"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.