I'm reading
On grief and love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
On grief and love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
On grief and love
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
6 September 2016

On grief and love

Loss is inevitable, but it does not cancel out love. Grief is a process of keeping that love alive.

Written by Pierz Newton-John

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

Recently one of my mother’s dogs died. A small loss, perhaps, in the scheme of a life, and yet the death of animal companions is still a microcosm of bereavement and can bring deep sorrow. Informing me of the dog’s death, she wrote sadly that, “Pets make us hostage to loss.” And yet the truth is life itself makes the pain of loss inevitable. Grief is just the obverse of love, as winter is to summer, night to day. We cannot have one without the other.

Nowadays people often use the word “passing” in place of death, an odd euphemism in our largely secular age, and yet perhaps not such an inept one, for all deaths are reminders of the fact that everything is transient, that there is nothing gained in life that we must not also, in time, come to lose. Jonathan Safran-Foer put it simply: “Everyone loses everyone.” And not just everyone of course: everything. Ultimate impermanence, as the Buddhists remind us, is the nature of our existence.

It is not a perspective that we like to dwell on in a culture that encourages acquiring and having, as opposed to losing and letting go. We are led to believe we can have everything without being reminded that we can’t keep it. And so we can be singularly unprepared when loss comes to us, adding a strange, compounding sense of shame and failure to the pain of grief. Somehow to lose feels like being a “loser.”

When we think of the word “grief,” we usually think of bereavement: grief in its purest and rawest form. Yet grief and bereavement are not synonymous. Grief is the emotion that we experience in the face of loss, and loss takes many forms. We grieve for our childhoods, for dreams we have to let go of, for our youth and beauty, for old places that the march of time has erased, for friendships that somehow slip away. A fully lived life is also, necessarily, an accumulation of losses. Sometimes we grieve in great gusts, when big losses strike unexpectedly. Other times our grief is like a slow leak, as life travels through our fingers.

Bereavement is a storm that can rip us from our certainties, plunging us into a confrontation with the bare ground of being. In our modern, secular, de-ritualised world, it can be a particularly stark and lonely place. We no longer have the social rituals that helped previous generations navigate the wilderness of grief, and in many cases we also lack the anchoring in religious faith that once sustained people in times of loss.

In such a culture grief can tempt us to nihilism, believing the universe is a cold, harsh place in which human struggle is futile, love a biochemical accident and meaning at best a security blanket. What purpose can it all have, we think, if ashes must ultimately return to ashes?

And yet strangely the equation of love and loss seems not to sum to zero. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has noted the powerful transformative potential of grief, something transcendent at its core. Those who dare to enter fully into their grief, she claims, can find a way not merely through their pain, but also to a changed relationship with themselves and the world.

I personally experienced something like this when my beloved grandmother Mollie died. I found myself at first strangely numb, and worried at my lack of feeling. Yet grief came eventually in a dream in which her garden—an acre of fruit trees on which I had feasted through the long summers of childhood—caught fire, each tree burning in a flame of cerise or yellow as the garden folded itself up once and for all. I heard a song of tremendous sadness and beauty, and the words “sublime grief ” came to me. I realised then that loss does not cancel out love at all. As much as we may shy away from the sorrow of our grief, this is the farewell tribute we pay to our fleeting heydays. It is a necessity but it is also an honour in a way, for we always grieve for something granted only to us, something unique and irreplaceable. Grief is the just affirmation of the value of the love we have known.

Pierz Newton-John

Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.

 

Feature image by Siddharth Khajuria

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