Words Make A Difference – Kay Jamison and Alfred Lord Tennyson On Grief

Grief. I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Nothing Was The Same last night. It is her 2009 memoir to her husband who died in 2002 at 63 from a chronic illness. Grief is never an easy subject but poets have made it a prime subject for generations. It is how we sing out our losses and griefs. Redfield is an accomplished prose writer but poetry, especially Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam, has provided  solace and meaning to the grief of her husband’s loss.

I first discovered Jamison (1946 – ) when I read her astonishingly candid book,  An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, her memoir of successfully fighting suicidal depression – an awful irony- because she was a mental health professional, a doctor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins where she still teaches. This book was a brave endevour by any measure but it is also a true measure of a woman recognized in so many ways for her work and life. According to Wikipedia she has won numerous awards , published more than one hundred academic articles, has been named one of the “Best Doctors in the
United States” and was chosen by Time Magazine as a “Hero of Medicine”.

Her mind is quieter now but no less quick. Her latest book is a love letter most of all. The inside of the hardback cover and first page of the book have two letters facing each other. Love letters. Hers and her husband’s in their early days. Letters full of love and gratitude but set clearly within the context of her past history of manic depression. The letters celebrate their “now” without ignoring her past; they celebrate total acceptance, as her husband says: “allowing us to be one.”

The book’s last part – two chapters – is about loss and grief. It is called Of Something Lost, which comes from a line in In Memoriam.

She has much to say about grief and how different it is from depression. And Tennyson was key to her in her grief journey.

Here is a long passage at the end of her book:

I found solace in Tennyson because I found his grapplings with grief so pained I believed them. He wrote of the dreadful missing, the nights and seasons that pass unshred. He brought o his portrayal of grief lines of staggering beauty; he offered a solace that was not an easy solace. Each anniversary of death, each Christmas, each ringing in of the new year found in Tennyson a passing. A changing, an evolving apprehension.

There is no straight path in Tennyson’s poem of grief. Understanding comes. Only to dissipate; faith enters but to leave; and rsignation to death is now and again incomplete. Yet death must be acceded to if it is to give way to life. This Tennyson makes clear in his great image of the wild tolling bells:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind…

Grief transforms the nature of how death is experienced. There is wisdom attached to grief; it is not irredeemable suffering. It is not suffering without an end: despair cannot indefinitely “live with April days,/ or sadness in the summer moons.”

I found this in my old copy of In Memoriam. I had bracketed lines toward the end of the poem. After Richard’s death I wrote out these lines as an act of faith, a hope that I might grow into them. The years of grief, Tennyson had written, “remade the blood and changed the frame,/ and yet is love not less, but more”…

Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before.

Love is altered but remains. To read In Memorium was to throw a summer wreath over an unclimbable fence in impassable weather. I could see life on the other side: the way over the fence would be hard, but the wreath gave me something to keep sight of, something toward which to move. Tennyson saw mw through dark times. Words make a difference.

Words make a difference. Poetry makes a difference. It can help us both in the writing and the reading to grow into something greater than before.


  1. Liz
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    “Words make a difference” and your always do; thank you Richard xx

  2. Chris Donaldson
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate this post, Richard, and look forward to reading Jamison.

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