We were talking with old friends – a couple – that we had not seen for some time. It was the tail end of the holiday season. The grey of a gloomy day had darkened into a cold night. An outside light showed snow flurries swirling around the bare limbs and darkened evergreens. We were digging into memories of past times good and bad. The short days and long nights of the winter solstice often seem to invite these reflections. The setting and time of year lent itself to nostalgia.
We talked of the parties of long ago – the candles, the music, the gaiety, those then present; the several now gone. The lady said that she got in this mood after her father died, and that she missed him and grieved for his absence every day. I had not heard of her father’s death and told her I was sorry for her loss. I asked when it had happened. “Eight years ago,” she replied.
Had she lived in Victorian times, her job would have been much easier.
Back then the process was highly ritualized, and twelve months was considered appropriate for a child mourning a parent – or vice versa. If you’re wondering – yes, there was a sliding scale. A full two years was considered appropriate for a widow – first cousins merited only four weeks. Everyone else – a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent – was somewhere in between.
The Victorians wore the appropriate clothes, conducted the appropriate ceremonies, had a lavish funeral and erected an ornate monument for the grave. Manuals and journals described the mourning etiquette in the event the survivors needed guidance. I am sure they continued to miss the departed for a longer or shorter period of time depending on the nature of the relationship, but as far as formal mourning went, they dropped it after the prescribed period.
Life then – if less complicated – was harsher. Household tasks had to be taken care of; farm or home tended to, children to be raised with few of today’s conveniences. In many cases efforts were begun to acquire a new mate or partner to fill the void. “There’s no limit to what a person can accomplish,” the saying is, “but they can rarely do it by themselves.” So it often seemed desirable in those days to hook up with another solo soul and carry on. My grandfather’s first wife died leaving him with nine children, and he wasted no time finding another mate.
The Victorians believed in curtailing social behavior for a set period of time, but that practice seems outmoded now. Many losing a loved one today feel obligated to advertise the extent of their pain across the internet. Perhaps this is a part of the healing process, but many of the posts are troubling; some are frightening in their description of despair and the feeling that life has lost much of its meaning.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. He later wrote that suicides were not uncommon under these brutal conditions. Two prisoners in his building were talked out of their intent to kill themselves. Others reminded them that they had important things yet to do. One had a child who had escaped to Canada and would want to join him after the war. The other was a noted scientist who had begun a series of books that only he could finish. When others reminded them of their duty to their future, they abandoned their suicide plans.
And that is key – our duty to the future. I do not know what cognizance the departed have of the lives they leave behind, but I would be saddened beyond belief if I knew that a loved one of mine was crippled with inconsolable grief by my going. It would seem to speak poorly of my earthly contributions to our happiness. Was the time we spent together so vapid and unfulfilling that he or she can’t summon up memories of shared joys to buffer the pain of my departure? If the spirits of the dead are permitted anger, I think mine would be angry.
For life is not a three-legged bag race. Barring some catastrophic event, one of a loving couple will die before the other. My wife and I brush on this topic now and then. One or the other of us usually mentions that it would be extremely difficult to carry on alone. But the answer to the statement that “I couldn’t go on without you,” is certainly, “Yes, you could; you must, really.” Each person will find the tools necessary to build a new life and directions for the path going forward. The tools are the good memories of years gone by. The path will reveal itself through them. Healing will commence, because it must; grief is not a career and doesn’t deserve that consideration.
So back to Viktor Frankl…how did he come through? Was he empowered by the knowledge that he had something important left to do? As a matter of fact he did. When he first entered the concentration camp he set three goals for himself. He first determined that he would survive; he made a commitment to use his medical skills to help where he could, and, remarkably – that he would learn something from the experience. His book, “Man’s Search For Meaning,” came out of the misery of Auschwitz.
Chuck Thurston lives and writes in Kannapolis, NC. His two volumes of Senior Scribbles (Unearthed and Second Dose) will be joined by a third in 2016: Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader. ” Carry On” is an excerpt from that book. His work is available from the Indigo Sea Press and Amazon.
I am indebted to Joel Barker’s The Power of Vision documentary which tells the story of Viktor Frankl.