknowledging grief and the lasting impact of loss, it also stigmatizes the mourning process, encouraging individuals to move on quickly after a loss and treating loss as a catalyst for personal growth.
In an increasingly secular, post-Darwinian world in which death has been medicalized and in which the universe is widely considered indifferent to our tears and cries of pain, where belief in an afterlife has diminished and a naturalistic view of the biology of death has supplanted a religious understanding, responses to death and loss have tended to become more private and individualized. For most of us, there are no formal rituals and rites or community of mourners to structure our grief. Instead, grieving is widely regarded as a psychological state to be worked through and resolved in order to achieve closure.
I’m not much one for self-help books, but a couple of books on loss and grief have left a lasting imprint on my thinking.
One, Uncoupling, by the eminent Columbia sociologist Diane Vaughan, is anything but a work of pop psychology. It’s a serious study of the process through which couples break up, “irrespective of age, race, religion, gender, sexual preference, type or length of the relationship.” Estrangement typically begins in secret, as one partner ceases to see herself or himself as part of a couple but as a separate single individual.
Instead of confiding in the partner and trying to work out the relationship’s problems in a serious way early on, the “initiator” gradually defines the other person in increasingly negative terms and starts to view the relationship’s history in disparaging words, until the bond appears to be unsalvageable.
By the time the other partner recognizes what has transpired, the relationship is already irreparably, irretrievably broken. Indeed, as one reader observes, “once the pattern starts it is normally impossible to stop it.” Neither counseling nor therapy will break this dynamic, leaving the other partner with “no real understanding of what has happened and … quite devastated.” Reading this book “won’t cure your sorrow, but it will give you a way to understand what has or is occurring and indirectly achieve some distance from the pain.”
The other book is Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. Viorst, best known as a children’s writer and author of light poetry, draws upon literature, psychoanalysis and personal experience to explore “how we grow and change through the losses that are a certain and necessary part of life.” It is “through the loss of our mothers’ protection, the loss of the impossible expectations we bring to relationships, the loss of our younger selves and the loss of our loved ones through separation and death [that] we gain deeper perspective, true maturity and fuller wisdom about life.”
Loss is, alas, an inevitable part of life. Indeed, one could say that life is loss: The loss of dependence. The loss of childhood innocence, naïveté and carefree play. The loss of friends. The loss of youthful energy, idealism and dreams. The loss of health and freedom. The loss of loved ones. Life is tough, sad and often tragic, even as it can be enormously joyful and fulfilling.
But if losses are intrinsic parts of life, they can be accompanied by corresponding gains: in personal growth, new experiences and deeper understanding. Coping with loss and change is a part of the human journey, and individuals can develop resilience and adaptability as they navigate these inevitable transitions.
Still, loss stings, and for many of us, the throbbing never ends.
So, savor your relationships, whether with partners, relatives or friends. Never forget those who touched your life. Celebrate your loved one’s life and legacy. Preserve their memory through charitable contributions, scholarships or other forms of commemoration.
Seek succor and support from friends, family and, yes, clergy, counselors, therapists and support groups. But also engage in existential reflection. Contemplate the impermanence of life, the value of existence and the need to find meaning and purpose in the face of mortality.
Read Epicurus on the need to accept the inevitability of death. Read Nietzsche on the importance of embracing suffering, pain and loss as key ingredients in growth. Reflect on Camus and Sartre’s argument about the need to confront the absurdity of existence and create one’s own meaning and values in life, even in the face of mortality. Read Heidegger on how awareness of finitude can lead to a deeper understanding of our own purpose and values. Read Kübler-Ross on the importance of continuing bonds with the deceased and the role of memory in keeping the loved one’s presence alive.
And, yes, dialogue with the dead.