‘For Sorrow There Is No Remedy’

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Stephane Ruet/Story Box Photo/Sipa
Joyce Carol Oates, Paris, 2008

In his essay “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow,”* Dr. Johnson identifies the dreadful uniqueness of grief among the human passions. Ordinary desires, virtuous or vicious, contain within them the theoretical possibility of their satisfaction:

The miser always imagines that there is a certain sum that will fill his heart to the brim; and every ambitious man, like King Pyrrhus, has an acquisition in his thoughts that is to terminate his labours, after which he shall pass the rest of his life in ease or gaity, in repose or devotion.

But grief, or “sorrow,” is different in kind. Even with painful passions—fear, jealousy, anger—nature always suggests to us a solution, and with it an end to that oppressive feeling:

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

Unless we have a religious belief that envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millenium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we—we in the secularizing West, at least—have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences. Of course, at one level we know that we shall all die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists—a matter for the professionals. But afterward we, the amateurs, the grief-struck, are left to deal with it—this unique, banal thing—as best we can. And there are now fewer social forms to surround and support the grief-bearer.

Very little is handed down from one generation to the next about what it is like. We are expected to suffer it in comparative silence; being “strong” is the template; wailing and weeping a sign of “giving in to grief,” which is held to be a bad way of “dealing with it.” Of course, there is the love of family and friends to fall back on, but they may know less than we do, and their concerned phrases—“It does get better”; “Two years is what they say”; “You are looking more yourself”—are often based on uncertain authority and general hopefulness. Death sorts people out: both the grief-bearers and those around them. As the survivor’s life is forcibly recalibrated, friendships are often tested; some pass, some fail. Co-grievers may indulge in the phenomenon of competitive mourning: I loved him/her…


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