"Something Vacant Settles in Us:" A Dialogue with Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary

Roland Barthes with his mother

Note: Roland Barthes's mother died on October 25, 1977. Immediately, Barthes began writing down his thoughts about grief, loss, and mourning on pieces of paper. Many years after his own death in 1980, these thoughts were collected in Mourning Diary. This review is a combination of fragments written while reading the text and actual passages from the text. All italicized sections are direct quotes from Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard). The non-italicized sections are my words.

The measurement of mourning.

(Dictionary, Memorandum): eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother.

How can we even place a measurement on it? How can there ever be a time when we do not grieve? I can't imagine it. So perpetual, so permanent, has this grief become for me.

What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind.

To be able to write with such lucidity and presence of mind in the midst of grief is extraordinary. The week after my father died, I could not write. Grief robbed me of language, but Barthes turned to language to cope with loss.

The comfort of Sunday morning. Alone. First Sunday morning without her. I undergo the week’s daily cycle. I confront the long series of times without her.

Barthes offers us a raw look at grief as it happens. Each note is a thought captured before it disappeared forever into his own mind.

Now, everywhere, in the street, the café, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die, which is exactly what it means to be mortal.—And no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so.

The death of a parent awakens you to your own mortality. You can never go back. It becomes the dividing line of your life. Never again will you see life without also seeing death.

To whom could I put this question (with any hope of an answer)?

Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought . . . ?

I've thought about this often. It haunts me. Does the intensity of mourning mirror the intensity of love? Do we fear allowing ourselves to live because it seems to signal a weakness or flaw in our love for the dead? Rationally, we deny this but, in private moments, I wonder. There is always the shock of being alive without my father. I think the guilt has passed, but the shock remains. I simply cannot believe that anything continues without him, including myself.

Difficult feeling (unpleasant, discouraging) of a lack of generosity. It troubles me.

I can only put this into some relation with the image of maman, so perfectly generous (and she used to tell me: you have a good heart).

I had supposed that once she was gone I would sublime that absence by a sort of perfection of “kindness,” the surrender of all kinds of nastiness, jealousy, narcissism. And I am becoming less and less “noble,”“generous.”

I struggle also with my own unkindness. I struggle with the idea of my life saying something about him, that how I act or how I've turned out is a reflection on his parenting. I struggle with the idea that I should honor him in the way I live. I am not a success. I'm not a thriving person. I'm not always a kind or good person. Most days, I'm barely functioning. That should say nothing about him. My life is not defined by his life; it is defined by his death and everything that came after it. I was devastated. I was wounded. I was traumatized. I struggle with all of it. He was good and kind and a wonderful father. The fact that I'm in pieces is not his fault. Not at all. The fact that I'm alive at all is because of him. He is the goodness in me. I just wish I was coping better.

Snow, a real snowstorm over Paris; strange.

I tell myself, and suffer for it: she will never again be here to see it, or for me to describe it for her.

Realizing what absence means. Death is absence. Every time I see beauty, I think of how he isn't here with me to see it. Everything is shadowed by his absence. That's what life is now: it is a thing that lacks him.

I had thought that maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).

Loss has not made me strong or resilient. It has weakened me, diminished me. There is less of me. Each loss whittles away more of me.

It is said (according to Mme Panzera) that Time soothes mourning—No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.

Time heals nothing. Ten years later and I'm still pulverized, still holding his clothes and crying, still aching for him.

To think, to know that maman is dead forever, completely (“completely,”which is inconceivable without violence and without one’s being able to abide by such a thought at length), is to think, letter by letter (literally, and simultaneously), that I too will die forever and completely.

There is then, in mourning (in this kind of mourning, which is mine), a radical and new domestication of death; for previously, it was only a borrowed knowledge (clumsy, had from others, from philosophy, etc.), but now it is my knowledge. It can hardly do me any more harm than my mourning.

I cannot overstate how the death of a parent is an immediate, irreversible revelation. Death becomes real. Death is no longer a theory or something you see in a movie. It does not just happen to other people; it happens to you and to those you love. You are never free from this knowledge.

I am suffering from the fear of what has happened.

The fear. The fear. It's always there. Constant, like a low hum. The fear of what has happened, what will happen, what could happen. Every move is motivated out of fear and out of avoiding fear. Who will you lose next? What catastrophe is coming? The fear destroys you.

I waver—in the dark—between the observation (but is it entirely accurate?) that I’m unhappy only by moments, by jerks and surges, sporadically, even if such spasms are close together—and the conviction that deep down, in actual fact, I am continually, all the time, unhappy since maman’s death.

The unhappiness is always there. It never lifts. It may be less intense at times, but, like the fear, you feel the unhappiness constantly. Nothing feels the same as it did before. Food doesn't taste the same, your pleasure isn't as intense, your sorrow is stronger, you're incapable of pure, unbridled joy. What happiness you do feel is tinged with despair.

