Fortunate is the person who has reached the age of 50 without having had to grieve. To be among the grieving, the bereaved, is an experience most of us go through, excepting only those who die preternaturally young and are themselves the cause of bereavement. The death of a parent, a husband or wife, a brother or sister, a dear friend, in some ways saddest of all, a child, is among the major causes of grief. May grief be avoided? Ought it to be? Is there any sense in which, as Charlie Brown’s favorite phrase had it, there is good grief?
Socrates held that one of the key missions of philosophy was to ward off our fear of death. Upon his own death, by self-imposed hemlock, he claimed to be looking forward at long last to discovering whether there was an afterlife. Montaigne wrote an essay called “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die,” in which, as elsewhere in his essays, he argues that, far from putting death out of mind, we should keep it foremost in our minds, the knowledge of our inevitably forthcoming death goading us on the better to live our lives.
But no one has told us how to deal with the deaths of those we love or found important to our own lives. Or at least no one has done so convincingly. The best-known attempt has been that of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and in her later book, written with David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (2005). Kübler-Ross set out a five-stage model for grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Yet in my own experience of grieving, I went through none of these stages, which leads me to believe there is more to it than is dreamt of in any psychology yet devised.
Or, one might add, in any philosophy. In Grief, Michael Cholbi, who holds the chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, informs us that philosophy has never taken up the subject of grieving in an earnest way.1 He attempts to make the positive case for grief: “The good in grief, I propose, is self-knowledge.” Cholbi defines grief as “an emotionally driven process of attention whose object is the relationship transformed by the death of another in whom one has invested one’s practical identity.” As for the term “practical identity,” it was coined by the American philosopher Christine Korsgaard, who writes that it is “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” The value of grief, then, according to Cholbi, is that “it brings the vulnerability, and ultimate contingencies of our practical identities into stark relief” and, ideally, “culminates in our knowing better what we are doing with our lives.”
In our secular age, the dead are thought generally to go into the ground, up in flames, or into the heads of others. But what about grieving those who believe in an afterlife, which usually entails their going to a better place? Ought we to grieve their deaths, or rather to celebrate them? Cholbi writes that “the fact that believers in the afterlife genuinely grieve is difficult to reconcile with the notion that they grieve for what the deceased have lost by dying.” I had a neighbor named Dee Crosby, an earnest, daily Mass–attending Catholic, unmarried, a former schoolteacher, 10 or so years older than I. I recall her once telling me that she had no fear of death. She hoped to avoid a painful or a sloppy passing, but she was confident about where she was headed after death. When she told me this, I felt a stab of what I can only call faith envy.
Cholbi makes the useful distinction between grieving and mourning, the former being personal, the latter public. Victorian women had set rituals for mourning: withdrawal from social life for a year, then two years appearing in public only in black. Mourning can be spontaneous, as it was after the death of Abraham Lincoln, or elaborately staged, as it was for John F. Kennedy after his assassination; it can also be elaborate but still perfunctory, as it is after the death of most politicians.
In our day, there are what seem almost concerted efforts to turn grief public. Courts now allow victim statements, which are statements of losses by families of murder victims. One sees something similar on local television stations, where the mothers, fathers, brothers, siblings, aunts, even friends of murder victims are televised setting out their loss, usually by gang members and other murderers, as often as not weeping while doing so. We now have a set of clichés to accompany grief; invariably “the process of healing,” “the need to be made whole,” “coming to closure,” “the end of the journey” will be hauled out. When a grammar or high-school student dies unexpectedly, school administrators call in grief counselors. There are even grief workshops.
With Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death six decades ago, we learned how grief was exploited by funeral homes throughout the country. Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One features a cruelly comic account of grief sentimentalized. Grief counseling has become a substantial part of the psychotherapy industry.
Like death itself, grief is too manifold; it comes in too many forms to be satisfactorily captured by philosophy or psychology. How does one grieve a slow death by, say, cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s; a quick death by heart attack, stroke, choking on food, car accident; death at the hands of a criminal, which in our day is often a random death; death at a person’s own hands by suicide; death in old age, middle age, childhood; death in war; yes, death by medicine tragically misapplied. Grief can take the form of anger, even rage, deep sorrow, confusion, relief; it can be long-lived, short-term, almost but never quite successfully avoided. The nature of grief is quite as highly variegated as its causes.
Grief, like the devil, is in the details. I have a good friend whose son committed suicide at age 41. A young man devoted to good works, he ended his life working for an international agency in central Africa. At his suicide, the only note he left was about what he called “this event” having nothing to do with his work. To this day, then, his father and other relatives do not know the reason for his taking his own life, which adds puzzlement to my friend’s grief, a puzzlement perhaps never to be solved.
