It is not possible to memorialize the sufferings of each of us or our families. Maybe something useful is to approach loss from a variety of angles, reminding us how far, wide, and deep the damage may spread. Like the waters of a flood, illness can penetrate everywhere, leaving little untouched and rendering much unrecoverable. How is it possible, one may ask as the toll mounts, that any of our lives can in any way recover.
The experience of loss, after all, is at the core of being human. Gods take what they want from mortals and then leave them— abandoned, broken, sometimes ecstatic, always changed. Asked who his masters were, Freud answered: “The Greek tragedies.” We often forget that Oedipus’s story was one of abandonment and exile from beginning to end. A central myth of classical culture is that of the maiden Persephone, abducted into the underworld by Hades.
As grief fills Persephone’s abandoned mother, the goddess Demeter, the earth dries up, unable to bear a harvest. Humankind itself is threatened with disaster. Although Zeus prevails upon his brother Hades to release her daughter, Demeter is unable to feel joy. Persephone must return to the underworld for a full season each year.
The meetings of god and man are often followed by separation. In the Christian faith, God is broken in a most terrible way and followers are bereft. The Bible is filled with stories of war and loss, Israelites are enslaved, children slaughtered by the angel of the Lord. The anticipation and reality of loss is bred in our bones.
“We have to find ways to handle the experience of perpetually grieving, of never being out of grief,” commented one psychotherapist who works with HIV groups. Perhaps those who live with or alongside life-threatening illness are not so different from others, for all of us, whether conscious of it or not, are surrounded by sorrow. Are many of the signs of physical distress characterized as illness—somatization, anxiety, depression, and so on—expressions of that sorrow? Is illness itself a form of grieving?