Blaming Loved Ones in the Face of Death

Edvard Munch, The Sick ChildEdvard Munch, The Sick Child 

Imagine the following situation. A couple has been married for decades but now he has contracted a terminal illness and is dying. His wife has always prided herself on being there for him when he needed her, but now she feels helpless. Meanwhile he is scared and angry and is thrashing around in a welter of conflicting emotions. One of these is that he can no longer protect her, once a source of pride. What do they do?

According to Lucille Clifton, they may blame each other.

I’m pretty sure that my former colleague is speaking from personal experience when she reveals this. Her husband Fred died of lung cancer in his fifties (he did not smoke), and “husband and wife” must be autobiographical. Writing the poem after Fred’s death, Clifton lays out some of the emotional dynamics of their ordeal. Because of her uncompromising dedication to the truth, Lucille is able to talk about something that most would rather not.

In doing so, she gives the rest of us a gift. We experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings when we encounter suffering and heartbreak, and some of these we are ashamed of. We may even deny they are there. Lucille, however, brings them out into the light so that we may confront them and figure out what they mean. That is a necessary step if we are to move beyond them.

Here is Lucille’s poem:


man and wife

she blames him, at the last, for
backing away from his bones
and his woman, from the life
he promised her was worth
cold sheets. she blames him
for being unable to see
the tears in her eyes, the birds
hovered by the window, for love being
not enough, for leaving.

he blames her, at the last, for
holding him back with her eyes
beyond when the pain was more
than he was prepared to bear,
for the tears he could neither
end nor ignore, for believing
that love could be enough,
for the birds, for the life
so difficult to leave.

Let’s make a tally. She blames him:

–for backing away from life (which suggests cowardice)
–for backing away from her
–for having promised her that the warm sheets of love are worth the heartbreak of cold sheets she is about to encounter (better to have stayed invulnerable and settled for a cold sheets all along rather than experience this pain)
–for being unable to see the tears in her eyes, which is to say, for being unable to acknowledge how much she is suffering
–for being unable to acknowledge the death she foresees, the birds hovering by the window
–for undermining her belief that love is all we need
–for, again, leaving

He blames her for:

–not allowing him to leave, to die, in spite of the physical pain
–for forcing him to acknowledge her suffering when he wants to concentrate on his own (in other words, his own suffering is doubled by the pain of watching her suffer)
–for her believing that love is enough—and for having gotten him to invest in that belief—even when it obviously isn’t
–for her seeing the birds, which is her premonition that he is going to die
–for having created together with him a life that he doesn’t want to leave. It would be easier to die if he didn’t care about this life.

Our anger over premature death can get directed at any number of targets, including the one we love the most. Blaming the loved one makes sense. After all, he or she has made us vulnerable. It would be easier to die, we think, if we hadn’t fallen in love.

But if love did not carry with it that potential pain, it would not be love. As hard as it may be to do so, we can embrace that pain. We can give ourselves over as completely to the suffering as we gave ourselves to the love. Or put another way, every time we experience the suffering, we can choose to see it as an indication of the depth of our love.

In other words, we can stop fighting it. And stop blaming.

When my oldest son died, I felt pain beyond anything that I could have imagined. For the longest time I blamed Justin and I blamed myself. But in the course of grieving, I learned to let go of my anger and be grateful to the pain because it kept my connection to him alive.

It has been ten years since he died, and although I don’t think about him all the time—sometimes not for several days at a time—from time to time I still experience searing pangs. I have come to treasure those moments.

Further thought

Tennyson wrote, “Better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all” in the process of trying to make sense of the death of Arthur Hallam (in In Memoriam).  And while the lines have lost some of their power because they are so widely quoted–they verge now on commonplace truism–they are, nevertheless, true.  We are courageous when we give ourselves over to loving because we risk such intense heartbreak.

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6 Comments

  1. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Robin, your comments reminded me of an interesting passage from a very intriguing and very unusual novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay:

    “Surely we shall meet again. Love is too wonderful and mysterious a thing to remain uncompleted.”
    She gave a slight shiver, and turned away from him. “This dream is untrue. Love is completed here.”
    “How can that be, when sooner or later it is brutally interrupted by Fate?”
    “It is completed by anguish…. Oh, why must it always be enjoyment for us? Can’t we suffer–can’t we go on suffering, forever and ever? Maskull, until love crushes our spirit, finally and without remedy, we don’t begin to feel ourselves.”
    Maskull gazed at her with a troubled expression. “Can the memory of love be worth more than its presence and reality?”
    “You don’t understand. Those pangs are more precious than all the rest beside.”

