Tracy K. Smith: Why do we insist he has vanished?


...So why do we insist
he has vanished, that death ran off with our
everything worth having? Why not that he was
swimming only through this life-- his slow,
graceful crawl, shoulders rippling,

legs slicing away at the waves, gliding
further into what life itself denies?
He is only gone as far as we can tell. Though
when I try, I see the white cloud of his hair
in the distance like an eternity.

        --Tracy K. Smith (1972- ), "It's Not" (for Jean) in Life on Mars (2011)

Lincoln: You are sure to be happy again

Executive Mansion,
Washington, December 23, 1862.

Dear Fanny,

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

According to website Abraham Lincoln Online, "President Abraham Lincoln wrote this touching letter of condolence to the daughter of his long-time friend, William McCullough." Lieutenant Colonel McCullough of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry was killed in Coffeeville, Mississippi on December 5th, 1862.

Shi Jing: No one else has no one-- only I bear such grief


The tall thriving herbs
are not herbs, they are hao weeds.
Alas, my father and mother,
who had me and took such pains.
The tall thriving herbs
are not herbs, they are wei weeds.
Alas, my father and mother,
who had me with toil and care.

This wine-jar is empty now,
ashamed to stand near the full ones.
Living as lonely as this,
I should have died long ago.
No father-- no one to support.
No mother-- no one to take care.
When I go out, I brood on their deaths.
When I come in, no one is there.

My father begot me, alas,
my mother nurtured me, alas.
They loved me, they fed me,
they raised me, they taught me.
They watched me, they sheltered me.
I want to pay back their goodness,
boundless as the wide sky.

The southern mountains are stark and cold,
the howling wind is rising.
No one else has no one to help,
only I have this grief.
The southern mountains are ridges of stone,
the howling wind is blasting.
No one else has no one to help,
only I have this sad end.

      --This poem is from the ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, or Shi Jing 詩經. It is a collection of the songs of the people and has been studied in China since the time of Confucius (551-479 BC). The songs date from 1000 BC to about 700 BC. This poem is number 202. The whole poem in Chinese is here. Here are some other English translations of the entire poem.  a  b  c




父兮生我, 母兮鞠我。


Losing your mother is like a world without the sky

The sky in Paris, 22 Oct 05
Nothing prepared me for her loss, even knowing she would die — she had been ill for more than two years. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. Waking up without her is like waking up in a world without  sky: unimaginable. 

....Throughout this time, I experienced an acute nostalgia, a longing for a lost time that was so intense I thought it might split me in two, like a tree hit by lightning. I was flooded by memories — a submersion that threatened to overwhelm me, water coming up around my branches, rising higher. I yearned for the sound of her voice saying my name....

I was surprised by how physical grief’s toll was....Medication might have helped, of course, and there were times when I thought:  ‘Just give me something to take the pain away.’

I kept coming back to a simple fact: my pain was caused by the absence of my mother. Did I want to deny this? Did I want to take something to make it go away? No. Grief is common. We know it exists all around us. But experiencing it made me suddenly aware of how difficult it is to confront head-on. When we do, it’s usually in the form of self-help: we want to heal our grief. We’ve subscribed to the belief (or pretence) that it happens in five easy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 

Though we’ve become open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief remains taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent....

Mainly, I thought: ‘My mother is dead, and I want her back.’ A mother is a story with no beginning; that is what defines her. What are you to do when the story ends?

...After a loss, you have to learn to believe a loved one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally....

Screen shot 2011-08-21 at 21.32.04
But I still believed she was coming back. Deep down, I felt she would, through some effort of mind, reconstitute herself and appear to me, even as a ghostly form. Grief is not linear, it turns out; it comes in waves, which ebb and subside at unexpected moments.People kept saying: ‘It gets better after a year.’ And it did in one sense: I could go for days without thinking too much about the fact someone I still loved as dearly was dead. But to expect grief to ‘heal’ is to imagine it is possible to stop loving, to reconcile yourself to the fact the loved one is gone. Living with grief, I came to think, is like being a tree confronted with an obstacle. You have to grow around it; your path is shaped by it.

