Tricky Grief

“Dr. Johnson well understood the ‘tormenting and harassing want’ of grief; and he warned against isolationism and withdrawal.  ‘An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference is unreasonable and vain.  If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention.’  But it doesn’t.  Nor do extreme measures, like the attempt to ‘drag [the heart] by force into scenes of merriment’; or its opposite, the attempt ‘to soothe it into tranquility by making it acquainted with miseries more difficult and afflictive.’  For Johnson, only work and time mitigate grief.  ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away’”…


“‘[Loss] hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think.’  The second part of that sentence was what I stubbed my foot against: it struck me as unnecessarily masochistic.  Now I know that it contains truth.  And if the pain is not exactly relished, it no longer seems futile.  Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavor of memory; pain is a proof of love.  ‘If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.’


But there are many traps and dangers in grief, and time does not diminish them.  Self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn, an egotistical exceptionalism: all aspects of vanity.  Look how much I suffer, how much others fail to understand: does this not prove much I loved?  Maybe, maybe not.  I have seen people “doing grief” at funerals, and there is no emptier sight. Mourning can also become competitive: look how much I loved her/him and with these my tears I prove it (and win the trophy).  There is the temptation to feel, if not to say: I fell from a greater height than you – examine my ruptured organs.  The griefstruck demand sympathy, yet, irked by any challenge to their primacy, underestimate the pain others are suffering…” – Julian Barnes, Levels of Life


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