Grief is a common part of everyone’s life. Everyone at some point in his or her life will deal with something like the death of a loved one. Many will be spared this early on in life, but some will experience this as young children. What was surprising to me about the readings was the realization that the outcome of the grief of loss changes with age. I always considered grief just an emotion and not something that is responded to differently with age.
What was most surprising about grief in young children is what occurs between the ages of 3-5 years and 6-10 years. I at first found it odd that kids in grieving situations would act out death and funerals. The more I think about it though, the more it seems to make sense. Children at these stages do not have the cognitive abilities to really grasp what death means; so acting it out seems like a way that they can begin to try to understand that concept by participating in it in their own world of make belief.
The Bible verses studied show us a bigger picture for grief outside the narrow view of our own perspective. In Lamentations 3:32-33 shows that grief comes in the context of God’s compassion and his unfailing love. Verse 3:33 says, For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This would seem surprising, since an all-powerful God would seem to be responsible for everything, which occurs. But, this also appears in the context of the fallen state of the world. While grief is a temporary condition, heaven is a permanent state of affairs that is showered freely on those who seek it. Thessalonians 4:13-14 is along these lines. That god has not condemned mankind to grief, but has come to save mankind from all grief for those that are open to it. For in the end, as Romans 3:38-39 points out, all those who are worthy will be eternally united to God’s love.
Like the recent Hollywood movie Momento, Leo Nikolayevich Tolsy’s 1886 story The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins at the end of the story, when Ivan is being buried. No one in the story seems to be concerned about the deceased, but instead they are focused on their own selfish concerns. His colleagues are happy that it was he who died and not they and sees his death as an opportunity for them to get a promotion. They respond to news of his death in a commonplace way, saying, “You don’t say so!” (Tolstoy, 1, 1886) when they are informed of Ivan’s death. Ivan’s wife Praskovya, instead of grieving the loss of her husband, talks to her husband’s close friend about ways that she might be able to procure a larger pension for her own selfish interests.
The narrator says, “Ivan Illyich had been a colleague of the gentlemen present and was like by them all.” (Tolstoy, 1, 1886). The mysteriousness of the death is striking in the story. No one seems to know what caused Ivan to die in the first place. In order to tell that story, the narrative jumps back thirty years in the past in order to catch readers up with the present.
There is a hollowness to all of the proceedings of the funerals since everyone is focused on their own small lives instead of contemplating the loss of a colleague who was “like by them all.” One would also think that a funeral would be an appropriate time to consider one’s own mortality. But instead, everyone is lost in his or her own worlds.
When the narrative jumps back thirty years in the past, the reader learns that hollowness is something that had plagued the life of Ivan long before his death. Every moment of our lives is spent crafting not just our own lives, but also the lives of those around us. We have choices to make about who we include in our lives, and whether or not we will face them openly and honestly, or if we will hide our true natures while putting on a front.
This seems to be the case of Ivan’s life. Though he was, a “good” man, and was “liked” by all, he was also a distant man from his family. He had had an ordinary and simple life, which the narrator calls terrible because of that, “Ivan’s Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (Tolstoy, 8, 1886).
Ivan lived a life by how he thought society thought he should be living it. Without looking inside himself, or to a higher power, he “considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority” (Tolstoy, 9, 1886). His morality did not adhere to any objective code of morality, but was taken from those he looked up to. Tolstoy writes, “At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them. But when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely” (Tolstoy, 10, 1886).
The previous quotation is key to why Ivan’s death was hollow and at the end of his life he felt that nobody but his young son understood him. He did not even understand himself, because he notions of right and long and how he should live were borrowed from others.
Ivan, through following role models is able to advance in position and get a higher salary in order to support his family and wife’s lavish tastes. But just as he has found this better position he begins to suffer from the illness that will eventually lead to his death.
The doctors are unable to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with him. More than just his illness, at the end of his life he despises his wife and suffers dissolution at feeling completely alone in the world.
The root of the problem though goes deeply to decisions he made early on in life. He chose to follow the path of others instead of listening to his own conscience. Tolstoy writes, “ He wept on account of his helpless, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God” (Tolstoy, 41, 1886).
In life, you get out of things what you put into them. In the case of God, Ivan feels abandoned by Him, but nowhere in the story does it indicate that he ever tried to know him in his life. Both God and family were secondary to Ivan’s career ambitions. Even these ambitions were empty, since they were to provide for a family that he continued to more and more feel distant from.
The moral of this story is that life gets off track over a long period of time. Many people consider downfalls as happening in an instant. But many downfalls can be years in the making. It is the sum total of how we have lived over years that will determine where we will end up in the future.