12 Quotes For Strength in a Time of Loss or Grief

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We tend to think of the holiday season as a time of great cheer. And while it certainly can be, psychologists also say that the first Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hannukah after the death of a loved one can be one of the hardest times for mourners. It makes sense: all the celebrations can just make you miss them more.

Grief is a deeply physical as well as psychological trauma. In the aftermath, we experience shock and often deep anxiety and guilt, as the part of the brain that copes with our readiness for fighting goes into overdrive: our brain releases a higher-than-usual level of cortisone, which also lowers our immune systems (hence all the stories of people "dying of grief"). An over-stimulated nervous system wreaks havoc on our ability to understand and react to the world. So grief can seem endless, formless, and painful; physically as well as mental debilitating.

Fortunately, because it's a constant in human experience, many of the greatest artists throughout history have expressed their thoughts on bereavement, and how we might learn from and cope with it. Here are 12 telling quotes to help you in your mourning, expressing the inner patterns of grief, how it makes us behave, and how, even if it seems endless, there will eventually be lightness.

On the cycles of grief:

C.S Lewis's memoir of grief after his wife's death is one of the classics of literature about mourning, for its frankness, its refusal of easy consolation, and its exact reproduction of what it's really like to be in the midst of grief, coming back again and again to pain.

On "behaving":

Colette, the French writer, identified "triggers" as skillfully as a modern-day psychologist. Mourners are often aware of danger areas, songs, or even smells that break their daily reserve and push them into grief: human emotion is strongly linked to memory.

On expressing yourself:

William Shakespeare destroys the myth that pulling your socks up and "just getting on with it" is a solvent for grief. Stiff upper lips ain't no help. Even if it's in a small way, talking to somebody, or expressing your feelings in some other way, is a helpful part of the process, even if it feels self-indulgent.

On continuing to live:

Pablo Neruda's poem The Dead Woman remains revolutionary for talking about one of the darker sides of intimate grief: that when a person goes, we can want to go too. But, as he says, insistently, "I shall go on living," despite his loss; and the desire to live is no shame and no indication that he doesn't care.

On what to say to people in mourning:

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Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author, was brutally honest in an interview about her son's death in 2012, 18 months after it had happened. In the face of such grief, words are comfortable but useless; actions, "hugging and mopping the floor," often offer more substantial help in the moment.

On how to cope:

Samuel Johnson, the English wit and thinker, was famously grumpy, but his thoughts on the futility of anybody trying to "cheer you up" when you're grieving aren't just misanthropic. Attempting to charge through grief by distracting yourself, rather than letting yourself process, is a bad idea.

On the meaning of loss:

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was renowned for his gloomy pronouncements and frankly depressing outlook on things. However, when it came to pinpointing exactly why it is that we grieve the loss of a person, he hit the nail on the head.

On what grief gives us:

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The late writer Maya Angelou's poem "When Great Trees Fall" was the last poem in her fifth volume of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved, and remains a standard when great and lauded figures (including Angelou herself) pass away. However, its message, to let the existence of the absent inspire you, is equally applicable to the ordinary great souls of the world.

On perspective:

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was also a philosopher and writer, devoted to thinking about the meaning of life beyond banquets and empires. His attempt to look at loss as a part of a bigger picture, a perpetually changing world, is a good grounding.

On learning to be with loss:

New York writer Jonathan Safran Foer's books centre around grief, cultural as well as individual, and carry the lesson that grief is not only inevitable, it is essential. It forms the other half of appreciation and love.

On being happy again:

This astonishingly hopeful and surreal little vignette from the famous French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures the wish for every grieving person: that mourning will change into happiness and gratitude that you knew the person who is gone.

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