Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature



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Eva Figes, Waking, 1981


Death of Woman in Old Age

Death of Woman in Old Age:

The tide is out. How long have I been lying here? Dimly I see grey. It must be light. I lie at the bottom of a grey pool through which I see a dim light. I must try and move. The tide has thrown up a heavy rock, it is lying on me, I am pinned down. Mother, won’t you come and lift me up? She is hiding from me, all of them, they want to frighten me, so I think I have been left behind. It hurts. Somehow I must lift myself upward, out of this salty pool, but I cannot move. I can taste the salt on my lips. I am hot, damp, small trickles of sea-water run down my neck and in between my thighs. That dim light, it must be the sun. I can hear a titter of girlish laughter. They are hiding from me, so that if I call, nobody will come help me. I must pull myself together, try and move, but I cannot find my limbs. Perhaps I am buried in sand, it has silted up overnight with that last tide, I will try and shift it. Please, come somebody.

It is dark now, the tide is coming close. I hear the sound of ocean murmurs, coming close now, did somebody whisper, moan? No, I expect it is only the sounds of dark waves running closer, I can feel a slight wind, cool on may face, it comes with the dark, with the sea pounding against rocks, I can hear it rushing in my head. Now I am tossed, thrown this way and that, I am in terror of being thrown onto rough rocks, of being torn apart, about the hollow in my head is filling with black liquid, gushing, moving dark shadows come, waver, my son, I cry out, but before I can utter two words he is swept away, And I am gasping for breath, trying to push the water out of my eyes. Will he come back to me, is he drowned? I see my daughter a small child fill her bucket in the dusk and I want to ask, why are you out so late, is it true there is nobody with you, but the black wave comes, now it is between us, hissing, now my head is full of it, swirling, gurgling, it will not come out, though I open my mouth nothing is heard.

Now I am back in the silence. The dim light. Is it morning? I hear whispers, is it leaves stirring overhead, throwing their shadows on the wall? But the walls seem to have gone, or perhaps they are shining so much I do not see them now. I hear a cock crow, that was the first sound which broke the silence. But I do not hear it now. I have never heard it since. Perhaps a cock crows only once, at the beginning, after which the silence begins to close in once more. Yes, that would make sense. And if small birds twitter to the sound of sunrise that would hardly disturb the silence. Mother, can I get up? I cannot lift the bedclothes. How heavy they have become, suddenly. Please come soon, or the grass and shadows will have dried up outside before I have had a chance to run through them. Already I am hot, too hot, and the walls have melted into light.

It is dim. The light is becoming dim. I should go home now, the cold wind is blowing round my legs and my bucket is heavy, full of damp sand, I cannot lift it now, it hurts each time I try, I am gasping for breath and the air hurts as it goes in, sharp as a knife stabbing, while the sky is dying, light fading to the colour of metal, and in the silence, that queer little silence when the wind stops for a moment and I know there is nobody nearby I hear the whisper of the ocean, far distant but coming close, the sound is all around, mother, I call, why did you not wait for me, but I am not sure if I spoke and if so it was so faint the sound was lifted off by the wind and drowned. And now it picks me up bodily, I am tossed and turned in the black chaos, in my ears is silence, then sound, rushing into spaces, I have just time to think why did you leave me before the struggle becomes too much, I gasp for air, my head bobs up for a moment, out of dark water, but the night is black also, I am submerged, I must find my body which is helpless without me, without my head which is gasping for air up in the night where I thought I had just begun to make out a single star, a small point of light, just a pinprick in the black, but each gasp brings a stab down below, which will not do, I belong to whatever is left down below in spite of the immense distances of blackness and moving space which have begun to open in my head, and I can hear my lungs gurgling, I must help them, I think, breathing hard, in spite of the sharp stab on each occasion, or I will drown.

Flat grey light. The tide has gone out, and all is very quiet. I am stretched out like flattened sand, damp and salty. I listen in the silence for the far murmur of the ocean, but I hear nothing. I think perhaps I have been ill, but now it is peaceful. I am lying very still, hoping the sun will rise. Under my fingers I feel sand, dry now, and I remember to sift them through my hands to find by touch which of the grains could be crystal or diamond, ruby or another tiny emerald. So much.

The walls have vanished. A blank white of sunlight through fog where the wall use to be, and my old sticks of furniture have also gone. Through the white room with no walls I hear voices, sighs and whispers, things moving, stirring, and now the clear sound of a cup ringing into its saucer.

Shadows of leaves, a whole forest of leaves stirring around me, whispering, my head humming with hot insects while the sound of birds singing comes from above, from the sky which is full of leaf and branch. I dip my hand into the bucket, which is filled with clear cool water, and close my hand round the firm pebble lying on the bottom. It is hard in my palm, under the ring of water my arm bends as though it had entered a queer world from which I am shut out.

Now the light is fading. Is this air, or water? I would think it is the evening tide, but if so the cool grey waves have crept around me with such stealth, so quietly, that I heard no sound. But I have known for some time that silence and the roar of the ocean were one and the same thing so I am neither alarmed nor surprised. Night falls above my head in the sky now that the ceiling is no longer visible. Everything has been washed away in the last tide, no more pain, now my body has been swept away I am light as a bird, no more trying to find bits of myself, the ache of effort with each breath, holding myself together like poor old dislocated doll, how many years now, finding an arm, now a numb foot, pulling on aching muscles and stiff hot joints on first waking? Admit it, the hollow head, the mechanism for making the eyes open and shut could no longer be connected to the rest of it. The illusion was shattered. And now it has been washed away by the tide and I can float freely on the black waves, though I still hear the plaintive cry, mamma, each time it was tipped back, feeble but constant, unvarying in its timbre. And though the night is cool and the tide is creeping silently along the damp dark sand and I am not afraid, no, though the wind is rising over the dark horizon, the small voice in my head is crying mamma, why do you not come, why have you left me along on the seashore with night coming in all round? But now I see a small light bobbing in the dark, it quivers, trembles, is it a spirit, no, the light of a fishing boat putting out to sea on the far horizon, no, perhaps a single star, the north star, rising in the sky, but no, it is coming nearer, she has come for me, she has not forgotten, she holds a torch in her hand, mamma, she has come back to the seashore and I am safe, now that she has come to fetch me, pick me up and carry me home.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

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