Hamlet, Christmas and my brother's ghost

I'm grieving his sudden death. Couldn't we skip Christmas and just go out for Chinese?

Published December 22, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

As Hamlet lay dying, he said to his only true friend, Horatio, "absent thee from felicity a while."

My younger brother (in his 50s) died suddenly last week. I want to either cancel our traditional Christmas celebration or simply go out to a Chinese restaurant. I am filled with grief but my husband thinks we must celebrate Christmas. The celebration is simple: We have two sons, aged 36 and 34, and one is married to a woman of the same age.

We have always had them over for a big dinner on Christmas. My husband says that he will do all of the cooking yet it never really works out that way. If the "children" were young, I would not curtail any celebratory traditions.

I think that the Chinese restaurant solution is a good one: I won't have to sit around the table for an unknown number of hours working hard to be pleasant. I am in grief, but an additional aspect of my dilemma is that I think children of this age should be ready to establish their own plans and their own traditions.

Please advise!


Dear Gundygut,

I doubt that you are a gundygut any more than am I a dandiprat. But thank you for that marvelous word.

I feel for you in your grief. A person who is grieving should not be made to work at the accustomed pace. But I think it will be good if you celebrate Christmas in the house as in years past. Only this year, insist that your sons do their share. Insist that your husband actually cook the dinner this time. And grieve. Do not require yourself to be pleasant. Do not hide your grief. This is not the time to be falsely pleasant, nor to grieve in solitude.

Hamlet does not ask his friend Horatio to slink away from life and grieve in solitude nor to join him in the sweet felicity of death. He asks his friend to stay alive to tell his story.

A few lines before he asks Horatio to "absent thee from felicity a while," Hamlet says:

Had I but time -- as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest -- O, I could tell you --
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livs't. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

He is asking his friend to speak for him after his death:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

He knows that it will be painful for his friend to tell his story, but he wants him to serve his memory by speaking the truth.

This quote came to you like a ghost, seeming to absent you from grieving with others at this terrible time, yet holding within it a deeper and harsher commandment: To tell your brother's story for him: "draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story."

If Shakespeare lives in us as the poetic expression of our unconscious, then this voice is your own voice commanding you not to slink away in your grief but to stand and speak for your brother, suddenly dead at this dark time. It is saying, Yes, absent yourself from felicity, but not to grieve in solitude, rather to tell his story.

And if it is your own voice, riding the carrier wave of Shakespeare's poetry (like some miraculous element it seemingly loses nothing of its energy as it travels through time), then it must be that in your heart of hearts you do not want to slink away; you sense the daunting call -- that you must indeed absent yourself from felicity. But you feel burdened and slowed by this grief. Of course you do. You feel tired and would like to crawl into a cave. So this is your test. You do not crawl into the cave quite yet. First you speak for your brother.

It will be a tearful dinner no doubt. But this will help you. This is the right thing to do.

Here "felicity" is felicitous. The lighter the matter, the easier it is to speak of it with felicity. Felicity can also mean "admirable appropriateness or grace of inventiveness or expression," as the OED puts it. The harder things are more painful to tell.

Horatio is offering to drink some of the poison so he, too, may die. Hamlet says no, forsake the "felicity" of death, stick around and tell my truth. Isn't it amazing how Shakespeare could turn a word on its head to show its complicated insides, to "explode"  a word so that its multiple layers of meaning come into view, tease out a word's dark opposites buried in its birth pains?

Though grief bows us down, we serve the dead by telling their tale. We speak them back into life. We go on. We honor the dead. If the dinner is planned, we go on with the dinner.

But we do not do this alone without help. It is time for your "children" to come to your house and shoulder some responsibility for the occasion. It is time to pass this duty on to them.

You can do that. You can insist. This occasion may be a long-delayed turning point. This may be where the balance tips. Finally, your sons must see that their elders are mortal. Finally, something major has happened. Life gets real.

It's time for them to carve, to cook, to orchestrate. It's time for them to take care of you a little.

Now, for that to happen, you must let them do it. That's the other part of this: You must relinquish some control.

Today is the winter solstice, rich with darkness and meaning.

So in your grief, ask for help from your sons and accept their help. Grieve for your brother. Ask for help in grieving for your brother. Let the weight of the grief pull you back to earth. Sink into a big soft chair or couch and let life spin on around you.

Stay and tell your brother's tale. Celebrate his life. Absent yourself from felicity a while; draw thy breath in pain, to tell his story.

January 2010 Creative Getaway

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