Then there is the complex question of the purpose of grief, with all the various emotions it brings in its trail. Cholbi quotes a philosopher named Robert Solomon on our moral obligation to grieve. “The right amount of grief,” Solomon holds, “speaks of a person and his or her caring for others.” But what is the right amount? Religious Jews say kaddish daily for a year for their dead; if orthodox, they say it three times a day. My father, who did not say kaddish for his Orthodox father, used to refer to me, half-jokingly, as his kaddish. Alas, I did not say kaddish for him or my mother, though I loved both and felt, and continue to feel, myself fortunate in what I think my winning ticket in the parents’ lottery.
My mother died at 81, after a roughly two-year bout with liver cancer. She never quite came to terms with her own death. “Whoever thought this would happen to me?” she said on more than one occasion in my hearing. Someone suggested to me that I recommend a support group for the terminally ill for her. I can all too readily imagine my mother’s response to such a suggestion: “Let me get this straight. You want me to go sit in a room with strangers and listen to their troubles and then tell them my own, and this will make me feel better? This is what you want? This is the kind of idiot I have for a son?”
My father lived to 92, and died, at home, of congestive heart failure. His last few years he required a caregiver, the first a black man with the oddly Jewish name of Isaac Gordon, the second a woman, an Albanian physician unlicensed to practice medicine in the United States. Henry James wrote that “you are rich if you can meet the demands of your imagination.” By this criterion, my father was rich. He could give ample sums to (mostly) Jewish charities, he could help out poor relatives, he could travel to exotic foreign lands after his retirement, he could supply his wife with jewels and furs and other prizes that their generation was enamored of. What offended my father most about his illness in his last years was his loss of independence. He disliked relying on others; he preferred to be someone others relied upon.
Orphaned at the generous age of 62, I cannot say that I deeply grieved either of my parents. I did, though, and continue to, miss them. And I felt—one of the stages left out by Kübler-Ross—remorse. I wish I had asked my mother several questions, among them whether she believed in God. I never thanked my father for his generous support and for supplying me with an impressive model of manliness. I never got round to thanking him for this and for much else.
Two dear friends, Hilton Kramer and John Gross, I do not so much grieve as sorely miss. I miss their humor, their brilliance, and their unfailing kindness and generosity to me. Hilton had put me up for the job of editor of the American Scholar, a job I held for some 23 years, and he encouraged my writing in his own magazine, the New Criterion. I first came to know John during his days as editor of the London Times Literary Supplement, to which he often invited me to contribute. After a year or so of formal correspondence, John began a letter to me, “How I wish I could, as Henry James said on a similar occasion, leap the bounds of formality and address you by your first name.” He would occasionally call me from London, usually with some astonishing piece of gossip: “Joe, bet you can’t tell me with whom Fidel Castro is sleeping.” (Kathleen Tynan, wife of Kenneth Tynan, it turned out.) With both Hilton and John, I recall lots of laughter and a nearly perfect rapport
More recently Midge Decter, a dear friend, died at age 94. One cannot be shocked, or even surprised, by the death of someone who has attained her nineties, yet one can nonetheless feel the subtraction created by her absence. I loved to invoke her intelligent laughter, and it would never occur to me to attempt in any way to dupe her full-court-press savvy. One of the sad things about growing older is that one runs out of people to admire, as I admired Midge, for her good sense, her wit, her intellectual courage.
In a book called Geometry of Grief, Michael Frame writes: “Times folds up. So many ghosts crowd into my head. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, dear friends, students… And far too many cats.” Live long enough oneself and one realizes that half or more of one’s friends and relatives have departed the planet, “summoned,” as the poet Robert Southey had it, “on the grand tour of the universe,” before one. One lives with it, saddened yet grateful oneself still to be in the game. Yet some holes never successfully fill up.
In my case, that hole is the death of the younger of my two sons, who died at 28, rendering me officially a member of that least enviable of all clubs, parents who have buried children.
When strangers or distant acquaintances ask me whether I have children, I say that I had two sons, though one died young. When, with the inevitably sad look on their faces, they ask how he died, I lie and say in a car accident. In fact, my son Burton died from an opioid overdose, alone, in his apartment in Hyde Park in Chicago. I lie about the cause of his death because I do not wish to seem more pitiable than I am; and I lie because to admit that one’s son played around with drugs suggests that one was not the strong parent every child needs.
Burt was a wild kid. He didn’t care much about school, got into fights, yet could be immensely charming. Early in life, in an accident with a so-called safety scissors, he lost an eye, and henceforth wore a glass eye, which didn’t in any obvious way slow him down; it may even have made him wilder. Bored by school, he decided not to go to college, but after a year or so working in Las Vegas, he changed his mind and called to ask if I could get him into a college. I was able to help him get into Drake University in Iowa (his ACT scores were impressively high), which he left after a year to attend and finish his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts. He majored in history and was an admirer of Tolstoy’s novels. Once out of school, he became a salesman, working in real estate. Then, cashing in some Israeli bonds that had come due that his grandfather had bought for him, he bought two limousines and went into the limo business. For reasons I am not fully aware of, this didn’t work out. He had a pretty girlfriend named Paula Black, who suffered depression and killed herself when he was away, leaping from the balcony of his ninth-story apartment on Sheridan Road.
