‘After the real world has passed away’

After the death of his wife, Edith, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael:

I do not feel quite ‘real’ or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to.… Since I came of age, and our 3 years separation was ended, we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions (in agreement or otherwise), so that I still often find myself thinking ‘I must tell E. about this’ – and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship. I remember trying to tell Marjorie Incledon this feeling, when I was not yet thirteen after the death of my mother, and vainly waving a hand at the sky saying ‘it is so empty and cold’. And again I remember after the death of Fr Francis my ‘second father’ (at 77 in 1934), saying to C. S. Lewis: ‘I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away’.

(Letters no. 332)

I am sad to report that these descriptions of feelings fit me rather exactly. My mother was a difficult person to deal with, and nearly impossible to talk to; she had the fixed habit of listening to the first half-dozen words that you said, ignoring the rest, and then responding to what she imagined you might have said; and she had a short and fearsome temper. Our relationship could be charitably described as ‘fraught’; yet one has, as a rule, only one mother, and whatever she may be, one feels the loss when she is gone. My father was my chief friend, supporter, and confidant for many years, and I still miss him terribly. Now that I have lost them both, and in rapid succession, I feel rather like the little girl from London in the Second World War, who was interviewed by a reporter after losing her home and family in the Blitz: ‘Now I am nobody’s nothing.’ It is a disorienting and indeed frightening feeling.


A postscriptum about practical matters: It will probably take some months to settle my parents’ affairs, but once that is done I can expect to come into a small inheritance, which if used frugally, will keep the wolf from the door for some time while I get my bearings and (I hope) find a way to make my work pay my bills. I thank all those generous donors who have helped me through my recent difficulties with gifts of money (and still more, of time, attention, and care). I believe I shall be all right for the time being.


  1. One has only one mother – and my guess is that she loved you, if in her own way. We don’t bother with those we don’t love.

    I hope the near future isn’t too grim – there is a lot of paperwork in this world, and they thrust it at those who are not in the best state to deal with it.


  2. Sounds a bit like my mom and her mom. Apparently, them being in the same house is a large part of why her brothers went bald at an early age…but for all their conflicts, they loved each other fiercely.

    I wish I could help, beyond sitting here wishing; we’re not blood, but there are still living people who worry about you, care about you.

  3. Out of the depths I have cried to Thee O Lord!
    Lord, hear my voice.
    Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.

    If Thou, O Lord! wilt mark iniquities:
    Lord, who shall stand it?
    For with Thee there is mercy:
    and by reason of Thy law I have waited on Thee, O Lord!

    My soul hath relied on His word:
    my soul hath hoped in the Lord.
    From the morning watch even until night:

    let Israel hope in the Lord.
    For with the Lord
    there is mercy; and with Him plentiful Redemption.
    And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

    Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord!
    And let perpetual light shine upon them.
    May they rest in peace.


  4. Thanks for sharing with us Tom; the grief and the joys.

  5. Probably a silly question, but have you read “A Grief Observed” by Lewis? It’s probably the most powerful meditation I’ve ever read on loss and grief.

    • I have indeed. It’s in the bookcase to my right; but I don’t feel strong enough to reread it just at the moment. The first chapters, in particular, are harrowing stuff, and I am feeling sufficiently harrowed already.

      • I get that. It beats the new age psychic crap they tried to pawn on my grandmother after my grandfather passed away (happily after receiving Anointing of the Sick. And so I hope to meet again one day.)

        And, in more seriousness, I understand why you wouldn’t want to read it. But the raw honesty of the book, coupled with its ending of Christian hope, is as purely Christian as anything I’ve ever read; to live again, we must undergo death first.

  6. Carbonel says

    I’ve been catching up with the blogosphere recently, and I am so sorry I missed this. I know it has been two months now, and so the first sharp cut of the loss has passed. Now for the dull ache, and the that throbs into new and lively pain when something unexpectedly bumps up against it. I am so sorry for you losses.

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