Destiny Hrncir: On Memory and Grief

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Destiny Hrncir, a Tulsa native and second year English Literature MA student at the University of Tulsa. Her undergraduate program concluded with a semester spent at the University of York in England, after which she spent six months traveling in Europe. Often welcomed into the homes of strangers, she was ever struck by the persistent power of remembered grief when listening to the stories of those she met. This experience has contributed in further directing her research towards the remembrance and documentation of grief.


On Memory and Grief:

On a chilly November evening six years ago, I drove aimlessly through the Oklahoma countryside. A dirt road, a clear starry night, a cigar purchased with a vague idea of ceremony in my pocket: with these I intended to mourn my friend who had died suddenly exactly one year before. In the weeks leading up to this strange anniversary I still didn’t know how one ought to go about commemorating such an event, if “commemorate” is even the right word for it. That I ought to do something was, however, incontestable. And so I drove, parked alongside a deserted road, and watched the cigar smoke waft towards the star-flecked sky.]

Grief is puzzling. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has famously urged us to see it as a series of stages that we now, mistakenly, think of as a linear process. Perhaps what is most striking about Kübler-Ross’ model, though, is the determination at large to accept her “stages of grief” as a 5-point plan for how one ought to grieve. It is as if the intended structure matters only insomuch as it meets a long-existing but often unspoken demand to somehow make sense of the common experience of mourning. And yet my own autumn drive and countless other accounts of loss attest to just the opposite:  grief simply cannot be measured on a scale from “Denial” to “Acceptance.”

In exploring work on mourning I have encountered the persistent belief on the part of the bereaved that one ought to express one’s grief appropriately, whatever the standard this may be. St. Augustine, reflecting upon the death of a friend during his youth, continues to feel piercing loss even after many years: “But no, O Lord, all this is past and time has healed the wound” he declares, but then immediately entreats: “Let the ears of my heart move close to your lips, and let me listen to you, who are the Truth, so that you may tell me why tears are sweet to the sorrowful” (76). Augustine thus remembers the grief he experienced many years ago and feels ashamed of the violence of his mourning, and yet one cannot help but feel that Augustine surely grieves the loss of his friend even as he writes.

Alfred Lord Tennyson opens his own In Memoriam by asking the reader to forgive any excess of anguish expressed, hoping that God might “Forgive these wild and wandering cries, / Confusions of a wasted youth; / Forgive them where they fail in truth, / And in thy wisdom make me wise. (l. 41-44) Tennyson and Augustine both feel baffled by reason’s inability to penetrate the fundamentally irrational, emotional, and spiritual aspects of grief.

C.S. Lewis begins his own account of bereavement, A Grief Observed, in surprise at the difference between what he had previously believed of grief and his own feelings at the loss of his wife: “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” (1). Lewis had previously written stoically on The Problem of Pain, so it is fascinating to notice the ways in which his earlier beliefs and reason are subsumed under the weight of his grief. Likely this is why Lewis only published the four “MS notebooks” that comprise the chapters of A Grief Observed pseudonymously during his lifetime, agonizing within over the purpose of his writing them to begin with, and asking himself self-consciously, what his wife would “think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.’ That’s true to life.” (9)

In Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion highlights a common insistence upon the word “ordinary” in relating our traumatic memories: “the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy,” and particularly how those who describe the events such as those of 9/11 often begin their accounts with “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day” (4). Before a life-altering event it seems reasonable to note the commonplace—to recall the calm that prefigured the torrential storm.

It is the return to normalcy after loss, however, that chiefly concerns Vera Brittain in her memoir, Testament of Youth. The work is dedicated to the memory of several beloved young men killed during the chaos of the First World War, but in particular to her young fiancé, Roland Leighton. “Whenever I think of the weeks that followed the news of Roland’s death,” Brittain writes, “a series of pictures, disconnected but crystal clear, unroll themselves like a kaleidoscope through my mind” (239). The subsequent list is strikingly concluded by a memory in which Brittain feels her grief slip for a moment:

“It is Wednesday, and I am walking up the Brixton Road on a mild, fresh mourning of early spring. Half-consciously I am repeating a line from Rupert Brooke:

‘The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

For a moment I have become conscious of the old joy in rainwashed skies and scuttling, fleecy clouds, when suddenly I remember—Roland is dead and I am not keeping faith with him; it is mean and cruel, even for a second, to feel glad to be alive.” (240-41).

Further highlighting Brittain’s desire to do justice to her state of mourning is her consistent frustration at her inability to preserve her memory of Roland. Thinking back after some twenty years, she realizes “it is years now since I have been able to recall his face, and I know that, even in dreams, I shall never hear the sound of his voice again” (187).

The workings of grief are, in many ways, fundamentally inexplicable. This does not make coming to terms with loss undesirable, but only implies that perhaps the greatest task of grief is simply to know it. In the final chapter of A Grief Observed Lewis admits his initial aim in writing was flawed: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.” (68-69) Grief is thus perhaps more akin to a country path than to a highway.

Two years ago I was once again overcome by the wish to kindle a flame of remembrance on a late November eve. I was studying in England at the time and had a candle close at hand, but had neglected to buy a lighter before all the nearby shops had closed for the night. I remember standing candle-in-hand and bewildered on the library veranda for some moments to consider my plight, when suddenly I noticed a man smoking a cigarette nearby. He obliged my request with a bemused smile, and as I walked back to my flat with the flame cradled carefully between my fingers I pronounced the meeting fortunate. I felt, also, a poignant mixture of persistent regret for what was lost and of quiet gratitude for what had been. Perhaps, at its heart, grief merely provides us the best avenue for recognition of this duality.



Works Cited:

Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans. New York: Dorset Press, 1989.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The Literature Network, 1850.