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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Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1869
Part Twelve – Chapter 15

Translated by Constance Garnett

Death of Prince Andrey

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1877

Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Death of Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, 1886

Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1869
Translated by Constance Garnett

Part Twelve – Chapter 15

Death of Prince Andrey:

"Could it be, or could it not be?" he was wondering now as he watched her and listened to the slight click of the needles. "Can fate have brought us together so strangely only for me to die? ... Can the truth of life have been revealed to me only for me to have spent my life in falsity? I love her more than anything in the world! But what am I to do if I love her?" he said, and suddenly he unconsciously moaned from the habit he had fallen into in the course of his sufferings.

Hearing the sound, Natasha laid down her stocking, and bent down closer to him, and suddenly noticing his shining eyes, went up to him with a light step and stooped down.

"You are not asleep?"

"No; I have been looking at you for a long while, I felt when you came in. No one but you gives me the same soft peace … the same light. I want to weep with gladness!"

Natasha moved closer to him. He face beamed with rapturous delight.

"Natasha, I love you too much! More than everything in the world!"

"And I?" She turned away for a second. "Why too much?" she said.

"Why too much? . . . Well, what do you think, what do you feel in your heart, your whole heart, am I going to live? What do you think?"

"I am sure of it; sure of it!" Natasha almost cried out, taking both his hands with a passionate gesture.

He was silent for a while.

"How good it would be!" And taking her hand, he kissed it.

Natasha was happy and deeply stirred; and she recollected at once that this must not be, and that he must have quiet.

"But you are not asleep," she said, subduing her joy. "Try and sleep . . . please do."

He pressed her hand and let it go, and she moved back to the candle and sat down in the same position as before. Twice she glanced round at him; his eyes were bright as she met them. She set herself a task on her stocking, and told herself she would not look round till she had finished it.

He did, in fact, soon after shut his eyes and fell asleep. He did not sleep long, and woke up suddenly in a cold sweat of alarm.

As he fell asleep, he was still thinking of what he had been thinking about all the time —of life and of death. And most of death. He felt he was closer to it.

"Love? What is love?" he thought.

"Love hinders death. Love is life. All, all that I understand, I understand only because I love. All is, all exists only because I love. All is bound up in love alone. Love is God, and dying means for me a particle of love, to go back to the universal and eternal source of love." These thoughts seemed to him comforting. But they were only thoughts. Something was wanting in them; there was something one-sided and personal, something intellectual; they were not self-evident. And there was uneasiness too and obscurity. He fell asleep.

He dreamed he was lying in the very room in which he was lying in reality, but that he was not ill, but quite well. Many people of various sorts, indifferent people of no importance, were present. He was talking and disputing with them about some trivial matter. They seemed to be preparing to set off somewhere. Prince Andrey had a dim feeling that all this was of no consequence, and that he had other matters of graver moment to think of, but he still went on uttering empty witticisms of some sort that surprised them. By degrees, all these people began to disappear, and the one thing left was the question of closing the door. He got up and went towards the door to close it and bolt it. Everything depended on whether he were in time to shut it or not. He was going, he was hurrying, but his legs would not move, and he knew that he would not have time to shut the door, but still he was painfully straining every effort to do so. And an agonizing terror came upon him. And that terror was the fear of death; behind the door stood It. But while he is helplessly and clumsily struggling towards the door, that something awful is already pressing against the other side of it, and forcing the door open. Something not human —death—is forcing the door open, and he must hold to it. He clutches at the door with a last straining effort —to shut it is impossible, at least to hold it — but his efforts are feeble and awkward; and, under the pressure of that awful thing, the door opens and shuts again.

Once more, It was pressing on the door from without. His last, supernatural efforts are vain, and both leaves of the door are noiselessly opened. It comes in, and it is death. And Prince Andrey died.

But at the instant when in his dream he died, Prince Andrey recollected that he was asleep; and at the instant when he was dying, he made an effort and waked up.

"Yes, that was death. I died and I waked up. Yes, death is an awakening," flashed with sudden light into his soul, and the veil that had till then hidden the unknown was lifted before his spiritual vision. He felt, as it were, set free from some force that held him in bondage, and was aware of that strange lightness of being that had not left him since.

When he waked up in a cold sweat and moved on the couch, Natasha went up and asked him what was the matter. He did not answer, and looked at her with strange eyes, not understanding her.

That was the change that had come over him two days before Princess Marya’s arrival. The doctor said that from that day the wasting fever had assumed a more serious aspect, but Natasha paid little heed to what the doctor said; she saw the terrible moral symptoms, that for her were far more convincing.

With his awakening from sleep that day began for Prince Andrey an awakening from life. And in relation to the duration of life it seemed to him not more prolonged than the awakening from sleep in relation to the duration of a dream. There was nothing violent or terrible in this relatively slow awakening.