I still think about my mother every day, but on most days the grief is lighter, less oppressive. With my mother’s death the person who brought me into the world left it, a door closing behind her, a line of knowledge binding her body to mine in the old ways. Who else contained me, felt me kick, nursed me? She crosses my mind like an exotic  bird flying past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone. 

    --Meghan O'Rourke, U.K. Daily Mail, 21 August 2011. Excerpt from her book  The Long Goodbye (publ. Virago 2011)


Gwyneth Paltrow on the death of her father
Bruce and Gwyneth Paltrow

I loved working alongside my father. My father died two weeks before I started working on the film Sylvia and that was without question the worst and most devastating thing that’s ever happened to me.

My brother, Jake, was really insistent that I do it [the movie]. He said to me, "You know you can’t just wander around your house like a zombie." He said it’s better that you have something to do, and that you get up every morning and go.

I’m sure I was not a lot of laughs by any stretch of the imagination! I was so depressed about my father, and I was doing this incredibly heavy piece.

My mom was great. We flew down to New Zealand together, which was really lovely. You know, it was just comforting to be together, to eat our meals together and to work together.

Everything got deeper after he died—work and personally. I had lost so much, and my perspective had changed so much, that I thought, I’m not going to live in this cautious way anymore. In work, or in any area of my life, I’m just going to make it count.

I am really lucky to have so much video footage of my father. There are various interviews, so sometimes when I want to get really depressed, I sit down and watch him on TV and cry a lot! But I’m glad that someday my child will be able to see him, and hear his voice and get a sense of who he was. I want to keep him close to all of us and keep it personal.

The combination of losing my father, turning 30, taking a year off, and doing a play, has completely shifted everything.

I realized life is so short and precious. You should do things that make you feel inspired, that push you and teach you something. I’d rather not have a big house, a huge closet of clothes, diamonds and a private plane, but would rather have a body of work that I’m proud of and make my life as extraordinary as I can make it.

I was in so much denial for so much of his illness. The thought of life without my father was totally unfathomable to me.

It was a very difficult time. I just did not know what was wrong with me. I felt very detached, I felt like I was a shell of myself. I just felt like I was going through the motions of the things in my life.

[Her daughter was born two years after her father's death.] She’s been very healing for us – for myself, my brother, my mother. For me, the greatest joy before I gave birth to her was the idea that she would be one-quarter my father.

By the time I realized I needed medication, I was already coming out of it. I really feel for any woman who’s had it or going through it, because it’s not easy.

    --Gwyneth Paltrow on the death of her father, Bruce, in 2002. Interviews, People magazine and LifeStyles magazine.

Tom loses his father: "A want at every step in life"

New Orleans at the time of the story, about 1847.

Tom Aldrich had been sent from his home in New Orleans to live with his grandfather in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His father's business was in New Orleans. Tom was now about 12.

The cholera*, which someone predicted would visit the country that year, and which, indeed, had made its appearance in a mild form at several points along the Mississippi River, had broken out with much violence at New Orleans.

The report that first reached us through the newspapers was meagre and contradictory; many people discredited it; but a letter from my mother left us no room for doubt. The sickness was in the city. The hospitals were filling up, and hundreds of the citizens were flying from the stricken place by every steamboat. The unsettled state of my father's affairs made it imperative for him to remain at his post; his desertion at that moment would have been at the sacrifice of all he had saved from the general wreck. Picture 9  

 As he would be detained in New Orleans at least three months, my mother declined to come North without him.

After this we awaited with feverish impatience the weekly news that came to us from the South. The next letter advised us that my parents were well, and that the sickness, so far, had not penetrated to the faubourg, or district, where they lived. The following week brought less cheering tidings. My father's business, in consequence of the flight of the other partners, would keep him in the city beyond the period he had mentioned. The family had moved to Pass Christian**, a favorite watering-place on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans, where he was able to spend part of each week. So the return North was postponed indefinitely.

[Tom runs away to be with his parents in New Orleans, but is brought back from nearby Boston by Sailor Ben.]

Contrary to my expectation and dread, the Captain was not visible when we stepped from the cars. Sailor Ben glanced among the crowd of faces, apparently looking for him too. Conway was there—he was always hanging about the station—and if he had intimated in any way that he knew of my disgrace and enjoyed it, I should have walked into him, I am certain.

