Themes in Literature

Literary Grief


Grief is arguably life’s greatest source of stress and turmoil. Our relationships with others play important roles in the development of our identities, and when those people are lost, we can feel as if we, too, are lost, unsure of who we are and how we will continue to function in a world that seems to have changed irrevocably. Grief, in short, is the mourning of a loss, usually the loss of a loved one but easily expanded to cover any loss that represents a core part of our lives. The loss of careers, mental or physical health, and pets can also trigger the difficult grieving process. This process is often disorderly and confusing, throwing the mourner into a whirlwind of emotion over which he or she has little control. Unlike other stressful emotions, grief carries such power because it calls into question how the mourner finds meaning in life.

An important loss can induce us to feel that life has no meaning, because every facet of our lives—every memory, every sound, every gesture— reminds us of what we have lost. One of the difficult parts of the grieving process is putting what we are feeling into words, not just to explain our thoughts to others but also to understand what we are feeling ourselves. Literature, then, is an invaluable tool for expressing grief. Literature can employ figurative language to go deeper and to convey indescribable emotions in a way that plain language cannot. Art is one of our most valuable tools in life for expressing that which we cannot find the words to explain. In fact, literature, especially poetry, has historically helped people to work through their grief. Elegies, poems written to commemorate a person’s death, can be great sources of solace and understanding to those in mourning. That we might need the help of poets in understanding our grief process has been long understood in the psychiatric community. Grief, by its very nature, disrupts us, places us at a loss for words. In fact, early on grief was thought of as a “psychiatric disorder,” and indeed there is evidence that grief can induce physical illness in mourners (Gilbert 255). The standard symptoms of grief are bodily distress, guilt, hostility, a preoccupation with the image of the deceased, and the alteration or loss of normal patterns of conduct (Kamerman 66). It is these last two that make grief so disruptive to the functioning mind. Because we are preoccupied with the image of the lost loved one, we find it very difficult to imagine life ever returning to normal. C. S. Lewis, in his chronicle of the loss of his wife, says, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (13). Lewis points out here that there is not one time of day or one activity or one occasion that reminds him of his loss, but that the loss pervades his every waking moment. W. H. Auden, in his poem “Funeral Blues,” explains this well, saying of his lost loved one, “he was my North, my South, my East, and my West / my working week and my Sunday rest” (ll. 9–10). Moving through grief requires a great deal of hard work on the part of the mourner.

The Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud noted in his influential 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia” that mourning takes time and mental labor to “revive, relive, and release” (quoted in MacKenzie 131). Although Freud himself did not propose the theory that the process of grief moves in stages, this essay laid the groundwork for that now commonly accepted theory. The most famous theory involving “stages of grief ” is that of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her theory actually deals with terminally ill patients dealing with their own deaths, a process that might be called anticipatory grief, but she and others later realized it could apply to those mourning for others as well. Although different theorists have different ideas about the stages, in general, most agree that the opening stage is one of denial, followed by a period of anger, followed by some kind of depression or disorganization, with a final period of acceptance or reorganization. The stages do not necessarily occur in order, and they can and do overlap with one another. We can see these stages played out in works of literature.

For instance, when Laurel must deal with her father’s death in Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, she embarks on a journey that begins with her idealizing her childhood, includes misplaced anger at her stepmother, and ends with her acceptance of her life in the present. In one of the most famous literary expositions on grief, In Memoriam, A. H. H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, we see meditations on the denial of his friend’s death when he says he is having trouble accepting reality. He says, “By faith, and faith alone embrace, / Believing where we cannot prove” (ll. 3–4). By the end of the poem, however, he seems to have moved toward acceptance, saying, “Ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring happy bells, across the snow / The year is going, let him go” (ll. 103–105). Sometimes one stage or one phase of grief dominates the literature, as Homer’s The Iliad, when Achilles, in his grief over the death of Patroclus, vents his anger by cutting the throats of 12 Trojan youths, or when the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried savagely kill the water buffalo and burn the village in a misguided attempt to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. Denial, on the other hand, takes center stage in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, when Rabbit refuses to fully acknowledge the horrific death of his infant daughter, and in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, when Macon finds Ruth alone and naked with the body of her dead father. Both Rabbit and Ruth may have a hard time dealing with these deaths because they live in a culture that finds grief, mourning, and their expression embarrassing. Grief has been defined by many as an “open wound”—and others want to look away from that wound, because to acknowledge it is invariably difficult and confusing. Sandra Gilbert says about this phenomenon that “even while it wounds the mourner, the embarrassment of the comforter is a sign of a wound for which neither mourner nor comforter has the proper language” (254). Bertha Simos calls Western society a “deathdenying culture,” noting that the social psychologist Erich Fromm has gone so far as to “suggest that the increase in violence in society today is directly related to our inability to grieve” (5). We see death denial in literary characters such as the Tyrone family in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, who avoid the topic of their long-dead infant son and brother and ignore their mother’s obvious grief (and subsequent morphine addiction).

We see it also in the reactions others have to Septimus Warren Smith, the disturbed war veteran in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Smith’s pain is an embarrassment, a fact that no one wants or knows how to deal with, and ultimately this denial kills him. The expression of grief is crucial to moving through its process, as Toni Morrison says in Sula, “The body must move and throw itself about, the eyes must roll, the hands should have no peace, and the throat should release all the yearning, despair and outrage that accompanies the stupidity of loss” (135). Occasionally, even when grief is acknowledged, mourners are unable regain a sense of normal, functioning life without their object of loss. Psychologists call this “exceptional” or “pathological” grief, and characters entrenched in this state make appearances in literature as well. Ophelia, for instance, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, cannot fathom the death of her father, Polonius, especially coupled with the emotional torment she is receiving from Hamlet, and, losing her grasp on reality, she drowns herself. Sethe, in Morrison’s Beloved, is so disturbed by her grief over having killed her daughter that she is haunted by the ghost of this loved one for most of her adult life.

Perhaps most disturbing is when the adult ghost of Beloved returns to wreak havoc on Sethe’s life, to demand complete subservience to her at the expense of Sethe’s relationships with Paul D. and with Denver, her living child. Sethe should recognize this, that Denver, a child fully part of this world, should take precedence over the otherworldly Beloved; that she takes so long to do so demonstrates the depth of her grief. Of all the themes in literature, grief is perhaps the only one that can serve to illuminate the nature of the theme itself by acting, as a form of therapy to readers who might be in mourning themselves.

See also Chaucer, Geoffrey: Canterbury Tales, The; Faulkner, William: Sound and the Fury, The; Shelley, Percy Bysshe: poems.

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