Alchemy in Grief

One of the recurring emotions families experience in the midst of grief is guilt. They […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.22.19

One of the recurring emotions families experience in the midst of grief is guilt. They feel guilty about “things done or left undone.” They feel guilty about still being alive. When my dad’s mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, he was just a teenager. He once told me how he avoided her room during the illness, and even though he was in high school, he stayed out of the house as late as he could. He told me how guilty he still feels, even today, for not having been there more.

Others have, because of their grief, said or done terrible things. In one of Lori Gottlieb’s most recent columns in The Atlantic, a woman writes about how her husband, two days before he died, asked if she could pick up some rice for him. She told him no. It was too late, and she was too tired. She writes

I just have so much guilt … I miss him so much and keep asking for some sign that he has forgiven me and still loves me in spite of everything. Please help me. I am really, really suffering.

Some of this, of course, is misremembering and self-torture. Grief, as Gottlieb assures the woman, often makes us addicts of our past sins. Tormenting ourselves beyond measure provides a small, perverse distraction from the grief we’re experiencing, even if it simultaneously negates all the times we were supportive, patient, and nurturing. 

Knowing that this is a common phase within the grief process may be helpful, but it cannot change the unchangeability of the past. The death of a loved one puts a period at the end of a relationship, and can therefore punctuate our shortcomings like a reckoning. Our failures feel irretrievably final, much more so than the same failures in any other relationship. With any other shortcoming, there is time left for amends, a future hope of atonement. With those who have died, the clock has chimed, and no more changes can be made. Which is why we find ourselves asking for signs, pleading to therapists and pastors for good news from beyond the veil, fixated on questions of eternal guilt and forgiveness. 

“I want my person back, of course,” we say. “That’s the first thing. But if I can’t have that, then please, tell me I did enough. Tell me I’ve been forgiven.”

There’s a story by science fiction writer Ted Chiang (the writer behind Arrival) called “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” It reads like a futuristic Arabian Nights tale, and deals with similar themes of misadventure, grief, and the human hope to defy fate. Our narrator, a merchant, stumbles into a unique store in a Baghdad bazaar, where he meets its owner, Bashaarat. Bashaarat has invented a time portal which allows its travelers to go back in time precisely twenty years. While skeptical of the operation, our narrator has some unfinished business from his past life, and decides to use the portal in hopes of atonement. 

It is not until our narrator begins that journey that he tells us what in particular he is hoping to set right: that, twenty years ago, before leaving on a business trip, he fought with his wife Najya, stormed out of the house after cursing her, and returned two weeks later to discover that she had died in a freak accident: a wall collapsed in town, and doctors could not save her. As our narrator puts it, the grief was compounded by the guilt: “I felt as if I had killed her with my own hand. Can the torments of hell be worse than what I endured in the days that followed?” 

Of course, as with any tale containing a time portal, there are limitations. Bashaarat warns the merchant of two things the time portal cannot do. First: What is made cannot be unmade. And second: You cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept. The merchant concedes, though he still wonders if there’s hope that some good might come from going back there: 

Could it not be that there had been a mistake, and my Najya had survived? Perhaps it was another woman whose body had been wrapped in a shroud and buried while I was gone. Perhaps I could rescue Najya and bring her back with me to the Baghdad of my own day. I knew it was foolhardy; men of experience say, “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity,” and I understood the truth of those words better than most. And yet I dared to hope that Allah had judged my twenty years of repentance sufficient and was now granting me a chance to regain what I had lost. 

Despite knowing rationally he cannot revive the dead, despite knowing that this magical invention cannot do what he hopes, he hopes anyways, and walks through the portal into the past. Sadly, within hours, he finds that one circumstance after another prevents him from getting back to “the scene of the crime.” There’s a sandstorm, a delayed caravan, and by the time he reaches his town, the wall has already fallen—his wife is already dead. Depressing, right? The lesson should end there: “Don’t tempt fate. What is assigned to you is assigned to you.” 

But it doesn’t end there. Our merchant returns home, “filled with memory and anguish,” and there he is approached by a young woman. She asks him if his name is Fuwaad. He says it is. The story continues: 

“My lord, I beg your forgiveness, My name is Maimuna, and I assist the physicians at the bimaristan. I tended to your wife before she died.” 

I turned to look at her. “You tended to Najya?”

“I did, my lord. I am sworn to deliver a message to you from her.” 

“What message?” 

“She wished me to tell you that her last thoughts were of you. She wished me to tell you that while her life was short, it was made happy by the time she spent with you.” 

She saw the tears streaming down my cheeks and said, “Forgive me if my words cause you pain, my lord.” 

“There is nothing to forgive, child. Would that I had the means to pay you as much as this message is worth to me, because a lifetime of thanks would still leave me in your debt.”

“Grief owes no debt,” she said. “Peace be upon you …”

She left, and I wandered the streets for hours, crying tears of release. All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. 

The death of a loved one can punctuate our guilt, not just in that relationship, but in all the ways we might believe we’ve wasted our lives: work that was too petty, decisions that were too fearful or too greedy. While we always have temporary solutions to erase that past and allay that guilt, it remains surprising that a real solution could be as simple as a spoken word from one who loves us, who speaks to us beyond the grave.

It is no coincidence that the Alchemist who designed this time portal is named “Bashaarat,” which means “Good News.” His portal is not an escape hatch—it does not sidestep the suffering or loss he must face—but it does bring the good news. Time travel does not alter the givens for our merchant. He still said terrible things. His wife is still gone. But it does convey the forgiveness that had been there all along, and that changes everything. The true alchemy, then, happens in the grieving heart. Only a word of forgiveness takes a heart bound in the guilt of the past and from it makes gold. It is a word that sees all we’ve done, and all we’ve left undone, and promises still, “Your sins are forgiven.” As our merchant describes it, once he’s returned to the present: 

The most precious knowledge I possess is this: Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.