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The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart – review

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Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters of condolence reveal how the process of mourning can make us whole

Rainer Maria Rilke had written 14,000 letters by the time of his death in 1926, aged 51. This slender book, a selection of letters of condolence, available for the first time in English, is a treasure. The solace Rilke offers is uncommon, uplifting and necessary. He was drawn to the idea, expressed in his poetry, that difficulty in life is essential, that we should not attempt to evade it, that it contributes to achievement, fulfilment and self-knowledge. Rilke recognises that the death of people we love is the greatest challenge but sees that death is insurmountable. He never tells bereaved correspondents that time will heal nor falls into the common trap of trying, with the best intentions, to demote death. He is as unplatitudinous as it is possible for the author of letters of condolence to be.

Rilke writes as a David facing Goliath. He knows that words, weak though they might seem, are strength and must be thrown in death’s path. His conviction was that we must not turn away from death. The focus must be absolute. But he also dwells on the way death throws life into sharper relief. We can, he believes, live more intensely because of it. “Death, especially the most completely felt and experienced death, has never remained an obstacle to life for a surviving individual, because its innermost essence is not contrary to us.” He sees death as the other half of life, sure as shadow.

He insists we should not aspire to being consoled but be 'curious' to explore loss as an inner landscape

Related: Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

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