Matters of death and life

It is hard to lose a loved one.  I have had occasion recently to contemplate the impact that we feel by the death of those close to us, and our reactions to that loss.  (I realize that the subject of this blog is science, mathematics, and computing.  I don’t mean to be gloomy here, just hopefully to provoke thought.  But mostly I am just moved to write about what I think about, and right now what I think about is loss.)

A couple of thoughts occur to me, both of which are recollections of better words than mine.  The first is an excerpt from Euripides’ The Trojan Women, where Hecuba tells the chorus to prepare her son Hector for burial:

“Go, bury now in his poor tomb the dead, wreathed all duly as befits a corpse.  And yet I deem it makes but little difference to the dead, although they get a gorgeous funeral; for this is but a cause of idle pride to the living.”

It’s been over 15 years since I read this, but it struck me when I read it and has stuck with me since.  In short, the flowers, the preparation of the body, the ceremonies, and all of the solemn words, are our means of dealing with loss– the dead do not care.  For me, I think this is helpful rather than depressing.  If they did care, if the loudness of our laments indeed mattered to the dead, then we fall short of the mark; one perfect rose or a carefully selected Bible verse is insufficient expression of either the sadness of losing someone or the joy of having been a part of their life.

The second recollection is of a letter written by Richard Feyman to his wife Arline.  The letter is included in the book “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” edited by Feynman’s daughter Michelle.

I found this letter moving for several reasons.  First, I think it shows the heart of a man who to me exemplifies the rational, scientific approach to understanding our world.  (Witness the title of this blog.)  Second, consider the dates involved.  Arline died on 16 June 1945, just one month before the Trinity test of the atomic bomb, as part of the Manhattan Project on which Feynman had been working:

To Arline Feynman, October 17, 1946


I adore you, sweetheart… It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.  But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past.  I want to tell you I love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me.  I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you.  I never thought until just now that we can do that.  What should we do.  We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

Can’t I do something now?  No.  I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.  When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed.  You needn’t have worried.

Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much.  And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want to stand there.

I’ll bet that you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend after two years.  But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls… and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes.  You only are left to me.  You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead,


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.

One final comment: I think it is important, and rather uplifting, to observe that Feynman did remarry.  He and his wife Gweneth were married for nearly 30 years before his death in 1988.

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