One of the minor tribulations about grief is that people are continually pressing inspirational poetry upon you. Just as people feel they have the right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly, so even comparative strangers feel that they can offer you material that ordinarily you would never consider reading. Suffer bereavement, and you are aware of this mawkish, archly Christian sub-literature that dozens of people suddenly want to share with you.
They mean well, of course. Whenever someone thrusts a printout at me, I thank them with a straight face, solemnly read the printout, and thank them for their kindness. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, particularly when they are trying to make a thoughtful gesture.
Inwardly, though, I am wondering, “Why do they imagine that grief has blunted my aesthetic sense?”
You see, what makes this poetry such a tribulation is not that it’s Christian. I am an agnostic, but I live in a post-Christian culture, and I fully accept that, to understand the literature of the past, I have to be fully versed in Christianity. And I am, so much so that I have have read large chunks of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But when there are such Christian poets as John Donne, Emily Dickinson, or Gerald Manley Hopkins – or even Tennyson, in his ponderous way – why would anyone turn to the mediocrities that I keep receiving?
At least with such poets, the aesthetic pleasure can provide a genuine relief from grief, and deciphering the argument can be an intellectual diversion, even if I reserve judgment on the Christian conclusion.
But the poems that make up the sub-literature of death are usually doggerel, with all the subtlety of an SUV slamming into a pedestrian.
Take, for example, “Do Not Stand,” a poem attributed to half a dozen sources, but probably the work of Mary Elizabeth Frye. “Do not stand at my grave and weep; / I am not there,” it begins, then goes on to explain where the speaker can be found – for instance, in the reflection of the snow, or the sunlight on grain. A statement about survival after death, it is better written than most of this sub-literature, but goes on for about half a dozen lines too many without any development of thought. And when I come to the last line of, “I did not die,” I become possessed by the cynical ghost of Robert Graves, and I am moved to ask why the speaker has a grave, then.
For that matter, why shouldn’t those to whom the poem is addressed cry? That is a natural part of grief, and knowledge of the person’s survival after death does not change the fact that the deceased is no longer present.
Another example of this literature is, “Death is nothing at all,” which is attributed to Henry Scott-Holland, a canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. According to Scott-Holland, the dead “have only slipped away into the next room” – as if that made them any more approachable.
“I am I and you are you,” Scott-Holland continues helpfully, just in case you were confused, and urges you to act the same as always, and act as though he was still present. “What is death but a negligible accident?” he asks, apparently because “I am waiting for you for an interval / Somewhere very near . . . . One brief moment and all will be as it was before / How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”
Well, you know, even granting survival after death in some form, I seriously doubt that laughter. I don’t know about anyone else, but falling into each other’s arms with cries of relief sounds more realistic to me. When I reunite with somebody in life, I don’t laugh at my emotions when we parted, so why would I do so after death? There is something so arch and so smug in this doggerel’s sentiment that to me it amounts to a trivialization of death and grief.
Yet even these two pieces sound like masterpieces next to the anonymous “God sends his love.” Sharing some of the archness of Scott-Holland, this one describes the dead person as being chosen to die so that he can help God in his work. It repeats Scott-Holland’s sentiments about not grieving, but at least has the decency to add, “But do not be afraid to cry, it does relieve the pain.” – although the sentiment is immediately spoiled by the nonsensical line, “Remember there would be no flowers unless there was some rain.”
Blithely skirting around the problem of pain, the piece goes on to assert that death is all part of a divine plan that humans cannot comprehend, and urges the mourners to be helpful to those in need, adding
And when you feel that gentle breeze or the wind upon your face, that’s me giving you a great big hug, or just a soft embrace.
And when it’s time for you to go from that body to be free, you’re not going, you are coming here to me.
And I will always love you, from that land way up above, will be in touch again soon.
Then it ends with “Ps God sends his love” – a tug at the heart strings that even Steven Speilberg would feel ashamed to try.
What is interesting about all these pieces is how much they have in common. They all take the form of the deceased talking to those who survived them, assert survival after death, and downplay the importance of grief. The last two also promise that the deceased and the survivors will meet again as a reason not to grieve.
Perhaps some Christians can find some comfort in the repetition of their core beliefs. Presumably, many can, since few seem to object to the use of uninspired modern hymns in place of the masterpieces from the 18th Century in ordinary services.
But, for me, such works seem profoundly inhuman. By insisting that grief is unnecessary, they show no understanding of human psychology whatsoever. And when this inhumanity is expressed so poorly, with so little development of thought – well, is it any wonder that these printouts go directly into the recycling bin when I come home? In every possible way, they seem a mockery of my grief, not a comfort in the least.
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