Grief According to Plutarch

Remember or forget. Grow fonder and feel the pain. Forget and be relieved. Choose.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder…can I afford to grow more fond of the daughter I already love so intensely and miss so terribly? Reading her school papers, her journals, the notes she made in the margins of a book, marveling at  her artwork, feeling so proud to find her name on the college Dean’s List, my heart balloons with fondness – and breaks to remember she is not here to receive my love.

The philosopher Plutarch had four sons before his wife gave birth to the daughter she so wanted. The child died at the age of two while Plutarch was away from home. He sent his wife a letter of consolation in which he ponders the consequences of both remembering and forgetting.

But I do not see, my dear wife, why these things and the like, after delighting us while she lived, should now distress and dismay us as we take thought of them. Rather I fear on the contrary that while we banish painful thoughts we may banish memory as well,like Clymenê, who said

I hate the crooked bow of cornel wood,

I hate the sports of youth: away with them!

ever shunning and shrinking from what reminded her of her son,because it was attended with pain; for nature shuns everything unpleasant. But rather, just as she was herself the most delightful thing in the world to embrace, to see, to hear, so too must the thought of her live with us and be our companion, bringing with it joy in greater measure, nay in many times greater measure, than it brings sorrow (if indeed it is reasonable that the arguments we have often used to others should be of seasonable aid to ourselves as well), and we must not sit idle and shut ourselves in, paying for those pleasures with sorrows many times as great.

Out of sight, out of mind. If “nature shuns everything unpleasant” isn’t it natural to do as Clymené did and remove all reminders of what brings us pain? If I can’t have LaLa here with me, if her memory coupled with the absolute impossibility of my ever seeing her again rips me apart, opens the hole in my chest so it will not heal- would it be best to never think of her again? Plutarch worries if we banish painful thoughts we might also banish memory. So? The everyday grievances of life are overwhelming enough, better to forget what no longer exists and move on.

Not so according to Plutarch who tells his wife they should choose instead to live with the memory of their daughter, which will bring them more joy than pain. Easier said then done, dead Greek guy. I would point a finger at his parenthetical observation that he and his wife gave this advice to others believing it to be true. Now that he experiences first hand the shocking blow of powerful grief, I imagine Plutarch understands how useless his advice had been, at the same time wishing it were true.

Plutarch only means to comfort his wife, I know. His heart is in the right place. But I can’t help feeling some contempt for his platitudes. Just as he did not grasp before the inescapable pain of loss, he cannot know the limitless love a mother feels for a child or the bottomless pit of despair she falls into upon losing one.

But just before I dismiss this portion of his letter altogether, I find a truth buried in the very last line: “we must not sit idle and shut ourselves in, paying for those pleasures with sorrows many times as great.”

“….paying for those pleasures with sorrows many times as great.”

Sounds a little to me like “no pain, no gain”, only inverted. To gain the experience of love and all the joy that comes with it, you must risk the pain of loss.

I don’t like it, but I know it’s true. For nineteen years Lena brought me the most exquisite emotional experiences life can offer. In exchange I incurred an emotional debt that came due when she died. I’m not sure we have any control over the amount of sorrow due when negotiating an exchange for past pleasures. Plutarch advises his wife to stay engaged in life as a kind of payment plan to make the burden easier to bear. My other daughter and the deep emotions we share have certainly brought my payments down considerably. My friends have chipped in too, not allowing me to “sit idle” or shut myself in.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of site, out of mind. Choose? There is no choice. We cannot banish memory any more than we can resurrect the dead. And we can’t help but grieve as we recall the fondest memories most often. We can only trust that eventually our debt of sorrow will be paid in full, and only joy will remain.

No pain, no gain.

full text of Plutarch’s letter to his wife

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