Yesterday I finished reading, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s taken me about six months, with large gaps along the way. There is so much that could (and has!) been written about this masterpiece of literature, but the reason I’m mentioning it here is because of the bereavement theme.
In the Epilogue we witness the funeral of a young boy whose father, Snegiryov, is beside himself with grief. Afterwards, I did a bit more reading about Dostoyevsky and discovered:
Though Dostoyevsky was influenced by religion and philosophy in his life and the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, a personal tragedy altered the work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky’s three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy, a condition inherited from his father. The novelist’s grief is apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities which he sought and most admired. His loss is also reflected in the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha. (Wikipedia)
No wonder Dostoyevsky could write so convincingly of the fictional father’s grief! Snegiryov’s behaviour during and after the funeral of his son may appear mad, and he was truly out of his mind with grief. But that isn’t madness. That is parental grief. I don’t think anybody who has not been “there” can quite comprehend the maddening agony of burying your child.
There are people around the world today who are burying their children. There always are, for so many reasons, natural and otherwise. Let’s think and pray for them.
And let us hope that all of us bereaved parents will find our way through life, altered–as Dostoyevsky was–but able to keep going forward, one step at a time.
Extract from The Brothers Karamazov:
p class=”tei tei-p”>They had not far to carry the coffin to the church, not more than three hundred paces. It was a still, clear day, with a slight frost. The church bells were still ringing. Snegiryov ran fussing and distracted after the coffin, in his short old summer overcoat, with his head bare and his soft, old, wide-brimmed hat in his hand. He seemed in a state of bewildered anxiety. At one minute he stretched out his hand to support the head of the coffin and only hindered the bearers, at another he ran alongside and tried to find a place for himself there. A flower fell on the snow and he rushed to pick it up as though everything in the world depended on the loss of that flower.
“And the crust of bread, we’ve forgotten the crust!” he cried suddenly in dismay. But the boys reminded him at once that he had taken the crust of bread already and that it was in his pocket. He instantly pulled it out and was reassured.
“Ilusha told me to, Ilusha,” he explained at once to Alyosha. “I was sitting by him one night and he suddenly told me: ‘Father, when my grave is filled up crumble a piece of bread on it so that the sparrows may fly down, I shall hear and it will cheer me up not to be lying alone.’ ”
“That’s a good thing,” said Alyosha, “we must often take some.”
“Every day, every day!” said the captain quickly, seeming cheered at the thought.
They reached the church at last and set the coffin in the middle of it. … During the mass Snegiryov became somewhat calmer, though at times he had outbursts of the same unconscious and, as it were, incoherent anxiety. At one moment he went up to the coffin to set straight the cover or the wreath, when a candle fell out of the candlestick he rushed to replace it and was a fearful time fumbling over it, then he subsided and stood quietly by the coffin with a look of blank uneasiness and perplexity. After the Epistle he suddenly whispered to Alyosha, who was standing beside him, that the Epistle had not been read properly but did not explain what he meant. During the prayer, “Like the Cherubim,” he joined in the singing but did not go on to the end. Falling on his knees, he pressed his forehead to the stone floor and lay so for a long while.
At last came the funeral service itself and candles were distributed. The distracted father began fussing about again, but the touching and impressive funeral prayers moved and roused his soul. He seemed suddenly to shrink together and broke into rapid, short sobs, which he tried at first to smother, but at last he sobbed aloud. When they began taking leave of the dead and closing the coffin, he flung his arms about, as though he would not allow them to cover Ilusha, and began greedily and persistently kissing his dead boy on the lips. At last they succeeded in persuading him to come away from the step, but suddenly he impulsively stretched out his hand and snatched a few flowers from the coffin. He looked at them and a new idea seemed to dawn upon him, so that he apparently forgot his grief for a minute. Gradually he seemed to sink into brooding and did not resist when the coffin was lifted up and carried to the grave. …
After the customary rites the grave-diggers lowered the coffin. Snegiryov with his flowers in his hands bent down so low over the open grave that the boys caught hold of his coat in alarm and pulled him back. He did not seem to understand fully what was happening. When they began filling up the grave, he suddenly pointed anxiously at the falling earth and began trying to say something, but no one could make out what he meant, and he stopped suddenly. Then he was reminded that he must crumble the bread and he was awfully excited, snatched up the bread and began pulling it to pieces and flinging the morsels on the grave.
“Come, fly down, birds, fly down, sparrows!” he muttered anxiously.
… And after looking at the grave, and as it were, satisfying himself that everything had been done and the bread had been crumbled, he suddenly, to the surprise of every one, turned, quite composedly even, and made his way homewards. But his steps became more and more hurried, he almost ran. The boys and Alyosha kept up with him.
“The flowers are for mamma, the flowers are for mamma! I was unkind to mamma,” he began exclaiming suddenly.
Some one called to him to put on his hat as it was cold. But he flung the hat in the snow as though he were angry and kept repeating, “I won’t have the hat, I won’t have the hat.” Smurov picked it up and carried it after him. … Half-way, Snegiryov suddenly stopped, stood still for half a minute, as though struck by something, and suddenly turning back to the church, ran towards the deserted grave. But the boys instantly overtook him and caught hold of him on all sides. Then he fell helpless on the snow as though he had been knocked down, and struggling, sobbing, and wailing, he began crying out, “Ilusha, old man, dear old man!” Alyosha and Kolya tried to make him get up, soothing and persuading him.
“Captain, give over, a brave man must show fortitude,” muttered Kolya.
“You’ll spoil the flowers,” said Alyosha, “and mamma is expecting them, she is sitting crying because you would not give her any before. Ilusha’s little bed is still there—”
“Yes, yes, mamma!” Snegiryov suddenly recollected, “they’ll take away the bed, they’ll take it away,” he added as though alarmed that they really would. He jumped up and ran homewards again. But it was not far off and they all arrived together. Snegiryov opened the door hurriedly and called to his wife with whom he had so cruelly quarreled just before:
“Mamma, poor crippled darling, Ilusha has sent you these flowers,” he cried, holding out to her a little bunch of flowers that had been frozen and broken while he was struggling in the snow. But at that instant he saw in the corner, by the little bed, Ilusha’s little boots, which the landlady had put tidily side by side. Seeing the old, patched, rusty-looking, stiff boots he flung up his hands and rushed to them, fell on his knees, snatched up one boot and, pressing his lips to it, began kissing it greedily, crying, “Ilusha, old man, dear old man, where are your little feet?”
“Where have you taken him away? Where have you taken him?” the lunatic cried in a heartrending voice.
… … …
“And may the dead boy’s memory live for ever!” Alyosha added again with feeling.
p class=”tei tei-p”>“For ever!” the boys chimed in again.