Some years ago, when I was a student in college during the previous millennium, I was in a class discussing a particular work of English literature. And midway through the discussion, which I can no longer remember any other part of, one of my fellow students startled our professor and the rest of us into silence with a loud gasp, and then blurted out, “She killed her!” My classmate had found the discussion in the seminar less-than-captivating, you understand, so, in order to pass the time, she had decided to finish reading the book we were all supposed to have finished in time for the night’s discussion. And she’d made it all the way to the emotional conclusion of the novel: the tragic death of the main character. It was not a thriller or a whodunit – in that story, the character dies in an accident. When she said, “She killed her,” my classmate meant that the book’s author had killed likeable, sympathetic protagonist of her own tale. Nearly two centuries after publication that seemed such a terrible and cruel turn of events to her that she was completely unembarrassed to give away the fact that she’d waited to the middle of class to finish that night’s homework. Now, years later, although I read the entire – quite long – book, and participated in the discussion, this moment is really the only one that has stayed with me from that class. That fictional death and the honest, anguished response to it consumed all the other details – nothing else remains.
In a poem reflecting on the death of a beloved, Henrik Nordbrandt wrote, What can I say about the world
in which your ashes sit in an urn
other than that?
The truth of death – that all lives end one day – is fundamental to life and the world we live in. But the pain we naturally associate with the loss that death represents can often seem to overwhelm all the other truths of a life, once it has ended. Often it dulls or damages the memory of the beginning and the middle that came before the very end. Grief may be so great that we look to time to diminish it, but as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
“Even time does not “console,” as people say superficially; at best it puts things in their place and creates order—and even that only because we so quickly begin to regard this order casually and consider it so little, this order to which time contributes so quietly by finding the proper place for, appeasing, and reconciling everything within the great Whole.”
In reflecting on the loss of his father, Rilke focused on his almost mystical sense of duty to remember him and to allow that memory to inform his life thereafter. It was not because loving his father in life had been easy – it very much had not been. But the man’s death required Rilke to remember him and to remember him in a thorough and honest way if any fragment of him was to remain. And remembering, honestly and fulsomely, created something necessary and beautiful out of something which had been painful and hard – both having that man for a father, and losing him. Again, Rilke wrote,
“As far as I am concerned, what died for me died, so to speak, into my own heart: the vanished individual had gathered so strangely and surprisingly inside of me when I looked for him, and I was very moved to feel that he now existed nowhere any longer except there. My enthusiasm for serving, deepening, and glorifying his existence there gained the upper hand almost at the same moment when the pain would otherwise have attacked and devastated the entire landscape of my soul.”
In the movie Coco, the young hero Miguel’s life is defined by his family’s memory of betrayal and abandonment by his great-great-grandfather. That terrible ending to the original relationship shapes not only the family history but what is possible and what is not for the next four generations. Because the family story is that his great-great-grandfather was a musician who fled from his responsibilities, Miguel is forbidden to pursue his interest in music – music itself is banned from the house, in fact. As the story unfolds, through music and magic, Miguel crosses over into the world of the dead and learns that the simple story he was told growing up is more complicated than anyone else in his family knew. By going back and appraising the dead more honestly and accurately – albeit in a very literal way – Miguel allows his family to escape the very narrow and constricting legacy that bound it up for generations.
Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that kindness can only truly be learned from the experience of loss, and at the same time, kindness is the only response to loss that makes any sense. In her words:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
An essential element of kindness is truth. The pain of loss and the finality of death can color our understanding of those who have died, and in different ways. Sometimes it leaves the past to stained with sorrow for us to appreciate the fullness of the joy our loved one brought to us. Sometimes there is too much anger and hurt in the nature of the death for us to remember anything else about the person we loved. And sometimes the fact of the loss moves us to want to view the dead with rose-colored glasses, refusing to acknowledge their flaws or the wrongs they did in life. But everything that happened, happened. And while we experience time in a flow from the past into the future, from outside of the stream, every moment is as real and as relevant as any other. So our responsibility to the dead is to remember them as fully and honestly as we possibly can – because it is the only proper way to honor them, and to be moved by their memory toward a life better lived.