If we love, we grieve. That’s the deal.
The following letters focus entirely on grief and death, and whilst they hopefully offer some comfort, you may wish to tread carefully. Many but not all of these letters can be found, in full, in the book, Letters of Note: Grief. This is the Friday edition of the Letters of Note newsletter, and it’s free to read. Become a paid subscriber and I’ll send you many more. The photo of a white egret is via Getty.
It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.
Letter to a fan named Cynthia1
It was so very kind of you to send me a copy of your lovely book. It is giving me the greatest pleasure, and I took it out with me, and I started to read it, sitting by the river, & it was a day when one felt engulfed by great black clouds of unhappiness & misery, and I found a sort of peace stealing round my heart as I read such lovely poems & heavenly words.
I found a hope in George Herbert’s poem, “Who could have thought my shrivel’d heart, could have recovered greennesse? It was gone quite underground.” And I thought how small and selfish is sorrow. But it bangs one about until one is senseless and I can never thank you enough for giving me such a delicious book wherein I found so much beauty & hope—quite suddenly one day by the river.
The Queen Mother
Letter to Edith Sitwell2
15th September 1952
Losing a child is like having your heart torn out and your stomach emptied. Grief gets in the way of daylight, not to mention the nocturnal dark.
Christmas is a black surround, without tinsel, while the masses are plumping up the shopping streets.
But grief can be another day on the wheel, when paradoxically a blue sky can unveil and a white egret appears in the branch. I have named him Doy after my youngest son, whose pet name was Doy. He will fly and land with me as I walk beside the river in the valley behind our home.
Before Doy died, his dark eyes looked ahead and he said, “Look for me in the trees. I will be there in the trees.”
Letter to the Irish Times3
[T]he loss is ours, not hers, and some sad comfort I take, as I hear the wind blow and feel the cutting keenness of the frost, in knowing that the elements bring her no more suffering; their severity cannot reach her grave; her fever is quieted, her restlessness soothed, her deep, hollow cough is hushed for ever; we do not hear it in the night nor listen for it in the morning; we have not the conflict of the strangely strong spirit and the fragile frame before us—relentless conflict—once seen, never to be forgotten. A dreary calm reigns round us, in the midst of which we seek resignation.
Letter to her publisher4
25th December 1848
He was in his sixty first year, but how much younger he seemed and was. Joking and swearing at the doctors as long as he had breath. He lay in the bed with sweet pea all over his face, making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart. His last words were “Fight fight fight” and “What a morning”. All the little things come back—mémoire de l’escalier. I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.
Letter to Thomas MacGreevy5
2nd February 1933
It matters to have trodden the earth proudly, not arrogantly, but on feet that aren't afraid to stand their ground, and move quickly when the need arises. It matters that your eyes have been on the object always, aware of its drift but not caught up in it. It matters that we were young together, and that you never lost the instincts and intuitions of a pioneer. It matters that you have been brave when retreat would have been easier. It matters that, in many places and at many times, you have made a difference. Your laugh has mattered. Your love has mattered. Above all, it matters that you have been loved.
Nothing else matters.
Letter to his dying friend, Clare Venables6
[I]n certain crises, direct expression of sympathy is the least possible to those who most feel sympathy. If I could have been with you in bodily presence, I should have sat silent, thinking silence a sign of feeling that speech, trying to be wise, must always spoil. The truest things one can say about great death are the oldest simplest things that everybody knows by rote, but that no one knows really till death has come very close. And when that inward teaching is going on, it seems pitiful presumption for those who are outside to be saying anything. There is no such thing as consolation, when we have made the lot of another our own as you did Nelly’s. The anguish must be borne—it will only get more and more bearable as other thoughts and feelings recover some power.
Letter to Caroline Bray7
18th March 1865
I opened the drawer of my little desk to get some money and a single letter fell out: it was a letter from my mother, one of her last, written in pencil with unfinished words and already suffused with her departure.
How strange: one can successfully resist tears and “hold” oneself very well in the hardest hours. But then, someone makes a friendly gesture behind a window, one notices a blossom which was just a bud yesterday—or a letter slips from a drawer—and everything falls apart.
Letter to Marguerite Moreno
10th April 1923
I am very concerned when I imagine how isolated and cut off you currently live, afraid of touching anything that is filled with memories (and what is not filled with memories?). You will freeze in place if you remain this way. You must not, dear. You have to move. You have to return to his things. You have to touch with your hands his things, which through their manifold relations and affinity are after all also yours. You must, Sidie (this is the task that this incomprehensible fate imposes upon you), you must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it was unfinished; his life has now passed onto yours. You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Letter to Sidonie Nádherná von Borutín8
1st August 1913
Sitwell had sent to the Queen Mother a copy of A Book of Flowers, edited by Sitwell. King George VI had died earlier that year. Full letter.
Keyes was mourning the deaths of her three children, all of whom had lived with cystic fibrosis. Full letter.
Beckett’s father had recently died.
English theatre director Clare Venables died soon after this letter was written.
Bray’s young daughter, Nelly, had died following a long illness.
Sidonie’s brother had died by suicide.