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Attributes of Compassion

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

by Maria Popova

“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

dickensIn addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riserCharles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, Letitia, lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public libraryfree download), Dickens envelops Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do. . . . I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

dickens family

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.


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