Grief, regret, guilt, and that sweet, sad Otis Blue (you can’t miss your water til the well runs dry, so drink up while you can.)

Montaigne wrote that every life is complete when it ends. He wanted death to find him planting his cabbages, concerned neither with mortality or even less his unfinished garden (but apparently overmuch with digestive health—why no radishes, arugula, or Japanese mustard greens, eh Michel?). We are always in the mode of becoming who we are, but only until we die and then—in whatever state death catches us–we’re a fait accompli.

Montaigne’s completeness may be true for the dead, but it is dramatically not so for their survivors. The feeling of grief is quintessentially one of incompleteness. The mere fact of missing someone leaves us shouting internally into the void and hearing only our echo.

We are also left with the persistent feeling of a life unfinished, a project left undone — the garden’s future tending may not have mattered to dead Montaigne, but perhaps it was a big deal to his wife to feel she let him down by allowing his precious cabbages to rot because she was overwhelmed tending to the vagaries of 16th Century French estate law!

There’s a point in everyone’s grief when guilt and regret encroach. I don’t mean everyone is wallowing in guilt. And one needn’t be pining for the past or engaging in “magical thinking” in some vain attempt to correct past missteps. Regret is simply an intrinsic element of loss. We feel the absence of a person we know and care about and the human manifestation, at least in my experience, is simply the ineffable feeling of bereavement — wanting to have one more moment with the person, one more conversation, one more chance to do some part of we never did while they were alive, whatever that is. Guilt is simply the feeling that we could have done more to alleviate that regret.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the need of the human mind to seek or create feelings of guilt or regret when a person died–even in situations where there is no obvious need. I don’t feel many regrets about Nina apart from the mere fact of her dying. I regret she didn’t get to live longer, won’t get to see our kids grow up, never saw her book published, and can’t enjoy the ongoing evolution of the family project she helped author and design. But I have only a few actual regrets that I felt actual guilt for not resolving.

And yet I still have a sort of open-ended feeling of guilt and regret—like I squandered something precious and finite by losing Nina—let our cabbages go to rot and now can never rescue the crop.

This may be in part because I have never been a “live in the moment” kind of person. Nina used to say my bumper sticker would read “No, actually, it’s the destination, not the journey” reflecting both my unfortunate natural contrariness and tendency to want to get things over with (to be clear: I also hate bumper stickers and would never put one on my car, which was part of her needling joke).

But I think everyone, to one degree or another, suffers from an inability to be completely in the moment. When the moment, as well the person we spent our moments with, has passed away, we always at some level have the sense that we didn’t properly appreciate them while they were here.

Feeling bereft of missed opportunities or squandered chances is part of life as well as grief. In 1961 William Bell wrote a song for Stax Records, his first and only major hit, called You Don’t Miss Your Water. Most people know this track from Otis Redding’s 1965 album Otis Blue — that’s certainly how it came to my ears. It’s the quintessential love song of regret: a man looking back at a relationship he philandered away — failing to appreciate what he had until it was gone. The fact that the song was made famous by a soul legend who died young puts a finer point on my thesis that, like every breakup song, Bell’s tune is also a song about grief. Consider the last full stanza of the song in isolation from the stated theme of infidelity:

I sit here and wonder
How in the world this could be, my, oh my
I never thought, oh, I never thought you’d ever leave me
But now that you’ve left me
Good Lord, good Lord, how I cried out
You don’t miss your water
You don’t miss your water ’till your well run dry

You can read this word for word as being about grief without stretching the meaning. In some ways it’s even more appropriate that way: a cheater should have thought pretty hard about his partner leaving him, right? But in the fullness of life, our natural unconscious tendency (unless we’re Montaigne) is to assume things will continue apace, pretty much as they are, into the remote future—it’s hard to fathom that things will just abruptly end, the way they did for Otis Redding at age 26 or Nina at 39 (William Bell, defying all soul musician logic, is somehow still alive at age 79!).

If it were any other way, we probably wouldn’t function at all. But we seldom confront mortality until we must. This may also be for the very good reason that it’s hard to summon the feeling of losing someone until they’re gone. I’m not sure it’s even possible to feel loss before it occurs, no matter how evolved or mortality conscious you are. You can drink all you want, but to fully understand how water tastes you really have to be parched.

