Rochelle Gurstein: Mourning in America

The always brilliant Rochelle Gurstein is back at TNR with a superb, lovely essay:

It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices. It is not only that the bereaved must find their way as if no one before them had ever lost a husband or a wife; those who would comfort them are equally at a loss as to what to say or do. Priests still perform last rites, religious services continue to be conducted at funerals, and even non-observant Jews are loath to give up the custom of “sitting shivah”; but what remains of the old rituals and words of consolation has come to feel increasingly hollow. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that those who lived in societies with well-established rituals of mourning somehow had an easier time reconciling themselves to their shattered lives. Personal letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally include the shocking news that a grieving husband or wife could not properly recover and has died. Nor does it appear that religious faith necessarily makes that reconciliation any less torturous. Consider the case of C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s greatest modern defenders, who kept a journal of his spiritual collapse after his wife, Helen Joy Gresham, died following a long and excruciating ordeal with bone cancer.

More here.