I’ve been listening to The Power of Myth, the conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell recorded back in the eighties. Bill Moyers brings up a version of the story about Satan being cast out of heaven. Joseph Campbell elucidates it, explaining that Satan refused to bow to humans though God had ordered him to. The reason, though, was because he loved God too much and could bow to no one but him. The greatest torment of hell then was the echo of God telling Satan to leave his presence, the memory of the beloved he could no longer be near.
Now, later on, they touch on the concept of eternity and the loss of loved ones. Joseph Campbell explains that he realized at some point that everyone he has cared about is still with him because of the part they played in his life. In effect, the memory of the beloved is a comfort.
So which is it? Is the memory of a lost loved one a torment or a comfort?
So often, when a romantic relationship breaks up, the memory of the beloved is a horrible torment at first. That can change over time, either because we begin to forget or because with distance comes the realization that the beloved was not as perfect as we once thought. When a loved one passes away, the memory of the loved one can be a torment or an immediate comfort. Why? Is it our culpability in the estrangement? Is it the distance between the person and the lost beloved? (If they’re still on the planet, there’s a chance we’ll see them again.)
It would seem that the memory of the beloved can be both a torment and a comfort, at the same time.
A coworker lost her husband in the past year and it dealt her a terrible blow. It seems to me that the amount of pain is often measurable by the nature of the relationship, closer relationships cause more pain. Distance of the relationship, or of time, allows us to remember the good times over the pain of our loss.
Of course, it’s not a simple equation. There are too many factors, and when it comes to good writing the unusual, as long as it is plausible, is often preferred. I think we have to be careful about reaching too far though. The stages of grief are well documented and the more creatively we can play them out in a story, the more interesting they are likely to be, while still being plausible.