COLUMN SIX: Give words to the loss

BY COLIN BREZICKI
Special to the VOICE

Everything I know about grieving I learned many years ago from my English professor.

Dr. Wilders (pronounced like builders) wasn’t a grief counselor, the name we now give to trained professionals who visit schools and workplaces to provide therapy for the distraught. He was just a teacher at my university in England, and he had this quaint notion that grieving is the therapy.

As a Shakespeare scholar and my graduate advisor, he taught me much. And, often the way with great teachers, his best lessons continue to “impact” on me years after.

We became friends in our time together, and despite being 20 years older, he could give me a good workout on the squash court as well as across the seminar table.

After a match we would withdraw to his college rooms and rehydrate with a gin and tonic or two—no ice, England, remember. And, okay, it was a long time ago.

Following a summer break back home in Toronto, I returned to England for the new term and rang Dr. Wilders to discuss my struggling thesis.

He had worse news of his own.

His 18-year-old daughter, Catherine, had died in a hiking accident in Denmark a fortnight earlier. She was stepping across a makeshift footbridge over a shallow creek when a loose plank came loose, causing her to fall and strike her head on a rock. She never regained consciousness.

I couldn’t find any words to say, despite being an English major, and so Dr. Wilders took over.

“Let’s play some squash,” he said. “And then we can talk about your thesis.”

He dominated the court that afternoon, smacking the ball with deadly accuracy, and sending me all over the floor to retrieve his shots. He won every game.

After our match, we sat in his study and sipped our gin and tonic. He spoke quietly about his family’s grief—his wife’s, his young son’s, his own.

He smiled when he mentioned that on the day he and his wife were informed of their daughter’s fatal accident, a letter addressed to Miss Catherine Wilders arrived at their house. It was from the University of York, congratulating her on being awarded a scholarship to read English.

Was his smile a tip of the hat to life and death getting up to their usual tricks? I didn’t ask. Maybe he was just proud of her.

I wanted to ask if he was angry with God, because I’ve always wondered about God since the time my brother, Michael, aged seven, died of brain cancer. Being only five at the time I was too young to know what it all meant, and I still didn’t know.

I didn’t have to ask him about God, because Dr. Wilders went on to say that he had turned to Shakespeare, not God, to find a shred of meaning in his daughter’s senseless death.

To summon the strength to speak at her funeral, he had re-read King Lear, always his favourite, he said, and now his lifeline.

The only way he could survive his personal wheel of fire, and find some way to carry his family through the ordeal, was to experience all over again the senile king coming to terms with the sudden death of his youngest daughter who had never given up on him despite being banished by his stupid decree.

“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” the aggrieved king murmurs to Cordelia, as he holds her lifeless body in his arms and kisses her stone-cold face.

Listening to Dr. Wilders I came to realize that he had found in a fictional character who was every inch a King, now reduced to Everyman, a match for his own profound grief.

My professor recited Lear’s words.

Thou wilt come no more.

Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.

“And that’s been my comfort,” Dr. Wilders said. “Now tell me about your thesis.”

Today, I’m older than Dr. Wilders was then, and with the scars of my own share of life’s knocks, I’ve come to understand what he was telling me.

He took comfort in knowing, maybe for the first time, that death comes to us all, even kings, in many different ways, and when it does we lessen our pain by grasping just that—it comes to us all.

We still lack the technology, even in a time when technology has all the answers, to stop death happening or to make it go away. A wise man named Bernard Levin wrote something, way back then, when computers were just a speck on the horizon: Although the microelectronic technological revolution may usher in a paradise upon earth, it will usher it in with the serpent already in residence. The silicon chip will transform everything, except everything that matters, and the rest will still be up to us.

“Give words to grief,” counsels a nobleman, observing the King on his knees. And Lear finds words that say it all.

The greeting card industry supplies us with words for all occasions—births, marriages, anniversaries and deaths. And at other times we find ourselves saying there are no words. It’s a common refrain on social media.

But we must have words. Without words to express our feelings, we turn and face a wall of incomprehension. Dr. Wilders found the words he needed in Shakespeare’s grieving monarch.

The Bard himself is hardly flavour of the month now, though he was never an easy gig. Today, however, he carries a “trigger warning.” Red flags appear next to his name on university course lists—Shakespeare will be spoken during this class, students are cautioned.

When did this happen? At what point did a writer whose understanding of the human heart offered a flotation device to the afflicted when the unthinkable happened and torpedoed their lives, a writer who drew a bead on the selfishness, greed and cruelty that fuel man’s inhumanity to man—when exactly did this writer, and others like him, become triggers of trauma?

Maybe it all began when the justice crusaders in academe surgically removed feeling from the study of literature and replaced it with a politicized agenda.

I recently read, in a Cambridge university professor’s otherwise reasonable defense of trigger warnings for the susceptible, that literary criticism is a discipline that can train students to suspend emotional response and apply analytical skills to that response so they can better understand it.

I never had a teacher who asked me to suspend my emotional response. The best teachers said, quite to the contrary, that if I couldn’t engage my emotional response I would never grasp the work.

Is this perhaps why, in a postmodern classroom or lecture hall, the literary canon is required to carry the banderillas of the bullring—flags to caution the student that their feelings might be engaged, tested and challenged?

I don’t know. We live in sloganized times. I only remember being taught literature in a way that explained my emotional life to me and helped me get closer to understanding myself.

And I remember Dr. Wilders’ invaluable example whenever I need a King Lear to help me weather the storm. 

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