On Grief, Kathrin Stengel

In my love for the other, I desire death and life at the same time: death because I want to balance out the injustice of his death, and life because now I have a completely different appreciation for it. And even though the urge to live is stronger than the wish to die, life from now on cannot fail to be perceived through the lens of death: To him whom death has touched life shows itself in its utter precariousness. Mindful of the fragility of life, we first truly become witnesses to the miraculous life force surrounding us. Our astonishment at life itself enables us to partake of its force. Thus fortified, the survivor can love himself back into life.

And yet, we are often incapable of letting ourselves fall into life. Instead of tapping into the wellspring of life and loving ourselves out of death, we spend all our energy on clinging to the only plank we have left of our beloved in the river of life: his death. Desperate, we are carried downstream gripping death’s lifeless plank and expecting help from the outside—as if we could only reach safety holding onto the plank. In reality, however, we could actually stand in the water and walk to safety—if only we would let go of the plank, which drags us further and further downstream—if only we would oppose the vertical here and now of our very presence to the horizontal, linear perception of life. Clinging to the last thing we have left of the other we whirl through life without hold.

There is a Zen story about a hermit who lived alone in the Indian jungle, meditating. One night he heard a menacing roar, which he immediately recognized as a tiger’s. Terrified, the hermit jumped up and ran—behind him the rustling of the underbrush and the roaring tiger. As he was running through the dark, he suddenly felt the ground beneath his feet give way. Fearing that he was about to fall to his death, he barely managed to grab hold of a saving branch above him. So he dangled, all night long, having escaped both the tiger and the terrifying depths of the gaping abyss below. The night seemed never-ending and the hermit, scared to death and physically exhausted, was barely able to hang on to the branch until dawn. When day finally broke, he realized that the abyss was only a couple of inches deep. Relieved and happy, he let himself fall.

The survivor’s situation resembles the hermit’s in the story. He, too, is dangling from a branch—the branch of death—hanging on to it as the last experience he shared with the beloved.

And so he dangles over the abyss … unable to let himself fall into life, which he no longer trusts having experienced its agonizing unpredictability. Most of all, however, the survivor fears for his memories of the beloved: The last bit of life spent together—death—becomes the hypnotic center of our memories of the other. It is as if by letting go of the branch we would not only be swallowed by the abyss, but the other, too, would fall into oblivion, vanish into non-existence.

In letting go of death, I allow the love between me and the beloved to abide in eternity.


From November Rose: A Speech on Death, by Kathrin Stengel (Upper West Side Philosophers), translated by Michael Eskin

Philosopher Kathrin Stengel’s husband died of cancer in 2001 when she was thirty-three years old, leaving her with two young children. November Rose was published simultaneously in German and English by a small New York publisher, Upper West Side Philosophers. They promoted it door to door in Germany, where it won wide readership. The English translation won the Independent Publishers Award. Stengel studied philosophy at the Universities of Leuven (Belgium), Munich, and Konstanz (Germany) and taught philosophy at Seattle University and the Rhode Island School of Design.  She lives in Manhattan with her husband and three sons.


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