On the Loss of a Loved One
The body heals itself but a soul’s wound needs minding. When we suffer physical damage the corporeal response is automatic: Our blood first clots and then dries forming a protective scab to guard against germs. Next the surrounding blood vessels open up to bring oxygen and nutrients to the wound. White blood cells attack any infection and begin repairing the wounded area. New tissue growth initiates as the damaged area is slowly rebuilt. Over time the wound gets smaller and smaller until all that is left is the memory of the original injury. Psychic injury, like that wrought by the loss of a loved one, is much more painful and lacks this automatic, salutary response. We must summon our own curative powers.
Fortunately, these powers do exist. Unfortunately, our mind often works against its own recuperation. In today’s chapter Princess Marya employs these powers to heal herself while Natasha refuses their restorative blessings.
Both Princess Marya and Natasha grieve the death of Prince Andrei. The distinction between the two is that Princess Marya wisely leaves the excessive grieving behind. She does this by looking to life and the living. “But pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy,” Tolstoy writes of Princess Marya’s process. “Princess Marya in her position as absolute and independent arbiter of her own fate and guardian and instructor of her nephew was the first to be called back to life from that realm of sorrow in which she had dwelt for the first fortnight. She received letters from her relations to which she had to reply; the room in which Nikolushka had been put was damp, and he began to cough; Alpatych came to Yaroslavl with reports on the state of their affairs and with advice and suggestions that they should return to Moscow to the house on Vozdvizhenka street, which had remained uninjured and needed only slight repairs. Life did not stand still and it was necessary to live. Hard as it was for Princess Marya to emerge from the realm of secluded contemplation in which she had lived till then, and sorry fand almost ashamed as she felt to leave Natasha alone, yet the cares of her life demanded her attention and she involuntarily yielded to them.”
So we see that Princess Marya rapidly restores her normal mental state by means of active social participation. Natasha, on the other hand, retreats further into herself. She remains alone. She dwells on thoughts of death and the dead. She even keeps looking at the very place where Andrei expired. All this serves only to rip open the scabs of memory and allows the blood of grief to flow freely.
The death of a loved one hurts. More than anything else. But it is an event which no power can stop. The only power we truly exercise against it is how we react to it.
If tears can vanquish fate, let us marshal tears; let every day be passed in grief, let every night be sleepless and consumed with sorrow; let hands rain blows on a bleeding breast, nor spare even the face from their assault; if sorrow will help, let us vent it in every kind of cruelty. But if no wailing can recall the dead, if no distress can alter a destiny that is immutable and fixed for all eternity, and if death holds fast whatever it has once carried off, then let grief, which is futile, cease. Wherefore let us steer our own ship, and not allow this power to sweep us from the course! He is a sorry steersman who lets the waves tear the helm from his hands, who has left the sails to the mercy of the winds, and abandoned the ship to the storm; but he deserves praise, even amid shipwreck, whom the sea overwhelms still gripping the rudder and unyielding.
Seneca, De Consolatione ad Marciam