Grieving the Future

GriefSometimes, barrelling along the highway between here and there, I get caught up in the sense of history flowing. Our little jelly-bean bubble of conversation is a trapped pocket of air in the stream of time. The fixed point in a river rushing, the wheels of our vehicle madly spinning to keep us still. I had this thought while driving:

Grief is a mood through which we experience the transmutation of time from future into past. Grief, like music, is the consciousness of time. The contrast might be instructive: music is a formal structure for bringing time to consciousness. Within this structure many further (more particular) relations to time, and to the timeful-world (the world viewed as a timeful order) can be communicated. Music allows us to intuit time. In any particular musical moment we are full of the patterns of communication and coherence that the score has built up through its flowing, we are anticipating the particular notes and figures which will extend this musical coherence, and we passing from this anticipation, through a particular articulation – a note, a silence – which may or may not be what we anticipated, and we are refiguring, re-cohering, the total piece in the light of this moment. In music, when the music truly captures us, we catch a glimpse of that rarest of moments: the present.

Grief is also consciousness of the present. The multiple futures toward which we have invested, sustained by the natural uncertainty of future-time, collapsing into a particular, unitary, actuality. Possibility becoming a story. The coherence and order which the universe requires comes at the expense of these unrealised potentialities. Grief is the consciousness of the perishing of futures.

I guess that’s why it’s so hard to explain to each other, and to comfort, redress, justify grieving. How can anyone console another for the loss of something that never was? The love that was never returned, the children who were never born, the trip that was never taken, the work that was never completed. The loss of these ‘nothings’ is, in a sense, infinite. The lack of definition, the non-concrete nature of these hopes, makes their loss harder not easier. The loss of the possibility of a child includes, in some ways, the loss of the actual child, and the sweetness of his childhood, the glory of his maturity, the loss of all his hopes as well.
The loss of a love that was never returned includes all the loss of all the pathways opened up for us by that love: the friendships never shared, the places never visited together, the histories never told, the further futures never anticipated.

What word of comfort can we speak to someone grieving the future? Each hope was a little singularity, pregnant with universes. And thus the loss of each future threatens to overwhelm us with an incalculable, infinite loss.

How can Jesus be the Lord of this time? How is Jesus the Lord of the futures that never were? If we are comforted in this grief, how is it with the comfort we recieve from God? And, as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, how also, through Christ, will our comfort overflow?


Image “Angel of Grief” by maryn0503

4 thoughts on “Grieving the Future

  1. No doubt you have an answer for all your marvellous questions at the end there but I would like, respectfully to question this broad-brush conflation of grief and time.

    Grief is certainly our reaction to loss. However, I think to conflate this with our experience of time is drawing a bow too far. Or perhaps, it is a matter inappropriately accepting the premise of the question regarding our experience of transience. In a culture whose mindset is the eternal present – thanks largely to Nietzsche and Heidegger – change becomes a threat instead of an appropriate aspect of bodily contingency. It is the existential obsession with eternal recurrence that makes the past and possible futures a matter of grief. It is everywhere from the popular obsession with "the sequel" that infinitely defers resolution and hence surrender to the past. It is also in the confusion between optimism and hope that obscures the future.


    1. "Grief is certainly our reaction to loss." Yes, but the loss of what? My point is that grief is tied up with the loss of an anticipated future, and thus the experience of grief is bound up with our experience/consciousness of time.
      With respect, you've misread me. (I don't for a moment maintain that grief is time, and thus the charge that I'm conflating them is a little premature). I'm not making a general argument that our experience of time is always an experience of grief. If I had written something along those lines your objection would be sound.
      My argument was precisely the other way around: that our experience of grief is an experience of time, in particular of lost time. There are many other experience of time and change that do not involve grief, but my observation (which may be incorrect) is that our experiences of grief always involve an awareness, consciousness of the loss of a future which we had (more or less reflectively) anticipated. My reason for drawing attention to this is the way in which it helps to explain the profound experiences of grief many people undergo when nothing tangible has been lost. Or rather, when the only thing that has been lost is an anticipated future. I fear that our inability to provide effective pastoral ministry to many of these people arises precisely because we fail to grasp what they are grieving, and to acknowledge that the future (in whatever particular guise, as expectation) is something legitimately grieved. And yes, I've got more to say about improper grief, and about the kind of comfort God can provide…


  2. Hi Dan,
    I've just come across your blog. It's a revelation! Well, a revelation of a revelation…. thanks for your beautiful insights. I hope you don't mind, I've just reposted this piece on my own blog.


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