The paradox of grief

Jayber CrowWendell Berry’s exquisitely written novel, ‘Jayber Crow’ could reasonably give way to a series of ten or twenty blog posts. I’m going to let it be at two, however, with the central character’s reflection on grief.

Returning to the small town of Port William, where he was born and where his parents died, Jayber comments, “I began to live in my losses.” The grief he thought he had been taken away from, returned as the memories of his earliest life came back: “I don’t believe I was exactly thinking; my mind was too crowded and too everywhere touched. What would come, came.”

The town’s river becomes a metaphor: “I could see the river, risen a little, swift and muddy from the spring rains, coming down the mile-long reach above the Willow Run bend, swerving through the bend and coming on down past the landing, carrying its load of drift. And I saw how all-of-a-piece it was, how never-ending – always coming, always there, always going.”

And he concludes this will be the way of life; the presence of simultaneous, seemingly incompatible emotions.

“This grief had something in it of generosity, some nearness to joy. In a strange way it added to me what I had lost. I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”

In comparison to many, I have experienced little in the way of grief, but what I have experienced is accurately reflected here. Some theories suggest grief does not recede; we simply learn to carry it. I’m no expert, but it sounds about right to me.

The mixture of presence and absence seems right, too. Memories of the happiest times are simultaneously sad because of the absence of the people who helped make them. It’s a concept beautifully demonstrated in Disney’s ‘Inside Out’ when the central character, Riley, moves house. Her core memories change from being composed of unadulterated joy, to complex memories of mixed emotions.

Certain memories -core memories, perhaps- have the power to give me both a deep sense of joy and peace and wellbeing, and a deep sense of dislocation and fracture and loss. Happily enveloped in reminiscence, with a lump in my throat.

It might not sound like any way to live, but it is, however, my choice. I choose to accept the paradox. To swallow hard and wipe my eyes and allow this blend of emotions space and time, in the joy of having had relationships whose absence is painful, and in the hope that the final page has not yet been written. Or as Wendell Berry more eloquently puts it, “The world as it is [will] always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”

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