His last days and hours passed in a simple and commonplace way. Princess Marya and Natasha, who never left his side, both felt that. They did not weep nor shudder, and toward the last they both felt they were waiting not on him (he was no more; he had gone far away from them), but on the nearest memory of him —his body. The feeling of both of them were so strong that the external, horrible side of death did not affect them, and they did not find it needful to work up their grief. They did not weep either in his presence nor away from him, and they never even talked of him together. They felt that they could not express in words what they understood.

They both saw that he was slowly and quietly slipping further and further away from them, and both knew that this must be so, and that it was well. He received absolution and extreme unction; everyone came to bid him good-bye. When his son was brought in to him, he pressed his lips to him and turned away, not because it was painful or sad to him (Princess Marya and Natasha saw that), but simply because he supposed he had done all that was required of him. But he was told to give him his blessing, he did what was required, and looked round as though to ask whether there was anything else he must do. When the body, deserted by the spirit, passed through its last struggles, Princess Marya and Natasha were there.

"It is over!" said Princess Marya, after the body had lain for some moments motionless, and growing cold before them. Natasha went close, glanced at the dead eyes, and made haste to shut them. She closed them, and did not kiss them, but hung over what was the nearest memory of him. "Where has he gone? Where is he now? . . ."

When the body lay, dressed and washed, in the coffin on the table every one come to take leave of him, and every one cried. Nikolushka cried from the agonizing bewilderment that was rendering in his heart. The countless and Sonya cried from pity for Natasha, and from grief that he was gone. The old count cried because he felt that he too must soon take the same terrible step.

Natasha and Princess Marya wept now too. But they did not weep for their personal sorrow; they wept from the emotion and awe that filled their souls before the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before their eyes.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1877
Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Death of Anna Karenina

Just as she was talking to the porter, the coachman Mikhail, red and cheerful in his smart blue coat and chain, evidently proud of having so successfully performed his commission, came up to her and gave her a letter. She broke it open, and her heart ached before she had read it.

‘I am very sorry that your note did not reach me. I will be home at ten,’ Vronsky had written carelessly.

‘Yes, that’s what I expected!’ she said to herself with an evil smile.

‘Very good, you can go home now,’ she said softly, addressing Miklhail. She spoke softly because the rapidity of her heart’s beating hindered her breathing, ‘No, I won’t let Thee make me miserable,’ she thought menacingly, addressing not him, not herself, the power that made her suffer, and she walked along the platform.

Two maidservants walking along the platform turned their heads, staring at her and making some remarks about her dress. ‘Real’ they said of the lace she was wearing. The young men would not leave her in peace. Again they passed by, peering into her face, and with a laugh shouting something in an unnatural voice. The stationmaster coming up asked her whether she was going by train. A boy selling kvass never took his eyes off her. ‘My God! Where am I to go?’ she thought, going further along the platform. At the end she stopped. Some ladies and children, who had come to meet a gentleman in spectacles, paused in their loud laughter and talking, and stared at her as she reached them. She quickened her pace and walked away from them to the edge of the platform. A goods train was coming in. The platform began to sway, and she fancied she was in the train again.

And all at once she thought of the man crushed by the train the day she had first met Vronsky, and she knew what she had to do. With a rapid, light step she went down the steps that led from the platform to the rails and stopped quite near the approaching train. She looked at the lower part of the carriages, at the screws and chains, and the tall cast-iron wheels of the first carriage slowly moving up, and tried to measure between the front and back wheels, and the very minute when that middle point would be opposite her.

‘There’ she said to herself, looking into the shadow of the carriage, at the sand and coal dust which covered the sleepers — ‘there, in the very middle, and I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.’

She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first car as it reached her; but the red bag, which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the middle of the car. She had to wait for the next one. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came to her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture of crossing brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second car. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the car, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped onto her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. ‘Where am I" What am I doing? What for?’ She tried to get up, dropped backward; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and drew along on her back. ‘Lord, forgive me all!’ she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant, muttering something, was working at the iron. And the candle by which she had been reading the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, was quenched forever, lit up for her all that had been in darkness, sputtered, began to grow dim, and went out forever.

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, 1886

Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

Death of Ivan Ilych:

He had merely to recall what he had been like three months earlier and what he was now, to remember how steadily he had gone downhill, for all possibility of hope to be shattered.

