Time is the only hope and refuge for all of us
How to write to a grieving friend
Few letters are more daunting to write than one of consolation, especially when the recipient is steeped in the unfathomable grief of losing a parent. In May of 1842, English novelist Geraldine Jewsbury found herself in this exact position when friend and fellow author Jane Carlyle lost her mother, Grace, twenty-three years after the death of her father, leading to a period of darkness that worried her nearest and dearest. The following letter was Jewsbury’s admirable attempt to rescue her friend, to keep her head above water during this initial wave of sorrow—a heartfelt gesture when life seems to offer nothing but crushing despair.
30 May 1842
Your note has made me very sad. There is nothing to be said to it, as you cannot be comforted, but time—time is the only hope and refuge for all of us.
I know full well what it is to cease to see the necessity of struggling; it would puzzle the wisest of us to point it out at the best of times, but the inscrutableness does not always press upon us so heavily. It does not come until we sink into deep trouble, and then we are likely to go mad. To all of us, life is a riddle put forth more or less unintelligibly, and death is the only end we can see—for we may die, and that is a strong consolation of which nothing can defraud us.
We cannot well be more dark or miserable than we are; we shall all die—no exception, no fear of exemption. Every morning I say this to myself. When I am in sorrow, it is the only comfort that has strength in it. Why, indeed, must we go on struggling, rising up early, and taking rest? "Behold, He giveth His beloved sleep!"
And yet it is not well that you feel this so constantly that it swallows up all other feelings. Life is not strong in you when you are thus—it will not be so always. There is a strength in life to make us endure it. I am astonished sometimes to find that I am glad to be alive—that the instinct of feeling that it is a pleasant thing to behold the sun, and that light is good.
And this is a feeling that will spring up in your heart after a while, crushed and dead as it seems now. When my father died, I cannot tell you the horrible sense of desolateness and insecurity that struck through me. I had friends to love me, who would do anything for me, but I had no right to count on their endurance. I had lost the one on whose love I could depend as on the earth itself—the one whose relationship seemed to revoke the law of change pronounced against all other things in this world.
Our parents and relations are given to us by the same unknown Power which sent us into this world, given to us like our own bodies, without our knowing how or where. And when they are taken from us, our ties to this life are loosened, and all seems tottering—nothing can supply their place. But yet even this gets blunted after a while; we can and do live, when we are put to it, on wonderfully little, without all we at first fancied indispensable. Then, for ever after, the love of such friends as are left or raised up to us becomes strangely precious in a way no one else can understand.
We strain them to us with all our force, to try to supply the place of that natural necessity which united us without effort on our part to those who are gone! We have always a fear that the friends we have made for ourselves will leave us; we were only afraid for the others that they would be taken away.
Dear love, this present strange, stunned state you will recover from. No fear of your sinking down into apathy—there is too much for you to do. You are necessary to the welfare of too many; your life will take shape again, though now it seems nothing but confused hopelessness.
The thought of you brings tears to my eyes any moment it comes. Do not be so very wretched. I can give you no comfort—there is none—but from time to time write when you can, but don't plague yourself. I also will write without waiting.
I am most thankful the dear little cousin still stays with you. Give my love to her. I am glad that your husband is well, and that he has his book to busy himself in. It is like a child to him.
I am here since a week. I go home in a few days. Mrs. Moore sends her love to you. I wish you could be within reach of her; she would be a comfort to you, as she has been to me.
Goodbye, dear love; take care of yourself for the sake of others besides yourself!
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