breaking through: john donne and the rhino of grief
The words by the seventeenth-century poet-pastor John Donne were familiar: “No man is an island.” I first read this poem at the suggestion of my college English professor, who said I should also check out Gerard Manley Hopkins, another religious poet. Since then, I’ve read the book by Thomas Merton with that title and listened to a number of songs based on Donne’s words—a folk version by Joan Baez, a choral piece sung in church, even a reggae version by Dennis Brown.
On September 11, 2001, the words came back.
A few months earlier, I spotted my father-in-law’s copy of Donne’s collected works on the bookshelf and began reading it in an effort to get a handle on my grief. I discovered that Donne’s wife, Anne, died after sixteen years of marriage when he was forty-five. Evelyn died after eighteen years when I was forty-seven, so we had a bond. Yet there was no consolation in reading that Donne believed the death of a loved one was not a breach between two people, but an expansion, like gold that is beaten into airy thinness, because I was miserable.
The subliminal message I was receiving from society was that people expected me to grieve for a week and then celebrate that Evelyn had been part of my life. But as I packed up Evelyn’s possessions and sorted her memories, I couldn’t control the emotions that continued to surge through and sweep away everything not tied down. Usually I’m good at denying and deflecting my emotions, but this was different.
Grief was a rhino that barged in and sat down in my living room.
One illuminating grace was finding two poems that Donne wrote after Anne died. “Holy Sonnet 17” expressed his gratitude that she was now in joyous heaven, where it was always autumn with its warm, rich colors. Then he wrote about his despair in “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” feeling like he was every dead thing. This was my reality: trying to hold two different emotions that didn’t go well together. For Donne, sorrow was a deep, human response to something tragic, and it was as much a natural part of life as it was of love.
As a person on the journey of faith, I thought I had to believe that Evelyn’s death was part of God’s plan, that God wanted her to deal with various medical problems for years, work her way back to health, and then die of an unknown heart problem in order for something else to happen. I had trouble thinking that God had either caused her to die or was indifferent to what happened to her on Earth. I could see nothing good coming from her death. I also thought that if my faith was strong and mature enough, then I should be able to set my emotions aside and simply accept that everything was as it should be, and I shouldn’t attempt to understand God’s ways because they were beyond human understanding. So I tried to ignore grief as if it were the flu and would get better on its own, but the rhino didn’t move, and I was feeling worse. Donne’s words helped me understand why it was right that the rhino remained.
Although grief is intensely personal, it is also communal. Others were grieving Ev’s death, yet they came and listened to me share, knowing that they would not be able to take the grief away, but hoping that their presence would help me bear its burden. In the Jewish tradition, a group of people, a minyan, gathers after worship and says Kaddish as a community, a prayer of remembering to praise God when you have suffered a tragedy and want to curse, with people praying for those too grief-stricken, or too angry, to pray:
Yitgadal ve’yit kadash sh’mei raba.
Exalted and hallowed be God’s greatness
in this world of Your creation.
This echoes the Christian willingness to let God direct our lives as God wills, not as we desire, and Islam’s directive to “surrender all to the will and purpose of God.” If we have any long-range dreams that will crush us if they don’t happen, like I had of growing old with Evelyn, then we’re not letting God call the shots. My appreciation increased for people who end what they say with “God willing,” because we don’t control everything that will happen in the future, and it affirms the faith statement “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
If I had unquestioning faith, I’d be able to sluff off Ev’s death like the missionary in Peru whose wife and son died when their aircraft was mistakenly shot down as a drug plane. He forgave everyone and said that God was showing him something, so he was grateful. Faith doesn’t amount to much until it’s tested, and it didn’t feel like I was doing very well. Yet Donne wrote that we need to examine our convictions and not idealize faith and follow it blindly, because when tragedy strikes, the grand and lofty ideals come apart in the face of stark reality, and we’re left with a gritty residue.
If my faith is to be real, it has to be rooted in my struggles.
It is here, in the ruins of my heart and dreams, that words find meaning, here where hope finds its footing, and here where I learn how much I need the help of others.
The incarnation is rooted in our struggles for a reason—not to deny them, but to help us confront and transform our struggles into sources of strength.
Because he was a person of faith and searching for the anchors of hope, Donne’s words gave me permission to grieve. This opened a door, and I finally could hear what those in my congregation who knew about grief were saying when we had coffee together—I needed to allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling, and let the emotions help me through the process of healing. If I trusted grief, then images and words would come and guide me further along faith’s path. I came to feel that God allowed Evelyn to die, and mourned her death alongside me.
Donne wrote something else that I’m still mulling over. He said that when a person dies, “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.” Evelyn will always be part of my story, but how is the chapter that was our life together translated into a better language? Perhaps Donne means that the sorrow will fade, while memories of our happy times will grow. But this would be a distortion of our history. I don’t want to forget our struggles or my failings because I learned and grew more compassionate from them. Maybe Donne’s translation is putting the facts of Evelyn’s life into the larger context of overall meaning. Perhaps Donne means that better words will come to describe Evelyn, words that can’t be seen now because I’m still too close.
Doing a translation also involves me, the writer, who has to let the story live in him as he searches for the right words, and the search was changing me. I was learning to speak grief’s dialect. Its vocabulary became my working lexicon.
When the day of September 11 came, I was still lost in the dust of my personal collapse and felt nothing. Cynically, I thought, Welcome to my world. But the starkness of my reaction told me how far I had disengaged from the world. A day later, the images on television of the destruction and of people in shock and despair broke through my defenses, and I cried for the newly dead, feeling the enormity of Donne’s words that every person’s death diminishes me, and now thousands more were gone.
Merton wrote in No Man Is an Island that even though men and women share a common destiny, and each of us has to work out our own salvation, everything I do affects everyone else, and the sorrows and celebrations of every other person affect me.
The journey of grief takes us deep inside our faith. It is here that we find the wisdom to take care of ourselves and the compassion to help others. Out of this struggle comes acceptance and new life.
Mark Liebenow’s most recent book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012. His essays, poems, and critical reviews have appeared in numerous journals. His nonfiction work has won the River Teeth, Chautauqua, and Literal Latte awards, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and been named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2012.
His other books are about daily meditations for Advent and Lent, worship resources for the church year, and the theology of Christian fools. His essay “Tinkering with Grief in the Woods” describes a week he spent at Gethsemani Monastery. It was published by Literal Latte Journal. He lives in Illinois, where he writes about nature and grief recovery and works seasonally on an organic farm. He is a member of ASLE and the Yosemite Conservancy.