In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders sets forth the notion that mourning is a process that ideally ends in acceptance. Loss is difficult, he upholds, because it denotes the end of something cherished. At the center of the book is the loss President Lincoln experiences when he’s forced to say goodbye to his beloved child, Willie. Distraught, he finds the idea of carrying on without his son unfathomable. By the end of the novel, though, he begins to make peace with Willie’s passing, riding off into the night with a sense that he’s been made “less rigid” by this loss. In turn, Saunders shows that—though painful—the process of mourning can lead to acceptance and even, to a certain extent, positive growth.
Using a collection of excerpts culled from various historical texts, Saunders describes just how incapacitating Willie’s death is for his father, President Lincoln. “One feels such love for the little ones,” states one essayist writing about the boy’s death, “and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.” This passage likens the loss of “love” to “the most abysmal suffering imaginable,” an idea that speaks to just how painful the mourning process can be for a parent. In keeping with this, Lincoln sits in the cemetery after having looked upon his son’s lifeless form and thinks to himself, “What am I doing. What am I doing here. Everything nonsense now.” That “everything” has become “nonsense” after Willie’s death implies that loss can bring a sense of meaningless to a person’s life. Unsure of what to do now that he can’t be a father to Willie, the president is shocked by the seeming pointlessness of life, wondering how he can possibly go on as usual. “Lord, what is this?” he wonders. “All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? […] When he is to be left out here? Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss? As before?” Lincoln’s loss, it seems, has depleted his investment in everyday life, rendering all normal proceedings unthinkably pointless. In this way, Saunders illustrates the harrowing and depleting effect of loss.
Although loss can throw a person into despair and a sense that life is meaningless, it can also do the opposite. Indeed, Saunders implies that great sadness and loss sometimes reinvigorate one’s appreciation for life itself. Roger Bevins III helps illustrate this point when he explains the way he feels after having attempted to commit suicide (note that in this moment he hasn’t yet admitted to himself that he has actually succeeded in killing himself): “Having come so close to losing everything, I am freed now of all fear, hesitation, and timidity, and, once revived, intend to devoutly wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please.” For Bevins, the threat of “losing everything” suddenly enables him to embrace life and all its wonders in a way he couldn’t before. Of course, this is a slightly different dynamic than Lincoln’s experience with loss, since Lincoln mourns the loss not of his own life, but of his son’s. Still, the President undergoes a similar realization that loss, though full of grief, provides a chance for growth. Indeed, he acknowledges that wallowing in meaninglessness will do nothing to help his situation. In other words, he recognizes that “there is nothing left to do” about his bereavement. “Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad,” he muses. “Think of [Willie], when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.” By reframing his son’s death as something that has thrust the boy into some “resplendent […] new mode of being,” Lincoln refigures his entire approach to loss, resolving to “remain useful” instead of allowing his grief to decimate what’s left of his own life.
Lincoln’s resolve to “remain useful” in the face of loss is important, since he’s responsible for leading the Union in the Civil War. With countless Americans depending upon him, he can’t afford to flounder in the wake of Willie’s death. As he leaves the cemetery, he accepts that “the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering […] and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.” Simply put, his acceptance of the reality of loss and “sorrow” renders him capable of moving forward as a man who is uniquely “situated” (as president) to lighten other people’s loads. Willie’s death, it seems, has refreshed his outlook on the Civil War and the role he must play as someone fighting to diminish the amount of “suffering” in America. As he makes his way home once again, then, Bevins and his friend Vollman describe Lincoln as “ready to believe anything of this world,” asserting that he has been “made less rigidly himself through his loss,” a transformation that has ultimately rendered him “quite powerful.” In turn, Saunders demonstrates that loss can become a catalyst for positive change, enabling a person to expand in unexpected ways despite the debilitating and demoralizing nature of the grief they might initially experience.
Loss Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo
Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a child autumn—
Will I follow my predilection? I will! With gusto! Having come so close to losing everything, I am freed now of all fear, hesitation, and timidity, and, once revived, intend to devoutly wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please; touching, tasting, standing very still among the beautiful things of this world […].
It has done me good.
I believe it has.
It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.
Why will it not work. What magic word made it work. Who is the keeper of that word. What did it profit Him to switch this one off. What a contraption it is. How did it ever run. What spark ran it. Grand little machine. Set up just so. Receiving the spark, it jumped to life.
What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema. God forbid I should ever commit such a grievous—
Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which—which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.
I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.
He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.
He must (we must, we felt) do all we could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted, rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them, to ensure that we did not, as we trod that difficult path we were now well upon, blunder, blunder further (we had blundered so badly already) and, in so blundering, ruin more, more of these boys, each of whom was once dear to someone.
Ruinmore, ruinmore, we felt, must endeavor not to ruinmore.
Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.