All of us at some time or other either have lost or will lose a friend, family member, mate, or acquaintance, and the older we get, the more of these people we lose to death. We may decide to interrogate our own mortality with William Shakespeare, in one of his most well-beloved sonnets:
“Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,/Lord of these rebel powers that thee array,/Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,/Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?/Why so large cost, having so short a lease,/Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?/Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, /Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?/Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,/And let that pine to aggravate thy store;/Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;/Within be fed, without be rich no more./So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,/And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”
Thus Shakespeare makes the argument for asceticism, though from what we know of him, he was far from being an ascetic. But a sonnet is a form sometimes of a particular mood, and in Shakespeare’s sonnets we see him in a number of different moods, from bitingly ironic to loving and joyous. Here, he is in his final couplet using one of those paradoxes he was so fond of to put an end to death itself, through the life of the soul. And indeed, for those of us who have been fortunate enough to know someone who feeds their own and others’ souls first and foremost, we can say in our memories of them that we are defeating death: they have created a sort of immortality for themselves that we prolong as long as we remember and revere them, and pass on their exploits and knowledge of their endeavors to others.
There is always, of course, the belief in God and a more conventional afterlife to aid in our battle against mortality, though even the devout churchman John Donne, in his sonnets, often resorted to word play with paradoxes, puns, and riddles to make his point. The most famous of his sonnets on death is probably “Death be not proud, though some have called thee”:
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,/For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,/Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me./From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,/Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,/And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,/Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie./Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,/And dost with poyson, warre and sicknesse dwell,/And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,/And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;/One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,/And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Here, of course, the paradox is that death shall die when our “short sleepe past” (our individual death to earth) is over, and “we wake eternally” to the afterlife in heaven. And Donne’s riddle (did you spot it?) is one that Shakespeare also used more than once, that the work of art itself outlives the poet and creates a sort of eternal life in the memories of humankind, for itself, its subject, and its author (this is what the partial line “nor yet canst thou kill me,” indicates; that is, the “me” there is the sonnet speaking, for its author).
But if we are not given to poetry reading when a friend or loved one passes (though it might be a good time to start), and instead feel shuttered in with our grief and heartache, we are following the wisdom of more than one species if we attend a memorial service or exchange memories with friends at a wake or funeral (in recent years, biologists have even discovered animal species, like elephants, who mourn their dead and in a sense “pass by the casket” by touching and caressing the remains of their fallen comrades). This community activity not only acknowledges the loss of a unique individual, but also allows a gathering together around the now empty space and the forging of new bonds across it amongst those remaining, where the person now absent in the flesh will always have a place in the spirit.
Though there are times when nothing seems to serve to break through the sense of loss and futility attendant upon the death of a beloved fellow being, yet our resource is always to look to others and trust them to help us occupy ourselves with those who still live. If we live in the spirit of those loved ones gone, we will relinquish them in the body and attempt to live the rest of our own lives as they would have enjoyed seeing us do, thus fulfilling the promise of their previous relationship with us: they would want to be mourned, but they would not want us to let others down who might benefit from us acting well and truly in the spirit they created in us.
I lost my father to cancer when I was eleven and a half, and I can remember walking through my days at the first feeling paralyzed and inert, even though my mother had told me a few months before that the prognosis was not good. But no one could say anything to break through my wall of grief (I didn’t know much about Shakespeare or Donne then, and chances are they might not have helped at first). It took a sympathetic aunt whom I rarely saw and my mother saying “It’s all right to cry, Vicki,” to start the (sometimes long) process of grieving in me. For some reason, there was an attached feeling of shame to no longer having a father that I was hard put to it to shake. After I once got through the “stiff upper lip” routine at the late age of forty-three or so, however, I realized how much I had missed of the community and friendship I might have had with other people who mourned my father: I would thus wish for anyone who has lost someone that they might have the sense I lacked as a person growing up, and that they might rely upon those still living to forge strong bonds around the protected emotional areas of losses to death.
Remember, the dead were not always dead or ill or injured: they were often happy and achieving and full of all the life of the world around them. Remember them that way, as they are likely to be remembering you from whatever corner of the universe they are in now. That’s the way truly to have a connection with the infinite, as it is found in other people.