When I learned about my son’s death, I was, somehow, not immediately plunged into grief. In a reversal of the way grief is supposed to work, it has been with the passing years that my grief has slowly increased. When I go to my semiannual cemetery visits and note his gravestone (Burton Epstein—1962–1990), all I can think of is waste, of all the years he missed out on. I keep a photograph of him as a smiling boy of perhaps eight or nine on a bookcase shelf near my desk. I incorporate his name into my various computer passwords. He would be 60 if he were alive today, but I have no strong notion of what kind of man he would have grown to become. I never talk about him with anyone except his daughter. He died before she was a year old, and for her, a beautiful, intelligent, artistic young woman who never knew her father, I supply anecdotes and stray facts about him.
The only memorable condolence note about my son’s death came from my friend Norman Podhoretz, who wrote that the one bit of solace I might take from the death of a child is that nothing so sad was ever again likely to happen in my life. The writing of condolences to the grieving is perhaps the most difficult of all compositions. Platitudes must be avoided, clichés eliminated, all false feeling excluded. Yet what can one write that is likely to provide anything like real solace? Politicians and television news anchors, when announcing a death, mutter the perfunctory, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family,” which merely reveals their own thoughtlessness and want of true reverence.
The same holds true for funerary eulogies, which, frequently delivered by clergymen who did not know the deceased, often descend into little more than platitudes strung together by stale metaphors. Such empty eulogies are nicely blasted by the story of Mr. Birnbaum, who asks his rabbi to say kaddish for his recently dead dog Buster. The rabbi tells him that Jews do not say kaddish over animals. Birnbaum pleads with the rabbi, informing him that he has no surviving family and that in recent years Buster was all the family he has had. He then offers the rabbi a check for $20,000 for his inner-city youth fund if the rabbi will accommodate him. The rabbi, begrudgingly, agrees. The next afternoon in the synagogue’s private chapel, the rabbi spends 20 minutes saying kaddish and eulogizing Buster. At the end, Mr. Birnbaum, in tears, mounts the bimah, hands the rabbi his check, and thanks him profusely, adding, “You know, Rabbi, until this afternoon I had no idea how much Buster had done for Israel.”
In On Grief and Grieving, Kübler-Ross and Kessler, themselves grief therapists, call upon therapy, either through private counseling or in bereavement groups, as the ultimate balm for grief. They also encourage crying, on the part of men and women both. They allow that grief is “a reflection of a loss that never goes away.” They suggest a proper, or adequate, kind of grief, but never quite succeed in setting out what it might be. They even make grieving seem a self-improving exercise: “Grief presents us with a rare opportunity to relate to ourselves more fully, rationally, and lovingly.” And they write: “For in fact we have an imperfect duty—or short of that, a strong moral reason to grieve, rooted in our larger duty to pursue self-knowledge. In grieving, we show both love and respect for ourselves.” That last sentence is echoed, word for word, by Michael Cholbi in Grief.
Cholbi, while allowing that grief is “perhaps the greatest stressor in life,” finds it neither a form of madness nor worthy of being medicalized, grief being neither a disease nor a disorder. He finds it instead part of “the human predicament,” a part that eludes even philosophical understanding. “We can grieve smarter,” he writes. “But ultimately, we cannot outsmart grief. Nor should we want to.” We do not ultimately recover from grief; if lucky, we merely at best are able to adjust to it.
On my desk sits a bill for $150 from the Waldheim Cemetery for plantings on the grave of my maternal grandmother, a woman who died when I was a very young child and left no memories in my mind. Her own husband had died young, and, a true materfamilias, she raised five children. My mother, I know, greatly admired her mother. As for my mother, I pay each year for plantings on her grave, though not on the graves of my father and son at Westlawn Cemetery, whom when alive I don’t feel would care about such things. But what to do about the grandmother I never knew? One hundred and fifty dollars is not a staggering yet also not a trivial sum. Shall I pay it?
Because, I believe, we all owe a duty to our dead, even if we didn’t know them. In The Ancient City, Fustel de Coulanges reminds us that the ancient Greeks, the Latins, and the Hindus believed that the soul was also buried with the body and was divine. They left food at the graves of the dead, pouring wine upon their tombs. Euripides’s character Iphigenia exclaims, “I pour upon the earth of the tomb milk, honey, and wine; for it is with these that we rejoice the dead.” Religious sentiment appears to have begun with worship of the dead. “It was perhaps while looking upon the dead that man first conceived the idea of the supernatural, and began to have a hope beyond what he saw,” wrote Fustel de Coulanges. “Death was the first mystery, and it placed man on the tract of other mysteries…. It raised his thoughts from the visible to the invisible, from the transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.”
I shall write the check to Waldheim Cemetery today.
1 Grief: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton University Press, 232 pages)
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