Grief, Love and Memento Mori

Grief, Love and Memento Mori

Grief, Love and Memento Mori

Excuse, if you would, the slightly morbid tenor of today’s post about grief and love and memento mori. Or skip it!

But if you stay and read you just may feel the rush of life and enthusiasm that I’m experiencing. An intriguing and new-to-me connection has been made — an embrace of love and memento mori — that is especially resonant now as I struggle with the terribly premature loss of a friend, a generous and learned man.

But no time for further introduction and stultifying setup. On with the unlikely trio: grief and love and memento mori!

Grief and Love

Grief… the price we pay for love… is a normal and healthy experience after loss. But so is resilience… people normally find healthy ways to adapt and live with loss. That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes, in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart. (Source: Memento Mori – The New York Times)

Grief is “the price we pay for love”. Not only, perhaps, but the suggestion makes sense to me. And despite the heavy debt we endure in the throes of grief, it’s well worth the price. Love, after all, is the only necessity more important than sustenance, respiration, sleep. Or at least as important. Dare to disagree? Do so, but know that I pity you, that I wish you deep love. Soon.

Life draws us through the trials of grief again and again, each time re-forging and tempering our capacity for love.

It’s is common to speak of grief passing or of grief becoming more tolerable, more bearable over time. This resilience — essentially the capacity for accepting and managing grief — is as normal and healthy as feeling love or grief. I’m especially smitten with the idea that we might in fact preserve the maturing grief within our heart. Denying or repressing or fleeing grief are all recipes for disaster. Grief is as real and consuming as love. It will not long be denied, repressed, or escaped. It must be accepted and even embraced in order to evolve. Experienced fully the sharp edges will soften and we will be able to incorporate it within our capacity to love.

Absent grief, love is a pure but childish flirtation. An innocent and often fleeting “crush”. By design life draws us through the trials of grief again and again, each time re-forging and tempering our capacity for love. Grief, understood in this way, is not only “the price we pay for love”, but an investment in more profound, meaningful love. Love opens us up to grief, and grief opens us up to love.

Love and Memento Mori

The excerpts above and below were published almost one year ago (March 11, 2015) by David Malham in a poignant reflection on living with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) as part of a New York Times series about end-of-life issues called The End. I highly recommend this wide-reaching, unflinching, and breathtakingly honest essay on its own merits. I’ve passed it along to family and friends. Trust me. It’s that good.

I’m including two further excerpts here. The essay’s title, “Memento Mori“, is a recurring theme in this meandering midlife meditation (read other memento mori posts), so there’s an obvious overlap. But even more important than overlap, Malham’s perspective has dilated my conception of love and memento mori, a connection I’d not previously made.

Love and Memento Mori

Before focusing on the crux of the matter, I think that Malham’s individual versus universal relationship with dying is interesting.

I don’t believe we must, as philosophers ancient and modern advise us, memento mori (remember that you must die). In Muriel Spark’s novel “Memento Mori,” a character says, “It’s difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.” But it’s not that we forget that we will die; it’s that we work hard to not remember it. Yes, we accept the plural “we will die,” but it’s the particular, the “I” that we have trouble with. It’s easier to accept “we” because the “I” believes it can hide when the others in the “we” are taken. When it comes to the particular, we are, each of us, facing death new and uncomprehending… (Source: Memento Mori – The New York Times)

Grief, Love and Memento Mori

Grief, Love and Memento Mori

My somewhat frequent posts on memento mori on this blog can be explained in part with an affinity for Spark’s character’s assertion. I try to live fully, accepting the persistent press of death. I have for many years. But I still struggle with the reality of dying. I’m comfortable with the inevitability, but I’m not eager to go. Not yet.

This however isn’t my struggle with the reality of dying. It’s more nebulous. Like a fear of the dark. And so I exercise and stretch my comfort with mortality. My own, but mostly others. I’m losing my thread, wandering into thorny thickets, getting lost, circling when I’m trying to strike out into new territory. So I’ll abbreviate my essay and return to it when my thoughts coalesce more clearly.

Instead I’d like to share the germ that so profoundly infected me in Malham’s reflection. As in the previous passage he is exploring the idea of memento mori.

But why should we remember? The religiously inclined argue that we must remember that there’s a life after this. Remembering means staying focused on the prize. The secular argument is to remember so that we live with heightened awareness that this is it. Live mindfully every day for someday your story will end. But I have a third reason that both religious and secular can embrace: We want to be (lightly, only lightly) aware of death not because our story will end, but because the stories of those we hold dear will end, perhaps before ours. The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment. (Source: Memento Mori – The New York Times)

I would be wise indeed to close here, to let Malham have the last word. After all, he’s articulated his point well. Simply, concisely, persuasively. I think I will. Suffice to say that I’ve been caroming erratically in recent days, trying to absorb the senseless abbreviation of a good and inspiring friend’s life, not trying to understand, but trying to move from grief to resilience. This essay opened my mind and heart, reminded me how imperative it is to share affection — generously, always — until the “grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.” And from this grief (and so many more griefs which do and will keep it company) a richer, more profound affection can germinate, abundant affection to give and receive.

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