In the second century AD, the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, that on encountering one grieving for the loss of a child or similar, that ‘As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.’ Grief was a slightly paradoxical concept in the ancient world. For the Romans, certainly, visible grieving was considered antithetical to Roman values, particularly for men. This was especially true for grieving over a child, whom had not been on the earth for very long, and thus was not the subject of long attachment. There were even laws suggesting tombs were unnecessary for the very young. And yet… tombs exist for children who lived months or a few years, and an entire genre of literature, the consolatio, existed solely for the purpose of consoling one on their grief (or in some cases, attempting to jolt one out of an extended grieving period). Cicero wrote a (mostly) lost consolatio when his daughter Tullia died after childbirth. Seneca penned three surviving consolatio, one to Marcia grieving for her sons, one to Claudius’s freedman Polybius (although this may have had ulterior motives), and one to his own mother offering her solace for his own exile. In essence, regardless of what philosophers or laws indicated, Romans grieved when someone they loved died.
Last night I received news from home of a death in the family. Well, a family friend to be precise, but the woman who became your mother’s best friend when she moved to a new town at the age of five is, for all intents and purposes, family. She was not a huge presence in my life growing up. I have only vague memories of meeting her prior to adulthood. And yet somehow she loomed large in my consciousness. She was a career woman, an editor for Current Biography. She lived in Manhattan. She was friends with actors, artists, and musicians. I watched one of her friends in a popular sitcom on television. Once a year or so, she would take herself off to London for a month just to go to the theatre, concerts, and museums. She was, though distant, an example of a life being lived, a life that wasn’t family and children, but career and culture and friends. To a very young me, that was inspiring. She was possibility.
In later years she left her job, New York, and the theatre, returning to her hometown to care for her mother, and battle some demons of her own. She still read the New York Times daily. She did the crosswords (something we very much had in common). My parents also moved back, and she became a bigger part of my life. Trips home involved long visits, she kept up to date on my life via my mom, and always wanted to know about what I was doing, who was in my life, how my career was progressing. I would bring gifts of tea and biscuits from England, and we would share memories of London and theatre and talk about music and politics and culture as much as we talked of our own lives. Then she got cancer. It has been a struggle of treatments and remission and return that has lasted several years. In many ways, the illness caused her much more mental than physical anguish, and it was an incredibly difficult (and admittedly at times frustrating) thing to witness. My parents, being the amazing people that they are, have cared for her, supported her, and done all they could to help her fight what was ultimately a losing battle.
I am grieving. For all that she suffered, for all that she meant to me both as a child and an adult, and for knowing we will never share another pot of tea and packet of Hobnobs (her particular favourite). At the same time, reflecting on her place in my life, there is some echo of her in who I have become. Whether she ever knew it or not, I was incredibly fortunate to have her in my life, both as a friend and as an example. So, stoic philosophers be damned. Like Cicero, I am writing a consolatio. Not to send off to anyone else to assuage their grief, but for myself, and for her.