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Consolation Literature. Sympathy Letters, Poetry, and Books on Parental Grief

Consolation literature has taken on various forms throughout history. It may be seen in letters between or to grieving parents, lamentation poetry, books of advice on how to deal with the death of a child, or even how to grieve appropriately in public. Some historians consider consolation literature a form of psychotherapy; an avenue by which parents may grieve. For example, Yiddish Holocaust lullabies appear to have been written to sustain morale, “support the psychological structure, and integrate the traumatic loss of a people threatened with psychic disorganization during the Holocaust”.1 This chapter discusses selections of consolation letters, manuals, and poetry written to, about, and by grieving parents.

Plutarch's Consolation Letter to His Wife

One of the most well-known examples of consolation literature was written by Plutarch, the Greek historian, philosopher and politician, who eventually became a citizen of Rome. Upon hearing of his two year old daughter’s death, for which he was absent, he wrote a letter to comfort his wife. This letter has been published, commented upon, analyzed and criticized through various perspectives. One interpretation of the letter is that it may be seen as a public show of steadfastness and dignity; a commentary upon grieving. Another more obvious interpretation is that the letter is a moving attempt to console his grieving wife.

Because Plutarch was away during the death, burial, and subsequent period of mourning, the letter is the only method by which he could hope to console and support his wife. At the same time, as a public figure, he knew that his letter may be open to public consumption. With this knowledge he writes reminders to his wife that she was not prone to “extravagance or superstition, for which I know you have no inclination”, indicating his expectation that she would behave appropriately. On several occasions in the letter he remarks on her ability to demonstrate “right female behavior”, while acknowledging the sadness he feels over the loss of the child, as well as the great loss his wife must feel. These suggestions seem to be a call to other mothers to not employ “wailing women”, for example, in a time of death. He also mentions his wife’s care of the child and their other children (noting that she breastfed their children, which was uncommon among the aristocracy in ancient Greece). He calls upon his wife to be an example for other grieving mothers, as “grieving does not help” and “moderation of emotion may help deal with it”. Plutarch’s descriptions of some memories of the child also add value to the letter as a memento that may be read over and over again by his wife.2

The perception of ancient Greek and Roman parents as unemotional in response to the deaths of their children is common. Yet, as Baltussen asserts, Plutarch’s letter demonstrates otherwise. “Although it is difficult to gauge the level and sincerity of such emotional investment, it would be [remiss], deny the parents of classical antiquity any feelings for their young children”, given Plutarch’s loving and descriptive commemoration of his child.3 Plutarch’s consolation, however, is tempered by this statement: “extravagance of distress.. .will be more grievous to me than what has happened”, as Roman parents were forbidden to formally mourn a child less than three years of age.4

Plutarch’s consolation letter expands upon the writings of Crantor and Cicero. Crantor, a Greek philosopher from Soli, Cilicia, wrote what is considered his most famous work “On Grief” to his friend Hippocoles’, as a consolation upon his son’s death.5 Crantor expounded that grief was natural and that “the absence of pain comes at a high price; it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.”6 Around the time of his daughter’s death in 45 BC, Cicero, who borrowed heavily from Crantor, wrote of sorrow as a disease within the mind, in need of treatment.

Upper class ancient Romans had the benefit of non-public outlets for their grief, such as consolation literature and funerary rituals. On occasion, the wealthy grieved openly without self-control. Upon witnessing a display of mourning the

Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a letter to his friend on the futility of grieving at the death of an infant. Seneca argued that the child was so young that “no hopes could have been invested in him; he might have turned out badly as sons often did.” He goes on to acknowledge that while it is natural to show grief, one should not do so excessively. Further, a bereaved parent should remember the dead and reflect on his life. Thus, while it is clear that the father was distraught over the death of his young son, even Seneca, appealing to his rationality, admits to the sad nature of death.7

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