Life Goes On

The first few months of this year have been hard.

I didn’t expect it. I thought the hardest part would be at the beginning, when I was still reeling from the suddenness of the move. It wasn’t until later, though, that the reality of what had happened started to hit me.

It was three months before I realized that I wasn’t going home, that the life I used to have was gone forever.

Five months before the numbness subsided enough for me to feel the horrible ache of missing my friends.

Seven months before I could look at news about Nicaragua without triggering a panic attack.

And meanwhile, the rest of life kept moving along as normal. I got up and went to work every day. I did my homework. I showed up to church, to social events, to my life. I did all these things, and I enjoyed them, and for much of the time I was happy—

But underneath it all there was this current of grief that would flare up at the most unexpected and inopportune times. And the intensity of my sorrow was at such odds with the normality of my surroundings that I sometimes felt disconnected from myself, as though I couldn’t reconcile the two contradictory elements of my life.

I think that’s why I haven’t been writing much lately. I couldn’t figure out how to turn from the sorrow and helplessness I experienced to what felt like the very prosaic task of writing about very insignificant things. And because everything around me seemed so very normal, so calm, so completely opposite to what was going on in Nicaragua—and to what was going on in me—I felt like I couldn’t write about what really mattered to me. My grief seemed like a separate, solitary thing, something I had to keep hidden behind the mask of placid contentment I displayed to the world.

In a way, though, that’s the way grief always is, isn’t it? My suffering feels all-consuming to me, but life doesn’t stop for my sorrow. I was reading a poem the other day that illustrates this concept vividly:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

The Old Masters—the painters of the masterpieces—understood that the suffering of one person does not make the rest of the world stop living. The poem describes a painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel depicting the fall of Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus was a young man whose father made him a pair of wings so he could fly. He cautioned him, however, not to fly too close to the sun—if the wax holding his wings together melted, Icarus would fall to his death.

In the myth, Icarus ignores his father’s warning, flies too close to the sun, and plummets into the sea below. In Bruegel’s painting, however, Icarus’s fall is not in focus—in fact, if you aren’t looking for it, you might miss it altogether. The only thing you see of Icarus are two legs in the bottom right corner of the painting, barely visible above the surface of the water.

The poem I quoted earlier describes the painting like this:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster
; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

They understood suffering, the Old Masters—understood that my tragedy is just a splash in the distance to someone else, my disaster no more than a ripple in the bottom corner of someone else’s view.

Part of me wants to rage against the heartlessness of it, the same way part of me is deeply uncomfortable by the idea that no one in this painting even noticed the tragic end of Icarus’s life. But part of me recognizes that this is the way it has to be—and I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s better this way.

My world might fall apart—but life goes on. And at first, I feel lonely and forsaken and abandoned—but after a while, I look up and notice that the sun is still shining, and birds are still singing, and flowers are still blooming. The tide goes in and out with the same rhythmic predictability it has always had, and things die and wither and are reborn as something new.

At first it feels like a tragedy that the world should take no notice of my pain—but then I notice how lovely everything is still, and I find moments of happiness here and there in the sound of raindrops or the sight of the first blossoms to bud on the trees that were barren all winter long. And things start to seem a little less dark, a little less tragic, and it makes the grief a little easier to bear when I see that the beauty was here all along, even in the midst of my darkest hour.

Life goes on. And there comes a day when I am ready to release my suffering, to rejoin the boring, beautiful mundanity of day-to-day life, to dip my toes into a reality that is not consumed in pain and grief. I slip back into the rhythms of life I couldn’t bear to face before, and perhaps no one takes any more notice of my return than they did of my absence, but that is the way of things. And there is comfort in that, in the idea that normal was always there, waiting for me, ready to receive me without fuss or fanfare.

Life goes on.

And when I’m ready, so do I.


  1. Nicanelle said:

    Good thoughts! I was just going through Anne of Green Gables (again ;-), and L.M. Montgomery had some similar conclusions about grief.
    That it is a very personal process:
    “Oh, just let me cry, Marilla,” sobbed Anne. “Tears don’t hurt like that ache did. Stay here for a little while with me and keep your arm around me–so. I couldn’t have Diana stay, she’s good and kind and sweet–but it’s not her sorrow–she’s outside of it and she couldn’t come close enough to my heart to help me. It’s our sorrow– yours and mine. ”
    And about life moving on:
    “…and then Avonlea settled back to its usual placidity and even at Green Gables affairs slipped into their old groove and work was done and duties fulfilled with regularity as before, although always with the aching sense of “loss in all familiar things .” Anne, new to grief, thought it almost sad that it could be so–that they could go on in the old way without Matthew. She felt something like shame and remorse when she discovered that the sunrises behind the firs and the pale-pink buds opening in the garden gave her the old in-rush of gladness when she saw them–that Diana’s visits were pleasant to her and that Diana’s merry words and ways moved her to laughter and smiles–that, in brief, the beautiful word of blossom and love and friendship had lost none of its power to please her fancy and thrill her heart, that life still called to her with many insistent voices. “

    April 12, 2019
    • Amy said:

      I love these quotes! They bring out another aspect of grief that I didn’t touch on in my post: that when we’re just starting to appreciate beauty again after a loss, we feel guilty that we can be happy when something so tragic has happened. With time, though, I think we come to understand what a good and beautiful thing it is that even after suffering greatly, joy and happiness are still within our reach—or, as Anne found, that the lovely side of life “had lost none of its power to please her fancy and thrill her heart.”

      August 5, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *