There may be cosmic comfort in realizing what really occurs after we die — that supreme affirmation of getting lived in any respect. And but, nevertheless a lot we’d perceive that each single individual is a transient chance-constellation of atoms, to lose a beloved constellation is probably the most devastating expertise in life. It feels incomprehensible, cosmically unjust. It feels unsurvivable.
Within the remaining years of his quick and loss-riddled life, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–Could 6, 1862) wrote in his diary:
I understand that we partially die ourselves by way of sympathy on the dying of every of our mates or close to family. Every such expertise is an assault on our very important drive. It turns into a supply of marvel that they who’ve misplaced many mates nonetheless stay. After lengthy watching across the sickbed of a pal, we, too, partially surrender the ghost with him, and are the much less to be recognized with this state of issues.
Thoreau’s lifetime of losses had begun seventeen years earlier. He was twenty-five when his beloved older brother died of tetanus after slicing himself shaving — a grotesque dying, savaging the nervous system and contorting the physique with agony. Thoreau grieved deeply. A lifelong diarist, he slipped right into a five-week coma of the pen. He tried to take heed to the music-box, which had all the time flooded him with delight, however the sounds got here pouring out unusual and hole.
Ultimately, the fever dream of grief broke into a brand new orientation to dying. Two months into his bereavement, as the tough New England winter was cusping into spring, Thoreau wrote to a pal — a letter quoted within the altogether great ebook Three Roads Again: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Biggest Losses of Their Lives (public library):
What proper have I to grieve, who haven’t ceased to marvel? We really feel at first as if some alternatives of kindness and sympathy have been misplaced, however be taught afterward that any pure grief is ample recompense for all. That’s, if we’re devoted; for an important grief is however sympathy with the soul that disposes occasions, and is as pure because the resin on Arabian bushes. Solely Nature has a proper to grieve perpetually, for she solely is harmless.
Having resumed his journal, he took up the topic within the privateness of its pages:
I stay within the perpetual verdure of the globe. I die within the annual decay of nature. We will perceive the phenomenon of dying within the animal higher if we first think about it within the order subsequent beneath us the vegetable. The dying of the flea and the Elephant are however phenomena of the lifetime of nature.
This was a season of losses in Thoreau’s universe. His pal and mentor Emerson, who had hastened to stick with him and nurse him within the wake of his brother’s dying, misplaced his beloved five-year-old son to scarlet fever, as incurable as tetanus of their period. Now it was Thoreau’s flip to consolation his pal. Leaning on his new acceptance of the naturalness of dying as an antidote to grief, he wrote to Emerson:
Nature shouldn’t be ruffled by the rudest blast. The hurricane solely snaps a couple of twigs in some nook of the forest. The snow attains its common depth every winter, and the chic-a-dee lisps the identical notes. The previous legal guidelines prevail despite pestilence and famine. No genius or advantage so uncommon and revolutionary seems on the town or village, that the pine ceases to exude resin within the wooden, or beast or chook lays apart its habits.
An epoch earlier than Rilke insisted that “dying is our pal exactly as a result of it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that’s right here, that’s pure, that’s love,” and a century and a half earlier than Richard Dawkins thought-about the luckiness of dying, Thoreau provides:
Loss of life is gorgeous when seen to be a regulation, and never an accident — It’s as frequent as life… Each blade within the discipline — each leaf within the forest — lays down its life in its season as superbly because it was taken up. Once we look over the fields we aren’t saddened as a result of these explicit flowers or grasses will wither — for his or her dying is the regulation of latest life.
Couple these fragments from Three Roads Again with Thoreau on nature as prayer, then revisit the neuroscience of grief and therapeutic, Emily Dickinson on love and loss, Seneca on the important thing to resilience within the face of loss, and Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness.