Funerary relief. National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Funerary relief. National Archaeological Museum of Athens.


Of late, it’s been one friend down after another. They’re falling over like soldiers raked with machine gun fire, each one opening another gap in the serried ranks. With every loss, one feels a whole dimension of one’s self falling away — and so much less of me still in place.

There seem to be times in one’s life when The Gang’s All Here and other times when the farewells

“Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore –

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never — nevermore.’”

One can of course feel bereft without the losses coming in series. A single death can put one at the wrong end of a rockslide.

At present, however, I am thinking of a series. To top all, the other day, I even got a heads up from a senior colleague who’ll be sending a c.v. etc., so that when the time comes I can write his obit. (If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d rather we left it a surprise.)

Let’s call the members of my particular series A, B, C and D, omitting their names out of respect for posthumous privacy. Almost every death, when it hits, feels untimely. And yet, when one retells the story of the life that has ended, the last punctuation mark seems a vital, even indispensable part of the whole tale.

My friend A, the gallant lawyer, asked at one point, “Am I dying?” As if to say, in a tightly scheduled course of activities, where whatever happens usually falls under a statute, “Is that how they’re describing this?”

B, a philosopher dying young, in the midst of a career growing more successful by the year, said, “Nothing in philosophy has prepared me for this.” As if his last philosophic insight was of a lacuna in his thought, for which he assumed responsibility with profound seriousness.

C, a former colleague, died amid mercifully-repaired professional and collegial relationships, which might have come unraveled again, had he hung around.

D, who had been my professor and did much to frame the field for me at the outset, died of some kind of entanglement of brain wires that he had used, writing book after book, till they burned out. He was a very funny man. He’d lived a life intensely, even hilariously conscious. He was granted a fade-out of which he was mostly, mercifully unaware … .

Some of these losses came with their own softening reflections. Others have torn into me like a burning fire. And yet when, sitting for meditation or saying the Kaddish, I felt a kiss on the cheek or some similar

Ave atque vale

from the very friend I mourned, I ceased to grieve. He’s well! She’s okay. No need to worry any longer about my friend.

My mother used to say, a friend is a witness to one’s life. With each loss of such a witness, it feels as though a hole were being torn in the tapestry of one’s life. But if a death punctuates a life, rather than tearing it off raggedly, could it be that these losses of our witnesses punctuate our own lives too?

Could it be that we who are bereft must learn to decipher the punctuation marks, and not take them for mere tears in the fabric, while we live on?




As I was about to post this, there came news of the death of E, a philosopher, the prince of materialists, who allowed for free will and immaterial entities but – in line with his professed views – once his brain suffered impairment – let that dictate his exit.





About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “Grief”

  1. So sorry for your losses! Prayers that you be comforted.

    • Abigail says:

      Bless you, Letitia. Your prayers are appreciated! Last night two of my departed, much-missed friends appeared in a dream I had. I was riding on a tram and each one showed up, sat beside me for a while and we talked just as we used to. It was such a joy to be with them again, but I felt tearful afterward, because it reminded me painfully that they are gone. Jerry said, the dream was like life in that we are like fellow passengers on the tram of life who keep each other company for a while. Let’s try to make it a good ride!

  2. Mary Goldstein says:

    How fine this post is. And I learn from it that David has died. The thought that these deaths punctuate the lives to which they bore witness is a complex and a rich one. I take it that it was {name withheld} who invited you to write his obit.

    • Abigail says:

      Thank you my dear. Yes, there is the story part, and that wraps up the way a story can, with the final sentence. But there is also the part that is sheer presence, and that is missed and letting go of it is harder.

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