Paul Tournier continues to share his unique blend of biblical, psychological, and very personal wisdom as he writes new books from the vantage point of being a widower in his eighties. The following selection, touching his own responses to his wife’s death, is from Creative Suffering (Harper & Row, ©1981), and used by permission.

Freud [made] this profound remark: “We can lose nothing without replacing it.” With what do we replace it? That is the question. With destructive rebellion, or with creativity?

This second way, however, is not an easy one to take. It requires courage, it requires a whole process of inner maturation, which Freud called the work of mourning.

On the subject of creativity, for instance, Freud writes modestly: “The essence of the artistic function also remains psychoanalytically inaccessible to us.” This … [sublimation] … is the idea of a particular psychic force which has come up against a painful reality, to rebound with equal force in a new direction, like a billiard ball. The cushion off which the ball has cannoned is deprivation.

Freud, then, seems to be saying that a certain restraint is the source of all creativity and all culture. Philippe Mottu mentions two writers, Pitirim Sorokin, professor of sociology at Harvard, and J. D. Unwin, who sought to verify this theory in social history. They were able to show that periods of sexual liberty were the poorest from the cultural point of view, whereas those periods when morality and social convention imposed restrictions on sexual activity were the richest in creative output.

This runs counter to what is claimed by the advocates of sexual license, which is sometimes attributed to the influence of Freud. It is an important lesson for all those who suffer from deprivation of sex life, a deprivation that is exacerbated by these very theories, so that even Roman Catholic priests get married and burden themselves with psychological problems. For Freud, sublimation is bound up with a deprivation accepted.

But what, then, is this work of mourning of which Freud speaks in Mourning and Melancholy? The word “mourning” is used very generally. We speak of “mourning a lost opportunity.” The term, therefore, can cover all kinds of deprivation, though, of course, it is most usually used in connection with the death of a loved one. Which brings me to my present deprivation—not the distant deprivation of my childhood, but the one I have experienced since my wife’s death several years ago.

As soon as I decided to write this book I realized that I should have to come to this moment. People talk of “widows and orphans.” I am both. I hesitated for a long time! Because what I have to say is that I have indeed felt a renewal of my creative urge since then. I believe this to be what my friends think too. What I am afraid of is that many of my readers will be shocked, or think that I could hardly have been very fond of my wife; that this renewal casts a slur on her, and that I am taking my bereavement lightly. I have often heard such criticisms leveled at widows and widowers who, instead of sinking into gloom, remain active and serene.

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The truth is that this is quite the opposite of a denial of grief. It really is suffering that I am talking about here, and the creativity of which it may be the occasion. The greater the grief, the greater the creative energy to which it gives rise. I am sure that that is true in my own case. I am nearer those who suffer, and I understand them better. Ah! Growing old alone is quite different from growing old together! What I miss most is the rich dialogue that existed between us.

An important point here is that our dialogue took the form mainly of meditation, which we often practiced together. We could listen to God in silence, and note down our thoughts—whether they came from ourselves, from our subconscious, or from God—and read them to each other afterwards. It is the surest way to mutual discovery in depth. We used to say to each other things that we should never have said without those very special moments together. I have, of course, been practicing this kind of meditation on my own for nearly 50 years. The one does not take the place of the other. In the past I have often skipped my daily meditation, but since my wife’s death, I have not missed a single day—as if my rendezvous with God were also a rendezvous with her.

If she had lived, no doubt we would have accommodated ourselves to a quieter mode of life in our old age. I think that there is a certain amount of psychological overcompensation in my present activity, and in my writing so many books. All my work, in any case, could be interpreted as a “work of mourning.” But I find in it a sort of fellowship with Nelly: we did everything together, and in a way we still do. I have a strong sense of her invisible presence. But what lives in my heart is her new, today’s presence, much more than the old one. There are widowers who, as it were, suspend their lives, as if life had stopped at the moment of their bereavement. Their present thoughts have turned toward the past, whereas I live in the present and look to the future.

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For some, therefore, it is, if anything, a retrograde and paralyzing presence, whereas my wife’s presence is living and stimulating. And not only for me. Yesterday my home help said something to me that I found very touching. She still comes on Saturday mornings as she has done ever since before Nelly died. Yesterday she said to me, “Oh, I do like coming to your house; I have the feeling that your wife is still there, and I keep asking myself how she would want me to do things.”

Since my wife’s death I have come to realize that I had lived all my life in mourning, waiting for reunion in heaven with my parents. Nelly had felt that this was so, because just before she died she said to me that she would meet them there. So I have lived my whole life in their unseen presence, in the atmosphere of faith, love, and poetry that characterized their own life. Now, with my new bereavement, my link with heaven is made stronger still, and that stimulates, rather than diminishes, my interest in the problems of this world. The human heart does not obey the rules of logic; it is constitutionally contradictory. I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.

Does that mean that I am, in fact, performing my work of mourning in Freud’s sense? I do not think so. With Freud it is a detachment, a disinvestment, to borrow a term much used by the psychoanalysts. It is, he writes, a matter of severing one’s attachment to the object that has been abolished. Thus Dr. Lagache, one of his most thoroughgoing disciples, was able to write that it was a matter of “killing the dead person.”

You will see that what I have done is the exact opposite.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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