Death, Anger, Grief and Acceptance

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Anger and grief often go together. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief, and one of the first ones she lists is the anger stage. She is quick to point out, however, that the stages don’t always appear in the order she prescribed.  Rather, it is simply a roadmap for what we experience in grieving our own death or the death of someone we love.  These stages can also be applied to other types of losses:  divorce, loss of a job or a business, etc.  If we look at anger as one the stages, experts often say that anger is usually not the primary emotion.  What underlies anger is most often fear.  As C.S. Lewis once wrote after the death of his wife, “No one told me that grief would feel so much like fear.”

Along that line of reasoning, what do we fear about grief and loss?  What makes us angry about it?  The first thing I think of is the pain of it:  the pain of separation and the  irrevocable loss of someone we love and have built our life around.  Anger can also arise from a sense of injustice – when something seems wrong or senseless.  The latter occurs most often when someone is young, or otherwise dies “before their time.”  It also hits home when someone is a victim of an act of violence or as a result of some other wrongdoing or error.  Regardless, however, I am not sure if death is something that we readily “accept,” but rather we just learn to live with it.  As my cousin said after losing a beloved family member:  “I just learn to live around this gaping hole in my life.”

It is this latter approach that Edna St. Vincent Millay takes in her excellent poem entitled “Dirge Without Music” (reproduced below).  She wrote this poem as a relatively young woman, and I have often wondered whether she came to any kind of resolution to the questions she raises in her poem before she herself died.  I don’t know, but wish I did.  What I do know is that she took the subject on unflinchingly, covering the gamut of emotion in the verses: grief certainly, but also anger, and definitely not acceptance.  There is also just a tinge of despair at what she perceives is death’s meaninglessness and finality; yet she never fully gives in to it.

It is these honest feelings that strike at the heart of what it means to be human.  How we make sense of it is what we all must do, in one way or another.  As a writer, I don’t want to shy away from any of this, even though I really don’t know how to always answer these questions.  As another poet, Rainier Marie Rilke wrote:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And so I do – writing through the questions in hopes of finding an answer to what it means to be human: in loving, living, and yes – dying.  Isn’t that what all artists do, in one way or another?   Millay certainly did.  And while I believe there is life beyond the finality of what she calls “the shutting away of loving hearts into the hard ground,” I can still understand her feelings about the senselessness of it, of wanting to fight against the loss of someone I love.   Perhaps that very instinct — that awareness — is why we find death so hard to accept.  It is proof of what lasts, what lives on, and what gives our lives meaning.  It is what we live for, we often fight for, and in some cases even die for.  In light of that, acceptance never really has a place.

What are your thoughts?   I would love to hear from you.

Dirge Without Music
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958)

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The Writing Oasis

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I never realized how difficult it is to blog regularly.  I know that we bloggers are advised to write regularly and often–all for very smart reasons.  For me, though, it is more a “quality rather than quantity” equation:  I just don’t feel I have anything of import to say that merits posting so frequently.  My mind is constantly thinking, of course, so it isn’t the problem of having nothing to think on or ponder about. Life certainly supplies a fresh batch of ideas every day even if my internal reflections aren’t exactly acting the muse.

On the face of it, that’s nothing to worry about.  There is a lot of life to live, and if a writer is out experiencing it rather than chained to their laptop, I think it makes us happier and healthier, or at least more balanced.  On the other hand (as I’ve written here before), if there are too many distractions taking you away from writing, that’s an imbalance too.  A writer who is not consistently writing is an unhappy person.  There’s also the discipline of it — a workout to your soul that is similar to the benefits brought to your body by physical workouts.

I need to remind myself about this by analogy – just as a walk around the block is better than nothing at all when it comes to physical exercise, writing something, no matter how small, has the same benefits to my mind and heart.  This daily writing exercise is something that most successful writers say they had to train themselves to do. Perhaps if I did that, I would open up the floodgates and brilliant pieces of writing would rush out … okay, maybe not.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t experience some benefit.

However, this post is not just about repeating advice that most writers have heard a dozen times.  I wanted to add another take on this subject.  It is not simply that I have avoided the discipline of daily writing because I don’t want to write or embrace my ADD and refuse to focus on anything for more than two minutes.  The main reason I inexplicably avoid something I really love to do is: I run.   I run from writing because I am not ready to go that deep into what I am thinking.  It essentially is running from myself.

It isn’t that I am frightened of what I will find, but because it is just a bad habit.  Writing takes up a lot of time, and while I love it —  it requires me to open up my heart, my mind, my life, and my soul.  It requires me sacrificing other things I would rather do so that I don’t have to dig deep.  It requires that I discipline myself to step away from all the things I worry and think about on a regular basis.  It is much easier to switch on the TV, watch a movie, or find a million other distractions.  But all that is a substitute for thinking and creating, and not nearly as satisfying.  You would think the choice would be a “no-brainer,” but it is not that easy for me.

So the point I am trying to make throughout all of this is … there are times to get out and experience all that life has to offer, to be with the people we love, and to feel the sun on our face and move our bodies out in the wilds of nature, or the urban jungle, wherever your playground is.  But there is a time to quiet the distractions and come home to your writer-self.  There’s an oasis there that is just as important to find as anything else we seek.  In fact, wandering aimlessly in the desert of distraction can run your soul and heart dry.  It’s time to replenish and find out what the waters of the writer-self has in mind — and it never fails to surprise me how little I know about me.   It’s time to stop running and start writing.

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