I didn’t write this; I came across it this summer in an article about Lady Diana’s death, and I copied and pasted it into a Word document on my computer so that I could come back to it later:
“Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?”
There’s so much there, I don’t really even know where to start. I’ve been thinking about this a lot—all of it. I’ve been thinking about Sadness and how well/poorly-prepared we are for its arrival. Because it comes.
I think maybe the Victorian’s were onto something. And I think we modern folk are stupid, trying to convince ourselves that some type of forced cheerfulness in the face of loss has any spiritual merit whatsoever. It perhaps provides some relief to the audience, but it is of no help to the person performing it. If you ask me how I am, and I tell you I’m fine, does that make you feel better? Do you believe me? Why would you?
And we are wise not to confuse Sadness, sorrow, even, with depression. They are not the same.
I’m terribly sad right now. I’m not depressed. How do I know that? I do, and it is your job to believe me. No, I’m not happy. Yes, I cry sometimes. No, I often do not want to talk to anyone. Yes, sometimes my favorite activity is looking out the window for a good long while. And no, I repeat, I am not depressed. If it disturbs you to hear about my sadness, I don’t have to tell you. But if Sadness frightens you or makes you uncomfortable, well, what can I say? That one’s on your plate.
If we feel fine about being happy over happy things, why should we be concerned about feeling sad over sad things?
Yes, I can laugh and enjoy things. Yes, I have been accepting dinner invitations from Pio’s family, not crying over my pizza at them, and having a perfectly good time. Yes, I still try to like something about every day. Maybe walking. Maybe shopping. Persimmons. (OMG, persimmons!) Maybe looking at pictures of Pio and me. Maybe packing my suitcases. I love packing suitcases. If all else fails, I can fill the bathtub up with water so hot it makes me dizzy, and just feel warm.
I never thought I would say this, but I would love it if social custom required me to wear black (or specific in some other way) clothing right now. It would be a relief. It would speak for me. Then I wouldn’t sometimes think, when I find myself having a good time, that perhaps I have for one moment forgotten to feel appropriately sad. Then, when I am crying into the telephone at the train station, no one will wonder if I need them to phone the police. The haunted look I sometimes catch on my face in the mirror would make sense to other people who see it. No explanation needed.
I have no intention of being sad for the rest of my life. I know Pio would not want me to be sad for the rest of my life. But I think he would be alright with me being sad right now. He did not want to leave me—he told me he didn’t—and if dead people can have terrestrial emotions, I think he’s sad too. Or he was at first. If dead people have terrestrial emotions, for how long do they have them? So please don’t try to cheer me up. We can have fun together. We can talk about something else. You can distract me. You can make me laugh. But it is breaking the rules to try to make me feel any particular way.
You want to know what it feels like? Don’t be scared. I will tell you. Because this could be you someday. Death is normal. It feels like instead of being full of blood and bone, inside my skin, I am full of deep space. Light years. Deep, deep, deep silence. Complete stillness where nothing moves or makes a sound. And it’s not frightening. It’s just very deep, and very quiet. Still. And infinite. And now you’re thinking, “Oh—dark cold nothingness! See! She’s depressed!” Shut up. I didn’t say dark or cold or nothing. All of that is beside the point. Besides, the less you say, the closer you are to being right.
Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet,” the only book you ever need to read, has an entire letter devoted to Sadness. It’s Letter #8. You should read it. I would paste the whole thing right here if I thought you would read it all, but I think you might not, so I will only paste one paragraph:
“So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”
So anyway. That’s where I am. That’s what I’m thinking about.
Four weeks and about 1 hour ago, Pio left me here with you. Tomorrow, I will pick up his ashes. In 10 days, I will take him home.
Deep space is where everything ends and begins.
I am sorry for your loss. Your words are helpful to me as I ponder how to help someone going through the end of a relationship–which is not nearly as profound or difficult a loss, yet she has much sadness. Maybe cheering her up isn’t the best approach.
Feeling the emptiness with you. In each photo, each pan of bread, in my kitchen and backyard and dining g table. So much joy and awe at awesome skills shared. See you soon sweet Diana.
My heart goes out to you, Diana.
I haven’t read a post from you in a while ~ I just turned off the television, watching Joan Didion’s story, The Center Will Not Hold. The two of you see to have much in common. As we all do. Your writing is beautiful. Your sharing assists us in realizing our humanity. I too am sorry for you loss.