The Pain of Loss, Through Centuries and Books

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In LitHub, Katharine Smyth explores the grief surrounding her father’s death with the help of Virginia Woolf — quasi-shared experiences, 112 years apart.

Virginia Woolf described the days before her mother’s funeral as a period of “astonishing intensity.” She and her siblings “lived through them in hush, in artificial light. Rooms were shut. People were creeping in and out. People were coming to the door all the time. . . .The hall reeked of flowers. They were piled on the hall table.” It was the spring of 1895 in London, but it may as well have been the winter of 2007 in Boston, a stretch of weeks I remember above all as crepuscular and silent, shot through with the cold beauty of a hundred pounds of flowers and the hollow chiming of the doorbell. I couldn’t shake that crystalline, hyperaware feeling one gets on important occasions—on birthdays, for instance, or on losing one’s virginity. My father is dead, I said to myself, my father is dead. Again and again I said it, and still I failed to grasp what it meant.

Her astute observations on the bewildering fog of mourning are resonant for anyone who has struggled to cope with loss.

I lacked the kinds of elaborate customs that governed the Stephens’ behavior, of course; thanks to my era, and to my father’s hostility to organized religion, I lacked any customs at all. But while I wouldn’t have traded the freedom to mourn as I liked for those claustrophobic, false-feeling Victorian practices, or even the comfort of a god I didn’t believe in—how gratifying, that afternoon of sitting shiva!—I did find myself longing for ritual, for structure, for some organizing principle by which to counter the awful shapelessness of loss. The conventions of sorrow may give rise to hypocrisy, but sorrow uncontained holds its own perils.

Read the essay