How are we to cope with the inevitability that some of what we most love in life we will lose?
Loss is an inevitable fact of human existence. Small losses most of us learn to bear with equanimity. But enormous, wrenching, life-changing losses open voids in our lives for which we can never feel adequately prepared, even if we can see them coming. This course tries to understand the nature of loss on a physical and emotional level, to give us some framework for coping with it and to help us develop some empathy in those very difficult situations when someone else has faced a loss and we do not know how to react. Our main focus will be upon the loss of someone “close” to us, through either death or a personality-changing accident or illness (“close” is in quotation marks, because some of these losses may be of public figures whom we have never met personally, but whose loss makes an impact on our entire society). We will compare this form of loss with others, such as loss of country through exile or forced migration and loss of part of oneself through amputation. Our approach will be threefold: we will try to understand the physiological and psychological effects of loss; we will study the rituals that different societies have evolved to mark loss and memorialize the lost; and we will analyze textual, artistic, and musical expressions of loss, chiefly “great works,” but also some more humble attempts to record the emotional rupture that loss entails. We will work on a broad canvas, both spatially and chronologically, looking at personal testimonies as various as Cicero’s reactions to the death of his adult daughter; the diary of the nineteenth-century Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, charting his father’s last days; two great twentieth-century authors, C. S. Lewis and Joan Didion, writing about the loss of their life partners; and many others. We will encounter tombstones with simple inscriptions commemorating the death of family pets from the Roman world and set these in the context of scientific research on the human-animal bond, as manifested by both humans and animals reaching the end of their life. We will study prayers for the dead in the major faith traditions, and visit (virtually) the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, to consider the therapeutic effects of the somber walls of its octagonal interior. We will listen to two Requiem Masses, one religious and one secular. We will examine mourning rituals in the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, to see how pre-colonial beliefs and practices have become melded with the religious practices of the colonizers. By the end of the course, which will have ranged far beyond these few examples, we will have gained a deeper understanding of the effects of loss on us both individually and collectively, and of the rituals and therapies that different societies have developed over time to mark and memorialize it.