But this defiant feeling entirely deserted me by the time we reached the Nutter House. The Captain himself opened the door. Tour1  

"Come on board, sir," said Sailor Ben, scraping his left foot and touching his hat sea-fashion.

My grandfather nodded to Sailor Ben, somewhat coldly I thought, and much to my astonishment kindly took me by the hand.

I was unprepared for this, and the tears, which no amount of severity would have wrung from me, welled up to my eyes.

The expression of my grandfather's face, as I glanced at it hastily, was grave and gentle; there was nothing in it of anger or reproof. I followed him into the sitting-room, and, obeying a motion of his hand, seated myself on the sofa. He remained standing by the round table for a moment, lost in thought, then leaned over and picked up a letter.

It was a letter with a great black seal.

Chapter Twenty-One-- In Which I Leave Rivermouth

A letter with a great black seal!

I knew then what had happened as well as I know it now. But which was it, father or mother? I do not like to look back to the agony and suspense of that moment.

Mourning cover with black stamp detail

My father had died at New Orleans during one of his weekly visits to the city. The letter bearing these tidings had reached Rivermouth the evening of my flight—had passed me on the road by the down train.

 I must turn back for a moment to that eventful evening. When I failed to make my appearance at supper, the Captain began to suspect that I had really started on my wild tour southward....My grandfather, however, was too full of trouble to allow this to add to his distress. He knew that the faithful old sailor would not let me come to any harm....

I was greatly puzzled, as I have said, by the gentle manner of his reception; but when we were alone together in the sitting-room, and he began slowly to unfold the letter, I understood it all. I caught a sight of my mother's handwriting in the superscription, and there was nothing left to tell me. Tour4  

My grandfather held the letter a few seconds irresolutely, and then commenced reading it aloud; but he could get no further than the date.  

"I can't read it, Tom," said the old gentleman, breaking down. "I thought I could."

He handed it to me. I took the letter mechanically, and hurried away with it to my little room, where I had passed so many happy hours.

 The week that followed the receipt of this letter is nearly a blank in my memory. I remember that the days appeared endless; that at times I could not realize the misfortune that had befallen us, and my heart upbraided me for not feeling a deeper grief; that a full sense of my loss would now and then sweep over me like an inspiration, and I would steal away to my chamber or wander forlornly about the gardens. I remember this, but little more.

 As the days went by my first grief subsided, and in its place grew up a want which I have experienced at every step in life from boyhood to manhood. Often, even now, after all these years, when I see a lad of twelve or fourteen walking by his father's side, and glancing merrily up at his face, I turn and look after them, and am conscious that I have missed companionship most sweet and sacred.

    --Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907), in his autobiographical tale  The Story of a Bad Boy (1870)

* From records of New Orleans epidemics, the sickness was probably yellow fever, which is carried by mosquitoes, not cholera. 

** Pass Christian is in Mississippi, not on Lake Pontchartrain. It is a traditional summer resort for New Orleanians because of the Gulf breezes that cool it.

Chekhov on wishing for death in a hopeless illness


Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill, there come painful moments when all timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts long for his death.

        --Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), in "The Witch," chapter 4. Translator:  Constance Garnett (1861-1946). Quoted in "What broke my father's heart," article by Katy Butler in the New York Times, 14 June 2010

Prince William: Never being able to say the word "mummy" again in your life sounds like a small thing


Losing a close family member is one of the hardest experiences anyone can endure. Never being able to say the word 'mummy' again in your life sounds like a small thing. However, for many, including me, it is now really just a word -- hollow and evoking only memories....Life is altered as you know it, and not a day goes past without you thinking about the one you have lost. However, I also know that over time it is possible to learn to live with what has happened and, with the passing of years, to retain or rediscover cherished memories.

   --Prince William of England, discussing the loss of his mother for the first time in public, as he made an appearance to aid a British charity's campaign "Remember on Mother's Day," 12 March 2009 (Mother's Day in the U.K.). His mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, died on August 31st, 1997 when he was fifteen and his brother Harry was twelve.