  2. Rachel Kranz
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    There are actually many literary references to this idea of keeping a relationship alive through the grief we feel about it–or, perhaps, through anger, especially when the relationship is broken through betrayal rather than death or mutual agreement. There’s an amazing line in the wonderful novel, “Olive Kittredge,” by Elizabeth Strout, where a husband, who has cherished a forbidden and unrealized passion for a woman not his wife, feels guilty towards that other woman for having been unable to fulfill the love they both felt. When he gets a Christmas card from her letting him know she is finally content in the life she has, he feels relief–and then realizes that losing the guilt is like losing the relationship.

    In my own “Leaps of Faith,” there’s a scene where 8-year-old Juliet talks about the pain of missing her absent mother, but when she DOESN”T miss her, it’s as though she’s lost her completely. (The grownup who’s with her has to articulate that for her, but she agrees.) In that case, they agree to tell stories about her mother to keep her with them until she joins them in person (when many other complications ensue!)

    I think Clifton’s poem is actually doing something else, though. It’s such an amazing poem, because she is so willing to talk about anger at a time when most people don’t acknowledge anger, and because it’s hard to know how the couple in her poem could feel otherwise–is the wife NOT supposed to feel pain? Is the husband NOT supposed to mind? The anger is part of the experience, and part of love–no matter how wonderful (there’s no suggestion of a flaw in the relationship in that poem, or in “In Memoriam”)–IS loss. If nothing else, one person is likely to die before the other, rather than both going at the exact same moment, and death often feels premature, no matter how old or sick the dying person is. In that case, the anger–and the pain–is the price of love, because it’s unbearable to accept that someone whom we’ve allowed to become so important to us can simply leave, whether voluntarily or not. But in any love not based on slavery and physical coercion, that is always true–and always awful, even if the love and the freedom it grows out of is also wonderful. The loss–or potential loss–is always the price, and it’s always there, which is why Clifton’s poem speaks to those of us who are not currently in the position of having an ailing spouse, as well as those of us who are.

    I’m struck by how ideal and romantic the “Arcturus” passage is–how it calls that pain precious beyond the actual experience of love. I personally don’t think so–just as most of us would rather have the person back than any wisdom we got from losing them. The wisdom and the pain and the missing may be the compensation for the loss, and they enable us to go on, but we would always rather have the physical presence and the love. Though, per the Mel Gibson post, some of us may have decided to invest all our erotic energy in the masochistic loss of control and the masochistic experience of abuse. But that’s a sad compensation–though a really common one, I think, and not just for extreme cases like Mel. If we think we SHOULD be able to control the people in our lives, we have to find some way of coming to terms with the fact that we can’t, and sadism/masochism are two common ways. Self-imposed isolation is another, and having relationships but with a lot of built-in distance is yet another. Romanticizing love is a kind of “masochism lite,” I think–glorifying the losses to defend against how awful they are. But–though I’ve struggled for years to live up to it in my own life–I prefer Lucille’s relentless acknowledgment: it’s just awful, BECAUSE of the great love.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    This is about the fourth reference I’ve come across to Voyage to Arcturus in the last week or two, Blade, which probably means that I need to look at it. It sounds like a powerful work. Does it avoid the trap that Rachel is alerting us to, the danger of fetishizing suffering? There’s a lot at stake in that question.

    I get that the pain of loss (and the fear of experiencing loss) can be so great that we will do anything to shield ourselves from it and that one way to shield ourselves is to romanticize it (including romanticizing the way authors transmute suffering into art). I know that, when I was in the grip of my own grieving, my bullshit detector was on high alert–if I felt an author was inauthentic is his or her handling of loss, I became impatient. Back when I was writing about the play W;t and John Donne’s sonnet “Death Be Not Proud,” I became very suspicious of Donne. I felt that rather than a confident victory over the death, the poem was a desperate attempt to persuade himself of his confidence but that he could do so only by avoiding acknowledging his sheer terror. And by avoiding admitting just how angry he was with God over the fact of death. This is why I like Herbert more than Donne–he puts his anger at God right out there, figuring that God can take it. And Tennyson, while he may romanticize Hallam, doesn’t romanticize his own suffering–he returns to it relentlessly, time and again, looking for some way to put it into words. Even as he acknowledges that words are imperfect, half concealing even as they half reveal.