Not to suppress mourning (suffering) (the stupid notion that time will do away with such a thing) but to change it, transform it, to shift it from a static stage (stasis, obstruction, recurrences of the same thing) to a fluid state.

This pressure always to do something with pain, to write it or transform it. Sometimes it's just pain, that's all it is.

I ask for nothing but to live in my suffering.

I think that's what this grief blog is to me. A way to live in my suffering. Let me have my suffering. I find a freedom in it.

Occasionally (for instance, yesterday, in the courtyard of the Bibliothèque Nationale), how to express that fleeting thought that maman is never again to be here; a sort of black wing (of the definitive) passes over me and chokes my breathing; a pain so acute that it seems as if, in order to survive, I must immediately drift toward something else.

I've had these moments when the horror of never having him again overpowers me. I don't believe in god or an afterlife. He is gone. He is in the darkness and the unknown that came before his birth. It's horrifying. It's unbearable. How do I live with it? But, that's the thing, I can't live with it. I'm not living. Like Barthes wrote, I'm suffering.

Maman: few words between us, I remained silent (a phrase of La Bruyère, cited by Proust), but I remember every one of her tastes, of her judgments.

I didn't have as much time with my father. He died when I was sixteen. Instead of knowing his every preference, I wonder what he would think or like. We were so close, but there's so much I'll never know. I must live in that unknowing, always speculating, always asking my unanswerable questions.

The day of the anniversary of maman’s death is approaching. I fear, increasingly, as if on this day (October 25) she will have to die a second time.

For me, each anniversary is like a recurrence of his death, a replay. I never knew a date could have such power. The numbers are so final. So this is what a life comes down to--a day, a month, and a year? Every day after his death has been altered by his death. No day is safe. No day is easy. Every day is the day after his death.

No doubt I will be unwell, until I write something having to do with her

I feel this too, that I will never know peace until I write about him, write a book. It's the only way I can give meaning to his life and my own.

. . . the pain of never again resting my lips on those cool and wrinkled cheeks . . .

[That’s banal

—Death, Suffering are nothing but: banal]

In grief, we miss the banal. At least I do. I long for small things--to have dinner together, to watch television, to go to the park, to just have a conversation. Nothing grand. I want the ordinary.

We don’t forget, 
but something vacant settles in us.

An emptiness grows and that is the place from which I write.

I live without any concern for posterity, no desire to be read later on (except financially, for M.), complete acceptance of vanishing utterly, no desire for a “monument”—but I cannot endure that this should be the case for maman (perhaps because she has not written and her memory depends entirely on me).

The memory of the dead lives inside us. So we see our own deaths as the final death of them. Maybe this is also why I write, to prevent that final death of him, to make him live in some other form. Oh if only he were here. If only I had him instead of all these words.

Robert Montgomery - People You Love (2010)

This conceptual art piece by Robert Montgomery was inspired by personal loss. In 2004, Montgomery's close friend, Sean Watson, died in a car accident. The two had attended art school together. In an interview with Dr. James Fox for the BBC documentary Who's Afraid of Conceptual Art?, Montgomery describes it as his first real loss as an adult. Months after Watson's death, Montgomery had a vivid dream of his friend and started to think about ghosts and what they mean and how we keep the dead alive. People You Love is probably Montgomery's most famous art work. People have had the words tattooed on their skin and posted the image on social media memorials for the dead. It's a work of art that is instantly understandable and moving. It shows just how powerful both language and conceptual art can be in our lives.

Scenes of Grief #3: The White Helmets

Netflix is currently streaming an essential and must-watch documentary about what's happening in Syria. It's called The White Helmets and it's about the volunteers who make up the Syrian Civil Defence. These men are the first responders after a bombing takes place, risking their lives to save others. So far, they have saved nearly 60,000 people. I urge you to watch the film. You will be moved by the bravery of The White Helmets and horrified that the international community allows the atrocities in Syria to continue.

There is one scene, in particular, that is heartbreaking. While the men are on a one-month training mission in Turkey to learn the necessary skills of their job, a volunteer named Abu Zaid hears that his brother was in a building that was bombed and is under the rubble. During a phone call, he gets the devastating news that his brother is dead. Almost half a million people have died in Syria since the start of the war. Abu Zaid's grief is quiet. He is stunned. He puts his hands over his face. Watching the scene, I couldn't help but think of all the people in Syria who have lost loved ones. Abu Zaid could not save his brother, but as a member of The White Helmets, he will save other lives. The volunteers are ensuring that as many people as possible live and that their families do not receive the dreaded news--like Abu Zaid did--that their loved one has died.

More on Scenes of Grief

The Unbearable

I am reading Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems: Volume One. Recently, I came across these stanzas in a poem called "The Moths:"
If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable. 
If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can't be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
I'm going through something very difficult right now. It's so painful that I can't write about it. It is so devastating to my psyche that I resist even thinking about it. I actively suppress my thoughts of it because my mind cannot absorb it.

I find myself confronting the unbearable. I listen to music and watch films and read and play mindless computer games. I do whatever I can to lose myself, to numb myself, to put myself in another world or another story besides my own. Call it denial. Call it what you want but it's the only way I know how to save my life right now.

The unbearable cannot be changed and so it becomes what we must bear because we have no choice. My body and mind say I cannot endure this, but I will endure it. Through some mysterious process, I will keep living and I will live with this thing that is unbearable and a part of me will die and I will grieve what I've lost and I will fear the next loss, the next unbearable event.

I also came across these lines from "Landscape," in the same Mary Oliver book:
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
The doors of my heart are closed. I do not trust people. I will never again trust people after the things that I have been through. I can't. I feel myself recoiling from the world. I feel myself becoming bitter, resentful, and angry. I want to stay tender. I want to give of myself. I want to make a connection, but after a lifetime of constantly being abandoned and rejected and disappointed by people, I don't think I can.  Opening my doors leads to suffering and I have to protect myself. I have to keep myself alive. I am the only one who can do that because no one saves us. We're lucky if we can save ourselves. I am trying so hard to save my life. Every day, I put all my energy into saving myself, into surviving. There is nothing left over. Nothing. Maybe one day it won't be like this but, for now, it is.

The unbearable. How do we bear it? How do we keep going? I don't know. We may bear it but there are always consequences. You change in ways both subtle and obvious. The anxiety and depression intensify, you find it hard to leave your room, you stop engaging with people, you struggle to find meaning in life. People are always ready with their cliches of "it could be worse" and "it gets better" and "be thankful for what you have" and every other dismissive remark. The insensitivity in the world today is shocking and shattering. So you stop confiding, stop sharing. What's the point when you'll only be told that your pain and your problems are not legitimate, that you need to be positive? People have legitimate struggles. People are trapped in abject situations that they cannot escape. There isn't always a silver lining. Things don't always get better. Sometimes, things get worse. They get unbearable and you get scared and you don't know how to cope with having so little control over your own life. You don't know how much more you can take. You can feel yourself unraveling. You ache to feel hope again.

Sometimes, it feels like the doors of my heart got torn off and I have no protection anymore and life keeps battering me and I just want it to stop but it won't stop, it will never stop. Maybe if this hadn't been going on for ten years, I'd be stronger. Ever since my father died in 2006 when I was only 16, I've been unmoored and destabilized. I can't cope. In one instant, I was shattered and I've never been able to put the shards back together. I became something unrecognizable to myself. I can't heal. I can't repair myself. I can't bear being alive without him. I can't bear the loss. I can't bear what his death revealed to me, mainly that death is emptiness and darkness, it is the ultimate unbearable thing. I can't bear the loneliness. I can't bear the fear. I can't bear the knowledge that he's gone forever and that what happened to him will one day happen to me. I can't bear losing everyone I love. I can't bear to even write these words. I can't bear to think about the past and I can't bear to face the present. Maybe when you have even just one devastating event in your life, everything after it becomes unbearable. All of life is the unbearable.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - I Need You

In July of 2015, Nick Cave's 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. The death of a child is a loss that most people struggle to deal with. Cave is a musician and so the grief inevitably seeped into his latest album Skeleton Tree and the accompanying documentary One More Time With Feeling. You can find out more about the process of making both the album and the film in this illuminating review by David Bennun at 1843 Magazine. Bennun writes:
The film reaches its musical climax with the session for “I Need You”. “Nothing really matters any more,” intones Cave, summoning the desolation of all-consuming grief. Art is not an answer, when you do not even know what the question is. There is no cure, there is no palliative. The only option is to do something because doing nothing is somehow worse still.
Last night, I listened to "I Need You," and I was gutted by it. I cried and cried. I can't get over this song. I can't get over the line "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone."


When you're feeling like a lover
Nothing really matters anymore
I saw you standing there in the supermarket
With your red dress falling, your eyes are to the ground

Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone

You're still in me, baby
I need you
In my heart, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

I'm standing in the doorway
You're walking 'round my place in your red dress, hair hanging down
Your eyes on one, we love the ones we can
Cause nothing really matters when you're standing, standing

I need you, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

We follow the line of the palms of our hands
You're standing in the supermarket, nothing, holding hands
In your red dress, falling, falling, falling in
The long black car is waiting 'round

I will miss you when you're gone
I'll miss you when you're gone away forever
Cause nothing really matters
I thought I knew better, so much better

And I need you, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

Oh that night we wrecked like a train
The purring cars and the pouring rain
Never felt right about it, never again

Cause nothing really matters
Nothing really matters anymore, not even today
No matter how hard I try
When you're standing in the aisle, and no, baby

Nothing, nothing, nothing

I need, I need you

I need you

In my heart I need you

Just breathe, just breathe

I need you