During the last days of the isolation in which he lived, lying on the sofa with his face to the wall, isolation in the midst of a populous city among friends and relatives, an isolation that could not have been greater anywhere, either in the depths of the sea or the bowels of the earth — during the last days of that terrible isolation, Ivan Ilyich lived only with memories of the past. One after another images of his past came to mind. His recollections always began with what was closest in time and shifted back to what was most remote, to his childhood, and lingered there. If he thought of the stewed prunes he had been served that day, he remembered the raw, shriveled French prunes he had eaten as a child, the special taste they had, the way his mouth watered when he got down to the pit; and along with the memory of that taste came a whole series of memories of those days: of his nurse, his brother, his toys. "I mustn’t think about them — it’s too painful," he would tell himself and shift back to the present. He would look at the button on the back of the sofa and the crease in the morocco. "Morocco is expensive, doesn’t wear well; we had a quarrel over it, But there had been another morocco and another quarrel — the time he tore papa’s briefcase and got punished, but mama brought us some tarts." And again his memories centered on his childhood, and again he found them painful and tried to drive them away by thinking about something else.

And together with this train of recollections, another flashed through his mind — recollections of how his illness had progressed and become more acute. Here, too, the farther back in time he went, the more life he found. There had been more goodness in his life earlier and more of life itself. And the one fused with the other. "Just as my torments are getting worse and worse, so my whole life got worse and worse," he thought. There was only one bright spot back in the beginning of life; after that things got blacker and blacker, moved faster and faster. "In inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death," thought Ivan Ilyich. And the image of a stone hurtling downward with increase velocity became fixed in his mind. Life, a series of increasing sufferings, falls faster and faster toward its end — the most frightful suffering. "I am falling …" He shuddered, shifted back and forth, wanted to resist, but by then knew there was no resisting. And again, weary of contemplating but unable to tear his eyes away from what was right there before him, he stared at the back of the sofa and waited — waited for that dreadful fall, shock, destruction.

"Resistance is impossible," he said to himself. "But if only I could understand the reason for this agony. Yet even that is impossible. It would make sense if one could say I had not lived as I should have. But such an admission is impossible," he uttered inwardly, remembering how his life had conformed to all the laws, rules, and proprieties. "That is a point I cannot grant," he told himself, smiling ironically, as though someone could see that smile of his and be taken in by it, "There is no explanation. Agony. Death. Why?"

Chapter 12

That moment started three days of incessant screaming, screaming so terrible that even two rooms away one could not hear it without trembling. The moment he had answered his wife, he realized that he was lost, that there was no return, that the end had come, the very end, and that his doubts, still unresolved, remained with him.

"Oh! Oh! No!" he screamed in varying tones. He had begun by shouting: "I don’t want it! I don’t!" and went on uttering screams with that "O" sound.

For three straight days, during which time ceased to exist for him, he struggled desperately in that black sack into which an unseen, invisible force was thrusting him. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hand of an executioner, knowing there was no escape. And he felt that with every minute, despite his efforts to resist, he was coming closer and closer to what terrified him. He felt he was in agony because he was being shoved into that black hole, but even more because he was unable to get right into it. What prevented him from getting into it was the belief that his life had been a good one. This justification of his life held him fast, kept him from moving forward, and caused him more agony than anything else.

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and the side and made his breathing even more constricted: he plunged into the hole and there at the bottom, something was shining. What had happened to him was what one frequently experiences in a railway car when one thinks one is going forward but actually moving backward, and suddenly becomes aware of the actual direction.

"Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing. But no matter, I can still make it the real thing — I can. But what is the real thing?" Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet.

This took place at the end of the third day, an hour before his death. Just then his son crept quietly into the room and went up to his bed. The dying man was still screaming desperately and flailing his arms. One hand fell on the boy’s head. The boy grasp it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and saw a light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it should have but that he could still rectify the situation. "But what is the real thing?" he asked himself and grew quiet, listening. Just then he felt someone kissing his hand. He opened his eyes and looked at his son. He grieved for him. His wife came in and went up to him. He looked at her. She gazed at him with an open mouth, with unwiped tears on her nose and cheeks, with a look of despair on her face. He grieved for her.

"Yes, I’m torturing them," he thought. "They feel sorry for me, but it will be better for them when I die." He wanted to tell them this but lacked the strength to speak. "But why speak — I must do something," he thought. He looked at his wife and, indicating his son with a glance, said:

"Take him away…sorry for him…and you." He wanted to add: Forgive" but instead said "Forget," and too feeble to correct himself, dismissed it, knowing that He who needed to understand would understand.

And suddenly it became clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him suddenly was vanishing all at once — from two sides, ten sides, all sides. He felt sorry for them, he had to do something to keep from hurting them. To deliver them and himself from this suffering. "How good and how simple!" he thought. "And the pain?" he asked himself. "Where has it gone? Now, then, pain, where are you?"

He waited for it attentively.

"Ah, there it is. Well, what of it? Let it be."

"And death? Where is it?"

He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death.

Instead of death there was light.

"So that’s it!" he exclaimed. "What bliss!"

All this happened in a single moment, but the significance of that moment was lasting. For those present, his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his chest; his emaciated body twitched. Then the rattling and wheezing gradually diminished.

"It is all over," said someone standing beside him.

Heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is over," he said to himself. "There is no more death."

He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.