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)