I am sure I was not the only impressionable teenager who read chapter IX of Jane Eyre and was haunted forever by Charlotte Bronte’s description of Helen Burns’ death in Jane Eyre’s arms, where Helen’s corpse rested, nestled with Jane until the following morning.
Helen Burns was Jane Eyre’s best friend at Lowood Institution for Orphans, where Jane spent seven years as a student and two as a teacher. Helen supported Jane through the public humiliations Mr Brocklehurst imposed on her, and helped a non-conformist Jane to understand and adapt to the teachers and routine at Lowood. In case you don’t remember, you can read a flash fiction summary of chapter VIII, in which their friendship is explained, and chapter IX, which deals with Helen’s death.
Chapter IX ends with a few brief lines about Helen’s burial in an unknown mass grave. Forty girls, half of the pupils at Lowood, died of typhus that summer. As most of the girls were orphans, few of them had families, and those who did could not afford to pay for a headstone.
Resurgam is dedicated to my grandmother, Rafaela Fernandez, whom I never met because she was killed in an air raid in August 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, and buried anonymously in a mass grave. My mother, who was seven at the time, was sitting on her lap. Miraculously, she survived.
No doubt that is why I was especially sensitive to Helen’s death and anonymous mass burial. When I decided to write an Eyre Hall Series Novella, Helen’s death scene, her anonymous mass grave, and the word Resurgam were constantly on my mind.
In Jane Eyre, Jane tells her Dear Reader, that she returned to the cemetery fifteen years later, when she was married to Mr Rochester and had a son, to lay a headstone on her friend’s grave with the word, Resurgam.
Why Resurgam? Resurgam is Latin for “I shall rise again.” It is found in the Bible referred to the resurrection of Christ on the third day. Helen was fervently religious, and stoically accepted her death. Helen also influenced Jane’s religious beliefs and faith in God, especially regarding life after death, which Jane firmly believed in. Her faith was the reason why she wanted her friend to have a headstone to remind everyone who saw it that they would rise again after death.
I wrote Resurgam to capture the moment Jane returned to Brocklebridge cemetery and erected Helen’s headstone. The plot explores the reasons Jane did so at that precise moment, and how the event came about. The novella delves into the themes of friendship, honouring our past and our deceased friends and relatives, as well as love, marriage, motherhood and social concerns.
Naturally I reimagined Jane, some years into her marriage, with her young son, John Eyre Rochester, while she was living at Eyre Hall, the house she built on the site of Thornfield Hall, with her uncle John Eyre’s inheritance.
Readers of Resurgam will see how the Rochesters’ marriage developed over the years and the way in which Jane adapted to her new life as the wife of the wealthy owner of the Rochester estate, as well as the reasons and way in which the word Resurgam finds its way to Brocklebridge Church graveyard.
Writing Resurgam was cathartic for me and my Jane Eyre. It was written at a challenging time, which led to a personal reflection about the life we lead, the dreams we achieve, and the people and life we leave behind, because we can’t have it all, or can we?
The events narrated in Resurgam occurred eleven years before Blood Moon at Eyre Hall, Book One of the Eyre Hall Series, so it can be read as a standalone or as a prequel to the series. Some of the main characters of The Eyre Hall Series, such as Michael, Susan, Mrs Leah, John Rochester, Bishop Templar (who is Archdeacon), and Isaac das Junot, appear in this 22,000-word novella. Check out yesterday’s post for the blurb and more information about Resurgam.
If this sounds intriguing, why not preorder here. It’s available on Amazon and other book retailers at a special launch price of one dollar click on the image below.
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Chapter Three also takes place at Eyre Hall in July 1865, twenty-two years after Jane Eyre’s marriage to Edward Rochester. As the title suggests, Mr Rochester is signing his last will and testament. In this case, the narrator is Mr Rochester.
He held out his hand. “Good morning, Mr Rochester. I trust you are in good health after your accident.”
“I’m still alive, for now,” I replied.
“And for many years to come, I hope.”
I wondered if he had forgotten I had called him to draft my last will and testament, or if he was more of an idiot than I had imagined.
“I am without patience, Mr Briggs. Be seated and let us get down to business.”
He sat, squinted, and looked around the room. “Is Master John not in attendance?”
“He’s not expected until tomorrow, but his presence is not required.”
Briggs coughed and wriggled in his chair. “Mr Rochester, I respectfully suggest Master John should be present.”
“My wife will be present. Master John is too young to take on any responsibility at Eyre Hall yet.”
“But Mrs Rochester…” He fumbled with his gold-rimmed eyeglasses and stared at me as if I had grown tusks. “She… I mean…The tenants and the leaseholders will not respect her.”
“Mr Briggs, you have forgotten your place, and you have also forgotten that Eyre Hall is so called in memory of my wife’s uncle, Mr John Eyre, a wealthy wine merchant from Madeira and her benefactor, whom I did not have the pleasure of meeting. My wife generously and wisely invested part of her inheritance in the construction of Eyre Hall. It is thanks to her insistence and desire that Eyre Hall was built on the grounds of Thornfield Hall.”
“Yes, I do recall the transaction, sir. In fact, as you may remember, Mr Eyre appointed me to locate his beloved niece. But that is not the issue, sir. Think of the land, the tenants; what will become of them? Need I remind you that Mrs Rochester, whom I greatly admire, is a woman? Therefore, she does not have enough knowledge to manage an estate.”
“Neither did I, as you well know. Mr Cooper takes care of the finances and you see to the legal matters. What else could she need? Or are you planning to abandon her?”
“Of course not. We will naturally assist Mrs Rochester in anything she requires; I am simply worried it could be too much for her.”
“Nothing is too much for Jane Eyre Rochester. She will have everything she deserves. Eyre Hall will belong to Jane for life. The Rochester Estate will remain in her hands until my son, John Rochester, is thirty, if he has a wife and legitimate heir, or as soon thereafter as the events should occur.”
“I must advise you that your son may not—”
“Did I ask you for your opinion, Mr Briggs?”
He shook his head, whispered, “No, sir,” and avoided my fierce gaze by opening his black leather case and extracting the documents.
“Then keep it to yourself unless I ask for it, which I guarantee you, I will not.”
He placed his brass fountain pen beside the documents and waited for my instructions. I had met plenty of pretentious London solicitors like him, making great effort to look important when travelling to the provinces, but I knew him too well to be fooled. He would sell his soul to the devil for the right price.
“It is my wish, and although my body is failing me, I am perfectly sound of mind. Write it all down, now. I do not want to wait another minute, or it may be too late. St Peter is impatient.”
“Sir, you exaggerate.”
“Don’t coddle me. I will not live long enough to lose my mind. Call my wife.”
“At once, sir. And we will need two witnesses, I suggest two trustworthy servants. Mrs Leah and Simon, perhaps?”
“Not Leah; it’s none of her business. She’ll find out soon enough. And Simon is a gossip who can’t even read. The others aren’t much wiser.”
He nodded, pursed his lips, and tapped his fingers on the table. “Who do you suggest, sir?”
“Call the sturdy one with wolf’s eyes and his sister, the glum girl who looks like a nun. Bring them and let us get this over with.”
“You mean Michael and Susan?”
“I’m not interested in their names; just bring them.”
Minutes later, the girl walked in behind her brother and lowered her head as if she would turn to stone if she looked at me, but the brother stood tall, with his hands behind his back, his amber eyes on me. He raised his eyebrows defiantly, wondering why I wanted to speak to him. I rarely spoke to any of the servants, except Simon, who had been my valet for years, but I had heard enough about this bold young man to know he was not an idiot like the rest of them.
“Simon told me you beat a man to an inch of his life because he made unwanted advances to one of our maids at the Rochester Arms. Is that true?”
His brow furrowed. He looked uncomfortable as if he were not proud of what he had done, or perhaps it was not true; Simon tended to exaggerate. Or perhaps he was just surprised by my question. In any case, he should have answered at once. “Well, is it?”
He nodded, pursing his lips. He was not going to volunteer any information, but I was curious, so I asked, “Why?” He clenched his fists in reply, but I was tired of his insolence. “Answer the question.”
“It was one of Mr Raven’s sons, sir. He was drunk, and Beth had not provoked his attentions. I asked him to respect her wishes, and when he ignored my words and Beth’s protests, I made him stop.”
“You made him stop? Old Raven was livid. His son’s vision was impaired for weeks after your battering, not to mention the limp he still sports.”
“I did what I had to do to protect Beth, sir.”
“She’s your sweetheart, is she?”
The fearless youth answered at once. “No, sir. I am not courting.”
“That’s not what Raven told me.”
His sister shot him a sideways glance; she knew her brother contained a beast who could be unleashed if provoked. She was not pretty, but neither was Jane when I met her, and yet she bloomed when she fell in love with me. The girl had intelligent eyes and a quiet strength about her. She was the type that could be taught to warm a man’s bed with fire. I turned back to her brother. “Have you ever had to defend your sister?”
He stood straighter, letting me know he was proud of defending his sister, but then he thought better of his admission, fidgeted, and looked towards the door. He did not want Jane to know, of course; righteous Jane would not like our servants to get involved in pub brawls. Little did she know he got up to a lot more than that.
“Well done. I can’t fault you for looking after your sister,” I said, because a man should defend the women he loves or the women he’s in charge of protecting.
“When I’m gone, you are to look after Mrs Rochester as if she were your sister; nobody is to take what is hers or molest her, do you hear me?”
His brow furrowed, and he nodded. Briggs was right; it was not easy for a woman to be respected in these parts, and Jane would be on her own. John was too youthful, coddled, and inexperienced to be of help, but this stealthy young man who had felt the pang of hunger and the fury of anger, he would do the job.
“John told me you carried him home, all the way from the Arms, after a problem with an unruly client.” He knitted his eyebrows, but his fierce gaze did not falter. “Yes, I found out, although John did not disclose the event.” The boy opened his mouth to speak but closed it again. He was hot-tempered, but not foolish. He knew it was not his place to question the master of the house. “And then you called Dr Carter, and you made sure his mother never found out about it.”
His sister did not know either. Her eyes widened, and she shot her brother a worried look. He glanced her way and then nodded, looking at me directly in the eyes. He was obedient, fearless, and astute, an excellent combination for a loyal servant.
“Look after John, too. Jane trusts you, and she is an excellent judge of character, so I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, despite your audacious behaviour.” He blushed like a debutante and lowered his head in acknowledgement. “Give me your word that I can count on you to protect them.”
“You have my word, sir.”
“And you better keep it, or I’ll come back from hell and curse you till the day you die.”
“I give you my word that no one will harm Mrs Rochester or Master John while I’m employed at Eyre Hall.”
I lifted my cane towards Briggs. I needed to ensure the boy would stay at Eyre Hall for the foreseeable future.
“Tell Cooper to double his salary and secure it for the next ten years.”
Briggs nodded and made a note in his ledger.
The lad looked older and sturdier than John, too young to have many vices, but old enough to go to war. “How old are you?” I asked him.
“Twenty-five next month, sir.”
“You’re old enough to marry. Have you set your eyes on someone?”
“I’m not planning on marrying, sir. Not until my sister finds a position or marries.”
“Jane tells me your sister is apprenticed to the parish schoolteacher. She is a clever girl, and she’s not unpleasant to look at. Do not let her marry below her station. And keep away from Mrs Rossett, both of you. She’s a troublemaker.”
His sister turned to leave. “You wait here,” I said, and her face paled, but I was too sick to carry out what she thought I required. I might have desired her tender flesh once upon a time. She reminded me of the plain, meek Jane I had met twenty-three years ago, but my body was too wasted now. “Stay. You are both to be witnesses of my last will and testament.”
Their eyes widened, but they remained as still as two gate posts.
I turned to Briggs. “And where the devil is Jane?”
She walked in and strode to my side, placing her hand on my shoulder and glancing at the two servants in surprise. “Is everything all right, Edward?”
I squeezed her hand. “It is now that you’re here. Let us begin, Mr Briggs. Read out the testament you have written per my instructions.”
“It is time, Jane. I want everything to be in order as soon as possible.”
“Edward, shouldn’t we discuss—”
“Do not interrupt me.” The footman’s head jerked towards me, and I realised my words had been too harsh. “Because if you do, my darling, I will lose my nerve and my concentration. I am feeling stronger today, but I know this will not last, and I want everything to be in order before I leave. Do you understand, Jane?”
She nodded and sat beside me, covering her mouth with an embroidered handkerchief. I waved my cane at Briggs. “Read it!”
I watched them listen carefully as Briggs read my will and then presented the siblings with his pen so they could sign.
“Jane, find Susan a husband and her brother a wife.” She nodded, and I turned to them again. “Make sure you marry your equal, as I did. The man or woman who matches your wit and intelligence, who will adapt to your way of life and accept you as you are, with all your faults, because our virtues are easy to tolerate.”
The girl looked at her brother, who bowed and spoke. “Yes, sir. Thank you for your advice, sir.”
I didn’t like his tone, but I was in no mood to argue, and they had served their purpose. I waved towards the door. “You may return to your chores.”
The girl said, “Thank you, sir,” curtseyed, and spun towards the door, but her brother had the gall to ignore my words and turn to Jane.
“Mrs Rochester, is there anything you require?” I disliked his insolence, but it pleased me that he would be loyal to Jane over anyone else, including the present master of the house.
When she seemed too upset to reply, he insisted, “Shall I bring some tea to the drawing room?”
She composed herself, smiled and spoke at last. “Thank you, Michael.” It was a lovely smile, one that she had not bestowed on me for months, perhaps even years. She was right not to; I did not deserve her kindness. “I’ll be there shortly,” she added, and he followed his sister out.
“Jane, you are to be strong. John needs you, and you will have to run the estate single-handedly; he is not prepared yet. Mr Cooper is trustworthy. You can depend on him, but as with any employee, he must know you are his employer. He will respect you and answer to you. Have you gone through the books with him as I asked you?”
She nodded and glanced at Briggs. “There are some expenses I don’t understand. The payments to Jamaica, and others to…” she paused. I knew she must have seen the sums I had been sending to the convent in Spanish Town and London.
“You heard me tell Cooper yesterday they were to be discontinued, did you not?”
“Yes, I did, but I would like to know the subject and reason for the transactions.”
“They are old debts and burdens which have been amply paid. You are not required to carry any of them; that is all you need to know.”
The less she knew, the better. There was no point in displeasing her by opening old wounds. The past was dead and gone. I would soon be relegated to her memory, and I did not want her to know all the reasons she should not have loved me. I could at least be a better man in her recollections.
“Jane, you were too good for me. I never deserved you. I should have treasured you more, but I could not change my nature. You have been the love of my life, and if I did not love you more, it was because I was not capable of it, not because you did not deserve it. You are dearer to me than anyone has ever been, including my son. I have been a fortunate man to have had you by my side all these years. I am not proud of all my deeds; unfortunately, they cannot be undone, but I ask for your forgiveness.”
She was not angry or upset by my words, but she did not smile. Her face was calm, as if she had known a storm was coming and was taking refuge in a house on a cliff, watching the raging waves from afar.
“There is nothing to forgive that I have not already forgiven.
“There may be grievances you are not aware of and yet you must forgive them too.”
“Edward, I cannot forgive that which is unknown to me.”
“You would have me die in torment?”
“Of course not; I have nothing to reproach you.”
I wanted to tell her she was wrong; I needed her pardon, but she withheld her absolution. “Edward, I am tired. Simon will take you to your room and serve your dinner.” She dropped a chaste kiss on my forehead and left without waiting for my response. I never expected Jane to be so cruel, not after offering her my sincere repentance.
Why couldn’t she do as I asked and forgive all my sins, including the ones I had not confessed? If she understood I was trying to avoid the heavy burden she would have to carry if I told her everything, she would not deny me her forgiveness.
If you’d like to know more about Blood Moon at Eyre Hall, check out these three posts:
How I Advertised and was offered a post at Thornfield near Millcote
The number of victims during the typhus outbreak had drawn public attention on the school and by degrees various facts were made known which excited public indignation, such as the unhealthy nature of the site; the quantity and quality of the food; the wretched clothing and accommodations.
As a result, several wealthy and benevolent residents in the county financed a more convenient building in a better situation, and improvements were made in diet and clothing.
Mr. Brocklehurst, who, from his wealth and family connections, could not be overlooked, still retained the post of treasurer; but he was aided in the discharge of his duties by gentlemen who knew how to combine reason with strictness, comfort with economy, compassion with uprightness.
I remained at Lowood for eight years after its regeneration, six as a student. I had an excellent education and excelled in all my studies; I rose to be the first girl of the first class. And two as a teacher.
Miss Temple stood by me in the stead of mother, governess, and, latterly, companion. But destiny, in the shape of the Rev. Mr. Nasmyth, came between us. She married, removed with her husband, to a distant county, and consequently was lost to me.
After she left, I longed to enter the real world, where a varied field of hopes, fears and liberty, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek knowledge of life amidst its perils.
A kind fairy dropped the suggestion on my pillow. ‘You must enclose an advertisement and the money to pay for it under a cover directed to the editor of the Herald. You must post it at the post office at Lowton where I can inquire in about a week after you send your letter, if any reply comes, and act accordingly.’
So, I followed my fairy’s suggestion and posted the following advertisement: ‘A young lady accustomed to tuition is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under fourteen. She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music.’
When I returned a week later, a letter had arrived. I read it in my room with an inch of candle, which remained.
‘If J.E., is in a position to give satisfactory references as to character and competency, a situation can be offered her where there is but one pupil, a little girl, under ten years of age; and where the salary is thirty pounds per annum. J.E. is requested to send references, name, address, and all particulars to the direction:-‘Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, near Millcote.’
I knew it was a large manufacturing town seventy miles nearer London than the remote county where I now resided. Before accepting the offer I had to secure references, so I told the superintendent I had a prospect of getting a new situation where the salary would be double what I now received and asked if they would permit me to mention them as references. Mr. Brocklehurst informed Mrs. Reed as my natural guardian. She replied that ‘I might do as I pleased: she had long relinquished all interference in my affairs.’ The committee agreed to furnish me with a testimonial of character and capacity, signed by the inspectors of that institution, which I forwarded to Mrs. Fairfax, who then offered me the post of governess in her house.
I met Bessie who told me Miss Georgiana eloped and had to return home with her mother and her sister, John Reed had been thrown out of college for misconduct. She also told me an uncle of mine a wine merchant from Madeira had visited Mrs Reed.
I packed the same trunk I had brought with me eight years ago from Gateshead and took the coach from Lowton to Millcote.
This chapter jumps ahead eight years, informing us that over this time Jane has become an excellent student and respected teacher. Jane has grown up and is now emotionally and intellectually ready to leave behind Gateshead and Lowood, and start the third stage of her journey, at Thornfield Hall.
So far, the novel has given us all of Jane’s childhood as backstory and even the first time reader, who is not aware of the plot, is aware that her preparation is complete and her real journey is about to begin.
The frosts of winter ceased, and the hardships of Lowood lessened. Serene May brought days of blue sky, placid sunshine, and soft gales. Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green and flowery and its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life.
The forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of pestilence, breathed typhus through its crowded walls, and the seminary was transformed into a hospital. Disease became an inhabitant of Lowood, and death its frequent visitor.
Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of the eighty girls lay ill at one time. Classes were broken up, rules relaxed.
Miss Temple’s whole attention was absorbed by the patients. She lived in the sick room. The girls who were fortunate enough to have friends and relations able and willing to remove them left, some went home only to die, others died at the school, and were buried quietly and quickly.
But I, and the rest who continued well, rambled in the wood, like gipsies, from morning till night doing what we liked. We lived better too. Mr. Brocklehurst never came near Lowood and the cross housekeeper was gone, driven away by the fear of infection; her successor provided with comparative liberality, and besides, there were fewer to feed.
My favourite place was a smooth and broad stone, rising white and dry from the middle of the beck, which was broad enough to accommodate, comfortably, another girl and me. My chosen comrade, Mary Ann Wilson, was witty and original. She was older than I and knew more of the world, so she told me many things I liked to hear.
Helen had been removed to the hospital portion of the house with the fever patients; for her complaint was consumption. On sunny afternoons, I watched Miss Temple take her into the garden wrapped in a blanket from the schoolroom window, as I was not allowed to speak to her.
One evening on returning from my walk I saw Mr. Bates, the surgeon, with a nurse and I asked her, ‘How is Helen Burns?’
‘Very poorly. Mr. Bates has been to see her.’
‘And what does he say about her?’
‘He says she’ll not be here long.’
“Where is she?”
‘She is in Miss Temple’s room.’
That night when my companions in the dormitory were all wrapt in profound repose, I crept out and set off in quest of Helen. I had to give her one last kiss and exchange with her one last word before she died.
I found the door slightly ajar and saw the outline of Helen’s body in a little crib.
‘Helen!’ I whispered softly, ‘are you awake?’
She was pale, wasted, but quite composed. ‘Can it be you, Jane? Why are you here?’
‘I heard you were very ill, and I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.’
‘You are just in time probably.’
‘Are you going home, Helen?’
‘Yes; to my last home. I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest. I leave no one to regret me much. By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.’
‘But where are you going, Helen?’
‘I am going to God.’
‘Where is God? What is God?’
‘My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness.’
‘You are sure that there is such a place as heaven, and that our souls can get to it when we die?’
‘I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love Him; I believe He loves me.’
‘And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?’
‘You will come to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty, universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane.’
I lay with my face hidden on her neck and she said, ‘I feel as if I could sleep: but don’t leave me, Jane; I like to have you near me.’
‘I’ll stay with you, Helen; no one shall take me way.’
She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered.
The next morning, I was carried back to the dormitory and learnt that Miss Temple had found me laid in the little crib with my arms round Helen’s dead body.
Her grave is in Brocklehurst churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word ‘Resurgam.’
This chapter is a disturbing combination of carefree time away from school, frolicking in the woods in the budding spring, during the month of May, and the dreadful typhus outbreak, which affected half of the girls at Lowood.
Jane made a new friend and was allowed to run wild in the woods, while the teachers looked after the sick girls. Unfortunately, her best friend, Helen Burns, was taken ill and later died in her arms. The way ten-year-old Jane recounts these dreadful events in such a matter-of-fact way, as if they are not such dreadful hardships, is disquieting.
I still remember the first time I read the paragraph in which she describes how Helen died in her arms while she slept, and it still sends shivers up my spine. I suppose hardship, death and disease were a normal part of Victorian life, but the degree of acceptance, bordering on lack of feeling, is heart wrenching.
I found her narration of the typhus epidemic detached, as if the suffering of so many girls didn’t affect her and she was happy to spend her days having fun in the woods.
The way she narrates Helen’s death is also strangely disconnected. She must have been cold and breathing with difficulty when she died, but Jane says nothing of that, or how she feels about her friend’s death. Her reaction, the next day, when she found out her friend had died in her arms is oddly cool. The little girl has learned to control her deepest thoughts and emotions from everyone, including the reader.
The event definitely affected her as she tells the reader she returned in 15 years’ time, at 25, after she had married Mr Rochester, to lay a headstone on her friend’s grave. The word ‘resurgam’ is Latin for “I shall rise again.” And it’s found in the Bible referred to the resurrection of Christ on the third day. Helen was fervently religious, as we can see from the extract. Helen was a fundamental influence in Jane’s religious beliefs and faith in God, especially regarding life after death.
After everything she has already gone through, the reader is now more aware than ever that Jane will survive any crisis life throws in her way.
This is a short and intense first person account of C S Lewis’s (1898-1963) emotional journey as a result of his beloved wife’s death. Lewis was a British writer, best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, who was professor of English literature at both Oxford and Cambridge University.
From the blurb
Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moments”, A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man, or at any rate a man like me, out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”
This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.
A Grief Observed is a heartfelt memoir of the loss of his wife. It is the agonising experience of death as told by a highly intelligent, devout Catholic, who was also very much in love with his wife at her death. Lewis lays out his bare feelings honestly and poignantly. This is the first paragraph:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
He then tries to make sense or accept her death from a religious point of view:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
His wife had cancer and she knew she was dying, and they had discussed it before it happened, but once she was gone, he learns that no amount of prior discussion prepares you for the death of the person you love. He is plagued with the uncertainty of her whereabouts after death, as he tries to rationalise his religious beliefs and the reality and pain of her loss:
‘Where is she now?’ That is, in what place is she at the present time? But if H. is not a body—and the body I loved is certainly no longer she—she is in no place at all. And ‘the present time’ is a date or point in our time series.
Finally, he tells us she had come to terms with her own death at least there is some hope in the ending. These are the last lines:
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornò all’ eterna fontana.
The last words, Poi si torno all eterna fontana, mean “And then she returned to the Eternal Fount,” which were the last words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Beatrice returns to heaven.
Nevertheless, it is the living who find no consolation.
I listened to it twice on Audible brilliantly read by Ralf Cosham and also read the kindle version.
It is not an easy book to listen to, but I believe it could be very helpful for anyone who is working their way through grief because Lewis expresses his grief honestly and eloquently. And people who are suffering loss often cannot find words to express their pain, which leads to a sense of helplessness. If we can out our pain into words thereby verbalising our pain it will be easier to understand and gradually overcome the grief, and as I said in yesterday’s post on ‘6 Ways to Recover from Grief’, we have to walk through the stages of grief, and move forward until the love we feel when we remember is greater than the pain we feel for the loss.
A Grief Observed is not for everyone, I warn you it is raw and devastating, but it has 2,500 reviews and 80% are five stars written by people who found the book helpful for their own grieving process.
When I was in the midst of grieving the loss of a loved one, it was like being in a dark tunnel. I felt alone, lost, and I had no idea how to get out of the darkness and devastation. I think this sense of desperation, loss and confusion at losing your bearings, was not a unique experience; many others I’ve spoken to have felt much the same.
My sister died over thirty years ago, and although other family members, such as aunts, uncles, cousins, and my father, have died since then, my sister’s death was the most devastating loss I’ve had to date.
It was 1989, the Internet was in its early years, so information was not as easily and readily available. I had no counselling, and no type of bereavement support. I read How We Die, which was helpful from a practical, medical and rational point of view, but not emotionally, at least not for me.
I was bought up a catholic, but the doctrines of the established church, which I am well aware of, did not help, although I picked up the Bible a few times, but could not find any consolation.
My depression lasted ten months, and I got through it if I was walking across a dessert, putting one foot in front of the other and trying my best to cover my head from the burning sun. No pills, no therapy, and no closure. I was working as a teacher and looking after my three children, who were under 4, until one day, ten months after the tragedy, I woke up and bought new clothes, and my mood started to improve.
I have no idea why or how this happened, but I can clearly identify the moment the love I felt when I thought of my sister was greater than the pain I felt for her loss. I was finally walking towards the light and away from the dark tunnel.
I imagined my sister’s voice saying, “You look dreadful. You need to go shopping” and it was true. I hadn’t bought any clothes in over a year and I had lost weight, so I can’t have looked very pretty. I hadn’t gone to the hairdresser’s either. I wore a pony tail every day and stopped wearing make up. This was not a conscious decision, I just didn’t care about how I looked, until suddenly it started mattering.
It’s not the anniversary of my sister’s birth or death, in fact, there is nothing to remind me of it, although she is always in my heart and on my mind. I write her letters sometimes, and think of her with love and melancholy, not sadness, every day. In fact, her photograph is on my desk in my study and I smile every time I see it.
The reason I’m thinking about death today is because it has struck very near home. Covid-19 has claimed the life of my neighbour of twenty-five years and a doctor, and my best friend’s father both in the same month, and their family’s devastation has reminded me of the inevitable pain they must endure in order for their memories to be full of love instead of sorrow.
Giving advice on personal matters is a minefield, you can help or lose a friend, so when I was approached for advice, I decided to be thorough and look carefully at my own pain and process of recovery.
Looking back, I believe there was little I could have done to improve or speed up the process, because we all have to walk through our own tunnel in order to reach the other side. Some of us will take a longer time, or may need the help of medication or therapy or both, but as I have learnt many years later, we all have to go through the stages of grief.
The advice I never received
As far as I remember nobody gave me helpful advice and I had no-one to turn to. My mother was in an even worse state then I was, and the adults around me were either unequipped or unable to offer advice, other than an attempt at a comforting sentence or two, which is nice to hear, but has no lasting effect on lessening the pain.
So, this is the advice I think might have helped me to feel less alone and distressed. It’s like a letter to myself and I’d like to share it with you.
6 Ways to Recover from Grief: Letter to Myself
1: Acknowledge the Pain
Firstly acknowledge the pain, you have lost someone you loved. Your sadness is a natural reaction to your loss, and although your pain is unique to you, you are not alone. Go through the rituals you have chosen according to your customs, ideas or religion, accept the condolences, pray, cry, express your pain in your own way.
2: Be Aware of What Grieving Involves
Secondly, I wish I had known about the five stages of grief at the time, a wonderful book I read at a later date.
in 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving based on observations from years of working with terminally ill patients. She put forward the five stages of grief which became known as the Kübler-Ross model.
They may not always be experienced in the same order, and they may overlap, and some may take longer than others, but know that you will experience these feelings, and you are not alone in the process. If you don’t feel up to reading a book, you can read articles which summarise her theories or watch YouTube videos. Here are some excellent links. but a google search will also be helpful.
Finding Meaning:The Sixth Stage of Griefis on my TBR list. It was written in 2020 by David Kessler, coauthor of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s original book.
Knowing what is happening and that is a process which has happened and will happen in a similar way to everyone who loses a loved one, will lead to an understanding which could help us move forward and accept.
3: Writing letters and Journaling
Thirdly, although I have always enjoyed writing, poems, stories and thoughts, thirty years ago I had not yet understood the power of journaling. So, I wish I’d written a journal dedicated to my sister, like a scrapbook, including photographs, letters, memories. This is something I could still do, and may do. I could gather the letters Ive written, add photos and thoughts, letters and postcards she wrote to me, too.
If you are not used to journaling or would like more ideas, this article on grief journaling could be helpful there are books like Understanding your grief journal which could also help.
Letters are another powerful tool which could be included in your journal they can be to your loved one, or a letter you imagine he or she would write to you.
4: Meditation and Spiritual Guides
If you are part of a supportive religious community, you won’t need to think about this, but of your religious beliefs aren’t helping or you need more spiritual support I’d recommend in the first place meditation, I have two favourite books on this topic, plus there are apps for your mobile which are also very useful.
If you already have a favourite exercise, such as cycling, or if you practice a sport, don’t stop because your grieving. You may need to force yourself, but you have to do it because the serotonin you’ll secrete will help you handle your depression.
If you don’t exercise regularly, go for a walk, preferably anywhere in nature, a park, the countryside, and I’d recommend you take photos, because if you plan to take, say, five photos, you will be looking for nice things to photograph. This means you will be actively looking and thinking about your environment which is outside, instead of your pain, which is inside.
6. Humour and Not Moving On, Moving Forward.
This Ted Talk will make you cry and make you laugh. In a talk that’s by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, writer and podcaster Nora McInerny shares her hard-earned wisdom about life and death. She encourages us to shift how we approach grief. “A grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again,” she says. “They’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.”
Unfortunately, as Nora reminds us, “Everyone we love has 100% chance of Dying” and so do we, and yet it’s probably the most heart-wrenching pain we’ll have to endure, and there’s no pill or magic wand to make it disappear. We have to go through the stages, walk through the grief, and move forward until the love we feel when we remember is greater than the pain we feel for the loss.
To conclude my letter to myself and anyone who has or will suffer the loss of a loved one, reading and writing is the answer. Understanding our pain and what is happening by reading and expressing our loss in a coherent way by writing journals, letters, poems, or blog posts.
January 28, 2021, Special Collection Challenge prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about life as a river of consciousness. Think about the possibilities of the prompt. Go where the prompt leads! Respond by February 11, 2021.
The 99-word entries to this Carrot Ranch Special Collection Challenge will be presented to Sue Vincent on February 17. If you want to take part and be included in this special collection, respond using the formHERE.
Today I’m reviewing another audiobook, The Book of Two Ways, by the great Jodi Picoult, a stunning novel about the choices we make, the life we leave behind and second chances, beautifully narrated by Patti Murin. I was so impressed by the narrative that after listening, I read the ebook version.
From the blurb
Everything changes in a single moment for Dawn Edelstein. She’s on a plane when the flight attendant makes an announcement: Prepare for a crash landing. She braces herself as thoughts flash through her mind. The shocking thing is, the thoughts are not of her husband but of a man she last saw 15 years ago: Wyatt Armstrong.
Dawn, miraculously, survives the crash, but so do all the doubts that have suddenly been raised. She has led a good life. Back in Boston, there is her husband, Brian, their beloved daughter, and her work as a death doula, in which she helps ease the transition between life and death for her clients. But somewhere in Egypt is Wyatt Armstrong, who works as an archaeologist unearthing ancient burial sites, a career Dawn once studied for but was forced to abandon when life suddenly intervened. And now, when it seems that fate is offering her second chances, she is not as sure of the choice she once made.
After the crash landing, the airline ensures that the survivors are seen by a doctor, then offers transportation to wherever they want to go. The obvious destination is to fly home, but she could take another path: Return to the archaeological site she left years before, reconnect with Wyatt and their unresolved history, and maybe even complete her research on The Book of Two Ways — the first known map of the afterlife.
As the story unfolds, Dawn’s two possible futures unspool side by side, as do the secrets and doubts long buried with them. Dawn must confront the questions she’s never truly asked: What does a life well lived look like? When we leave this Earth, what do we leave behind? Do we make choices…or do our choices make us? And who would you be if you hadn’t turned out to be the person you are right now?
‘My calendar is full of dead people’.
The first line of a novel novel pulls you in.
‘Brace, the flight attendants yell. Brace! As we fall out of the sky, I wonder who will remember me.’
The first pages confirm your decision.
“Where do you need to go?” Boston, I think. Home. But there’s something about the way she phrases the question: need, instead of want; and another destination rises like steam in my mind. I open my mouth, and I answer.
And the first chapter convinces you you’re about to read an epic novel and enjoy it to the very last page.
After a stunning beginning, in which the heroine is faced with her own death, instead of going home to her husband and daughter, she makes the snap decision to go back to the man and the life the left behind in Egypt, when she worked as an archaeologist over sixteen years earlier.
The rest of the novel is an engaging narration of Dawn’s emotional journey through her past, her present and the decisions she must make regarding her future.
It’s a powerful novel about complex universal themes such as life, death, love, marriage and parenting, and about the decisions we make and the people and possibilities we leave behind as a result. It’s also about second chances and the freedom we have to change our minds and our futures.
Dawn’s narrative wraps your thoughts as she takes you to Egypt and her life as an archaeologist, Boston, her family, the two men she loved, her daughter, her present job as a doula, and the decisions she must make, before it’s too late.
The Book of Two Ways is an unforgettable, emotional rollercoaster right up to the last agonising line. I can’t imagine any reader not loving this unique novel.