A Grief So Profound

What can we learn from ancient myths about grief and mourning in the present?

“I swear by Zeus that no water shall come near my body until I have buried Patroclus. For I shall never, so long as I am alive, feel such pain as I feel now. I must eat, I know, though still all food is distasteful to me. And tomorrow, of King Agamemnon agrees, let men go out early and fetch wood for the funeral pyre.” —The words of Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus. Taken from The Stories of the Greeks by Rex Warner, p.279-80

Patroclus is the one whom Achilles holds most dear. They met as boys when they were brought together to study under Chiron, the king of the centaurs. The passage above takes place during the Trojan War and Achilles words are spoken shortly after Patroclus, wearing the armor of Achilles, is killed in battle by Hector, the favorite son of the Trojan King. The death of Patroclus marks a turning point in the story impacting the fate of everyone involved. At the time of his friend’s death, Achilles has refused to fight anymore. His refusal is the result of an insult by King Agamemnon, the leader of the invading Greek army.  As a result of his refusal, the Greek army is weakened and the Trojans were able to drive the Greeks from their position at the Trojan city walls back to the beaches before the ocean where the Greek ships are docked. Everyone begs Achilles to put the insult aside and rejoin the battle but still he refuses.

Patroclus then asks Achilles to let him wear his armor into battle so that they Trojans may be fooled into thinking he has rejoined the fight. Achilles agrees under the condition that Patroclus only fight long enough to drive the Trojan army far enough from the beach so that the Greek army may safely board their ships and return home. Patroclus agrees to this but during the battle he defies the request of Achilles and continues the fight all the way back to the walls of Troy where Hector, with the assistance of the god Apollo and the great Trojan warrior Euphorbus, slays him and takes Achilles armor.

The death of his friend comes at a point of inaction by Achilles—he is refusing to fight but he also has not left the battlefield. He is in effect trapped, suspended from action because of his own indecisiveness. To use the words of Angela Belli, Achilles is like “a tiny fish who, attempting to swim against a rapid current, finds himself unable to move, held for a moment immobile and powerless by the force of the water until he is finally carried away like a leaf.” (Ancient Greek Myths and Modern Drama, p.95) Achilles is first a foremost a warrior. Yet, his pride, the greatest of all Greek sins, keeps him from doing what he is supposed to do. As a result, he chooses not to fight yet he cannot leave the battlefield. He is the fish trapped by the current. This refusal to take action costs the life of his dearest friend. And it is the death of Patroclus that causes Achilles to rejoin the battle, not for Agamemnon, nor for the honor of the Greeks, but for himself.

But before Achilles rejoins the battle he holds a funeral for his fallen friend.  A great pyre is built and Achilles cuts the throats of two of Patroclus’ favorite pets as well as a dozen Trojan soldiers and throws their bodies on the fire to burn with Patroclus. The funeral is followed by games to further honor Patroclus. Achilles mother, the nymph Thetis, persuades the god Hephaestus to make new armor for her son. The war is begun again once the catharsis is complete.

Achilles slays Hector outside the walls of Troy before the eyes of Hector’s parents, the king and queen. Achilles’ anger is so great that instead of leaving Hector’s body for a proper burial, he slices his tendons and drags Hector’s body back to the Greek camp behind his chariot where he says he’ll leave it for the dogs to tear apart. However, Achilles relents after being visited by Hector’s father, King Priam, accompanied by the messenger god Hermes. After Hector’s funeral the war begins again and Troy falls.

After the events of last FridayI can’t help but feel like that tiny fish trapped by the current.  I am trapped, unable to move, powerless, not ready to rejoin the fight but unable to tear myself away from the scene of the destruction. How does one put into words a thing there are no words for? How does one explain the unexplainable? Comprehend the incomprehensible? All I know fails me at this time. And I am on the outer ring of this tragedy. I am part of those feeling the collective shock of what took place. I cannot begin to imagine the nightmare those who were there are living through. Theirs is a grief so profound it transcends words. It transcends everything we know.

Beverly Donofrio, the author of the biographical Riding in Cars with Boys says, “One day can change your life. One day can ruin your life. All life is three or four big days that change everything.” Last Friday was one of those days, certainly for the people involved, as a society, who knows? As a collective, I don’t know if there is a way for us to mourn, if we know how to grieve. Are we able to hold our own version of Achilles games so we can attain some sort of catharsis? I don’t know if we can. And if we cannot, if we cannot grieve in a way that allows us to rise above our grief, then will we be able to hold a meaningful discourse around what, and if, there are things we can do to prevent this from happening again? There is no one right answer. Perhaps there are only wrong ones. But, I think, we must try. We must try to make meaning from the incomprehensible.

In his seminal work on meaning, Viktor Frankl posits that a meaningful life can be achieved through three avenues—by creating a work or doing a deed, through love, and through turning a personal tragedy into triumph. (Man’s Search for Meaning) Frankl believes the third avenue is the most difficult and perhaps the most meaningful when he writes, “even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may go beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” (p.147) That is what’s facing those involved. I pray my agnostic prayers that they all rise up and triumph. Some will and, no doubt, some won’t. I knew a man whose daughter was murdered. And though he had six other children who loved him, and cared for him, and needed him, he never could quite recover. From the moment he found out about her death he stopped living and, for the rest of his life, just existed. I do not wish that fate for anyone.

So, like a lot of others I think, I wait. I try to find a way to grieve, a way to process what happened so that meaning can be found. I am the tapped fish. I am Achilles on the beach, neither fighting nor retreating, suspended in a web of confusion and sorrow while the world continues to move on without me.


Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.

Image credit: senza senso/Flickr

About Jeff Swain

Jeff Swain claims to be an expert on nothing. He's just a humble seeker, looking to find out what it's all about. Aside from searching for the meaning of life, Jeff likes to run marathons. You can follow along with his life and adventures on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. Just Stormy says:

    I don’t know that the world is moving on without you, Jeff. I think a lot of us are trapped. And many of us are feeling what you speak of so eloquently here:
    “All I know fails me at this time. And I am on the outer ring of this tragedy. I am part of those feeling the collective shock of what took place. I cannot begin to imagine the nightmare those who were there are living through. Theirs is a grief so profound it transcends words. It transcends everything we know.”
    And indeed, if it’s not this tragedy, there are other tragedies every day any of us are encountering, struggling to swim on.
    Nice post, albeit raw on the nerves and heart…thank you for giving it voice.

Speak Your Mind