I’m fortunate that, early in my 8th decade of life, I’ve had few people close to me die. The most significant loss has been of my father. Besides that, it’s mainly been aunts and uncles, acquaintances, and distant friends. Should I live another couple decades, during that time many people who have been important in my life will die. We don’t just lose spouses or other family members; we also lose friends, mentors, neighbors, co-workers, community members, and many others who make up the fabric of our social life. We grieve all these as well. How do we come to terms with all these losses—the ranks of the now-departed whose images and voices still populate our psyches?
I’ve been reflecting on this question after finishing Virginia Wolff’s novel To the Lighthouse. The first half describes a day at the summer residence of a middle-aged couple, the Ramsays. We learn a good deal about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and their house guests. The next ten years are described only briefly, and that largely in light of the decay of the abandoned summer house. During that interlude, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. Finally, after ten years, Mr. Ramsay, the two youngest children, and a few of the guests return. The final section of the novel, titled “The Lighthouse,” describes the two children and their father sailing to a lighthouse visible from the house, while simultaneously Lily Briscoe, an artist and one of the house guests, sets an easel on the lawn to work on a painting she had started there ten years earlier. The story is not so much about a sailboat ride or a picture, though; it’s about the Ramsay children coming to terms with their remote and unaffectionate father and Lily coming to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily’s struggles illuminate the process of grieving friends.
Lily revisits numerous memories of Mrs. Ramsay. First, she thinks of how Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly helped her connect with Charles Tansley, an arrogant and opinionated guest proud of ‘his poverty, his principles’ who had opined to her that women can’t paint and can’t write. Unexpectedly, she and Charles had an enjoyable time together on the beach, something than she now realizes Mrs. Ramsay facilitated:
“When she thought of herself and Charles throwing ducks and drakes and of the whole scene on the beach, it seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters…. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rages; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter III)
As a painter, Lily appreciates those who can successfully sculpt social interactions to create works of beauty much as artists do. Making peace with memories of those who have been part of our lives includes appreciating the blessings they brought to us, the ways they did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves..
Coming to terms with the dead is not just about appreciating their gifts but also about accepting their limitations. Lily thinks of a couple (the Rayleys) whose relationship Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged but who ended up in a disappointing marriage, and of Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to pair Lily with another of the guests, William Bankes:
“….oh, the dead! She murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them. They are at our mercy. Mrs. Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us…. For a moment Lily, standing there, with the sun hot on her back, summing up the Rayleys, triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay, who would never know how Paul went to coffee-houses and had a mistress; how he sat on the ground and Minta handed him his tools; how she stood here painting, had never married, not even William Bankes.” (The Lighthouse, Ch. V)
Only those who idolize the dead can think they were right all the time. It’s more healthy, and by no means disrespectful to their memories, to recognize their shortcomings and mistakes as well as their strengths and successes. By so doing we release their power over us.
Lily wishes to express the complexity of her memories to someone. She has the impulse to engage Mr. Carmichael, another guest on the lawn, but holds back:
“Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. ‘About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay’—no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low.” (Chapter V)
This inability to connect with another produces a sense of emptiness, which brings her back to Mrs. Ramsay’s absence:
“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! She called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again.” (Chapter V)
There’s in her yearning a sense of wrongness about death, which she imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael could rectify:
“For one moment she felt that if the both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” (Chapter V)
She cries in anguish, then feels relieved, and with it senses Mrs. Ramsay’s presence:
“And now slowly the pain of the want, and the bitter anger…lessened; and of their anguish left, as antidote, a relief that was balm in itself, and also, but more mysteriously, a sense of someone there, of Mrs. Ramsay…” (The Lighthouse, Chapter VII)
All these things—the urge to say what’s inexpressible, the thought that the person could be brought back if only one did the right thing, the alteration between feeling the person’s absence and their presence—are part of the complexity of grief.
A few chapters later, Lily is still working on her painting and still thinking of Mrs. Ramsay. She still feels that something is missing, both in the painting and in her emotions. She tries to resolve the impasse by thinking of how others viewed Mrs. Ramsay. There were those at the house who disliked her—who thought she was too given over to activity and not enough to thought. Lily thinks about the Ramsays’ marriage—how her husband offended her, how she responded, how they eventually made up. Lily seems to be filling in her mental picture of Mrs. Ramsay. She’s making sense of the person, distilling disparate memories into a coherent essence.
At the same time she is trying to solve what is missing in her painting. As she’s thinking of how to view the objects she is painting, she’s thinking simultaneously of how to view Mrs. Ramsay:
“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XI)
Someone moves inside the house, changing the scene, which throws Lily suddenly back into her desire for Mrs. Ramsay:
“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! She cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the chair, with the table.” (Chapter XI)
After one’s memories and feelings about a loss have all been reviewed, one must wait and pay attention. Something will happen—in this case, movement indoors—that will change the vision, the picture. Then one sees two realities simultaneously—the chair and table that are also a miracle. In the emotional realm, she still has the same desire for Mrs. Ramsay, but that becomes no longer (or perhaps not only) a horror but part of ordinary experience. It’s interesting that the term “miracle” is used to describe this dual awareness, since neither Wolff nor her character seem to believe in divine intervention. The absence of God or an afterlife is for many of us a necessary horizon for coming to terms with the death of a close friend or family member. Perhaps Wolff has some sense here that successful grieving requires awareness of the transcendent, though she doesn’t make that explicit.
Eventually, Lily concludes that Mr. Ramsay has reached the island. She’s relieved. Mr. Carmichael appears beside her and she realizes they were not as disconnected as she imagined:
“He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: ‘They will have landed,’ and she felt that she had been right. They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XIII)
So, connection to another person is an additional element in coming to terms with the loss of someone who has been important to us. This is the final piece that Wolff gives us, along with appreciating the blessings we’ve received from them, accepting their limitations, desiring to bring them back, experiencing both a sense of the person’s continued presence and their absence, pulling together a more coherent or complete view of the person, and waiting for the shift from tragedy to recognition that grief is part of normal human experience. It’s a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of grief, though I think it’s incomplete since it omits any notion of God or an afterlife and is skeptical about our ability to communicate our experience to others.