Of course, we could argue that William Bell’s narrator is a little different: he lost a relationship, not a person; he tells us that he cheated, he even says “I just wouldn’t be true,” placing not only blame but volition on his shoulders. So maybe this distinguishes his broken relationship from actual bereavement?

I think it’s closer than it appears at first blush. We’re all human (except the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who I suspect all wear meat suits made from their former interns, whose entrails are also served to the Senators when they’re supposedly “in the cloak room”) and if we have a relationship with another human, we make decisions and take actions in accordance with our will while they’re alive and so we feel some measure of regret and responsibility when that person dies. That doesn’t have to mean we wallow or self-lacerate (though these are time-honored techniques that I can advise you on if you’re interested). But I am pretty sure it means that no one escapes the thrall of grief’s cousins, regret and guilt, entirely.

I went to my actual, non-metaphorical cousin’s wedding this weekend. It was a pretty glorious event. The bride and groom are two people who seem very much in love, which suffused the already verdant Appalachian Mountain scenery they chose for the setting with a positive vibe.

My pastoral dudes enjoying the wedding.

There are some weddings where you know at least some segment of the crowd is gritting its teeth or cringing, despite the outward shows of affection and well-wishing. Maybe the couple had an on-again-off-again relationship, or there are not-quite-secret past infidelities. Perhaps no one can quite figure out what the couple are doing together. This wasn’t one of those weddings. The vows were organic to the couple: forthright, funny, and genuine. The music suited them. The dress was fantastic. It all worked.

In perusing the (blissfully economical/brief) wedding program, I was struck that the longest section was dedicated to remembering loved ones on both sides of the bride and groom’s family who had died, including the groom’s father (my uncle), who died from a rare form of leukemia (and Nina, a touch of sweet, melancholic generosity).

As an avowed anti-sentimentalist, I have to say:
the vows were pretty great. 

After the ceremony my cousin Ben, the groom’s younger brother, gave a toast. After an appropriate amount of teasing his brother, he told the gathered crowd how the two brothers had grown much closer because of and not despite their father’s untimely death. This invocation was bold because it was the mummy at the feast—holding up the death mask in the midst of the party is always a risk. And it was appropriate for the same reason: death is not only always present, it is life’s only invariable element and, in this case, a seminal event in the lives of the groom’s family. My uncle wasn’t as young as Nina when he died, but he was a vibrant, active, energetic 61 and seemed much closer to the living than the dead right up until he got sick. He left behind four kids and a wife, stunned, in the “wait, what?” twilight zone of grief and loss.

Ben said, unapologetically and matter-of-factly, that it was both the worst and one of the best things that ever happened to his family — their father’s death simultaneously tearing the family unit apart and bringing the surviving members closer together.

The groom’s family all together save the groom,
who was dancing too hard to photograph. 

I can’t imagine a better invocation of grief: right in the pumping heart of one of the most life-affirming of ceremonies we know. As anyone who’s experienced any kind of loss (death, breakup, whatever) can tell you, weddings — despite the affirmations and well-wishes — are one of the biggest grief triggers. All our “if onlys” and “might have beens” stand out in sharper relief against the backdrop of sanctifying a loving commitment. Ben’s toast rang true not despite but because of the fact that my uncle couldn’t be there to share in the moment — an obvious and painful source of regret, but also a reminder among many of why it was so important in that moment to reflect not only on the vast, unspent stores of love yet to be fully realized that stretched before the bride and groom, but on the lives already mortally complete, the dry wells.

See. Dancing. Party hard, Max & Suzie. 

There’s a sense in which weddings bring us closer to our elemental selves, ask us to cast a longer glance at what makes us human — why we gather, unite, procreate, make lifelong commitments, etc. Foundationally, the answer to all of those questions is the same: because life is short and we all want it to be meaningful. Inevitably, until our time is up, part of our life will be spent wondering what might have been for our lost loves. So sometimes we don’t miss our water fully ‘til the well runs dry because we are always trying to enjoy the still-sloshing-full cistern we’ve filled at our cousin’s wedding. Which come to think of it tastes mysteriously strong for water…

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