    It took me years to acknowledge how angry I was over Justin’s death, and I was alerted to it in only the most roundabout ways–say in the way that, when I wrote about it, I tried to protect my readers from the horror. Which meant that I was trying to hide from the pain myself.

    Losing Justin has given me a deep respect for artists who write truthfully about loss. It’s as though they must be willing to feel the full brunt of unimaginable pain and then, to the extent that is humanly possible, do what they can to authentically express it. Clifton has written about her ambivalence about her sensitivity, which she sees as a curse as well as a blessing. Since going through my own loss, I understand better now why she feels this way.

  4. Blade Lawless
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Yes, the Arcturus passage I quoted is very ideal and romantic, but I’m such an idealistic romantic myself that sometimes I have trouble recognizing those qualities as such when I see them exemplified elsewhere. As for whether A Voyage to Arcturus fetishizes suffering, it’s been so long since I read the book (and I don’t think I understood it very well) that I really can’t say. Lindsay may very well be guilty of doing just that. Here’s what Harold Bloom has to say about the novel:

    Almost the last straightforward representative of Romantic quest literature we have is the extraordinary prose romance, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (first published in 1920), in which every antagonist to a Promethean quest is presented as being another form of pleasure.

    Personally (and out of context, considering that I remember little about the rest of the book, except for its exceeding strangeness and its complex allusiveness), I would tend to read the passage I quoted as a romanticized and hyperbolic version of your comment, Robin, that “from time to time I still experience searing pangs. I have come to treasure those moments.” To me the passage signifies nothing more specific than a romantic gesture towards yea-saying (or maybe just resignation, calm, peace) in the face of loss and suffering.

    By the way, Robin, please accept my condolences for your loss. I lost my mother three years ago and so I have at least an inkling what you have felt.

  5. Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I’m so sorry to hear about your losing your mother, Blade. I hope there were people and poems who came to your support, even though I know that nothing can ever be enough.

    I’m a Romantic myself, and when Justin died it was to the Romantic poets that I turned (Shelley and Tennyson. I think they they open up cracks in matter-of-fact reality, which can become particularly oppressive when we lose people we love. While I look to realist and naturalist writers to keep things real, Romantics (when their hearts are in the right place and when they are being genuine) sound the depths of the soul.

    By the way, I’ve wanted to mention how impressed I am by your reading knowledge. You are giving me an education in your comments.

  6. Robin Bates
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Farida Bag e-mailed me a couple of works that deal with the fraught relationships between loved ones when one is dying. One is Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, which she says has a brief conversation about the varying emotions one can encounter. (I’ve read the book but don’t remember the conversation–I plan to look it up.) And the other is the following Tony Hoagland poem, in which love and enmity can become intricately bound together in the end days:

    If you are lucky in this life,
    you will get to help your enemy
    the way I got to help my mother
    when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

    Into the big enamel tub
    half-filled with water
    which I had made just right,
    I lowered the childish skeleton
    she had become.

    Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
    her belly and her chest,
    the sorry ruin of her flanks
    and the frayed gray cloud
    between her legs.

    Some nights, sitting by her bed
    book open in my lap
    while I listened to the air
    move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
    my mind filled up with praise
    as lush as music,

    amazed at the symmetry and luck
    that would offer me the chance to pay
    my heavy debt of punishment and love
    with love and punishment.

    And once I held her dripping wet
    in the uncomfortable air
    between the wheelchair and the tub,
    until she begged me like a child

    to stop,
    an act of cruelty which we both understood
    was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
    of power over weakness.

    If you are lucky in this life,
    you will get to raise the spoon
    of pristine, frosty ice cream
    to the trusting creature mouth
    of your old enemy

    because the tastebuds at least are not broken
    because there is a bond between you
    and sweet is sweet in any language.

3 Trackbacks

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    […] instance, the illusion that “love could be enough,” to quote from a Lucille Clifton poem that I posted on recently.  Lucille writes about how her dying husband is angry at her for believing this, and […]

  3. By Can Art Perform in the Face of Death? on December 31, 2010 at 8:28 am

    […] uncertainty, at another a D. H. Lawrence poem about whether self or love go deeper, at yet another a Lucille Clifton poem about the way couples can blame each other when one of them is dying. In one post I noted that Alan was facing death like Sir Gawain rather than Prince Prospero (in […]


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