Saraswati Mela

Rilke on how to deal with grief and change

How could we be capable of forgetting the old myths that stand at the threshold of all mankind, myths of dragons transforming themselves at the last moment into princesses? Perhaps all dragons in our lives are really princesses just waiting to see us just once being beautiful and courageous.


Grief is one of the profoundest emotions that we can encounter in our lives. Yet when faced by it we are engulfed and lost by the sudden magnitude and reality of it. It can drown out our selves and we end up with a disorienting and distorted sense of the world and oursleves. It is often that grief is preceded , succeeded or accompanied by change. These result in our facing something for which we are utterly unprepared .

Rainer Maria Rilke was a great poet and a man of great beauty and generosity of spirit.  He was forcefully enrolled in a Military Academy in his adolescent years . A young man of great sensitivity he was tormented by the rigorous and restrictive environment of the school. Frail and soft , Rilke was also  subjected to many cruelties by his classmates and teachers alike. However he nourished and preserved his spirit by the magnificent and beautiful shield and blossoms of his verse. So, after two decades when he received a letter from an aspiring poet, trapped and suffocating in the same environment, in the same Academy he could not stop himself from reaching out.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Franz Xaver Kappus was enrolled  in the same Military Academy. He too aspired to be a poet and was sent there against his choice.On the chance and extremely fortuitous mention of his Professor , Franz Kappus learnt that the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was an alumnus of the same Academy where he was suffering. Kappus decided to write to Rilke and ask for his judgement on his poetic endeavours. It was more of an attempt to reach out for comfort and understanding. Thus began  a correspondence spanning five years and having a total of ten letters written by Rilke. They are deeply insightful coming from a master poet who saw in the young man Kappus his previous struggles and pain.

A letter deals with the topic of grief, how it is necessary to embrace and overcome it to live life truthfully. At the start of the letter Rilke admits that he knows nothing useful which only tells us of his deep psychological insight in human nature.Writing of how grief fundamentally changes us Rilke speaks in infinite wisdom-

I want to talk to you again for a little while, dear Mr. Kappus even though I have hardly anything helpful to say-hardly anything useful.  You have encountered many very sad experiences, which by now have passed. You say that even their passing was difficult and depressing. Please, dear friend think about this : Did not this great sadness rather pass through you ? Did not much within you change? Did you not, somehow at some place in your being , change while you were sad?

Like an insightful psychologist Rilke counsels that nothing in life, especially the difficult experiences and emotions must be shunned.

The only sad experiences which are dangerous and bad are those that one reveals to people in order to drown them out . Like illnesses treated superficially and incompetently , they retreat and after  short pause break out even more intensely . they gather together within the self and are life . They are life unlived, ridiculed and scorned.

In the letter, Rilke talks about the beauty of becoming that is often embedded in times engulfed by grief. The time when we fundamentally change and become who we are, times when we grow and mature. The Human Metamorphosis .

Were it possible, we might look beyond the reach of our knowing and yet a bit further into the past across the farmsteads of our ancestors. Then perhaps we would endure our griefs with even more trust than our joys . For they are the moments when something new has entered into us , something unfamiliar. Our feelings become mute in timid shyness . Everything within us steps back; a silence ensues , and the something new known to no one , stands in the center and is silent .

I believe that nearly all our griefs are moments of tension. We perceive them as crippling because we no longer hear signs of life from our estranged emotions. We are alone with the strange thing that has stepped into our presence. For a moment everything intimate and familiar has been taken from us. We stand in midst of a transition , where we cannot remain standing.

Change. The outwardly changes are fine with us as long as we have a semblance of control over our reality. As long as we are not changing inwardly. Grief however, works differently. It changes us inwardly and then manifests outwardly and thus it is more difficult to understand it.

And this is the reason that sadness passes:the something new within us , the thing that has joined us, has entered our heart , has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer there either – it is already in the blood. And we do not find out what it was. One could easily make us believe that nothing happened; and yet we have changed as a house changes when a guest has entered it ……But many signals affirm that the future has stepped into us in such a way as to change itself into us, and that long before it manifests outwardly.

Rilke continues on being open to sadness and receptive to our emotions, something that is counselled nowadays by grief therapists and counselors alike, to ease the passage of change in our lives. It is important because we are fundamentally altered and there is no way of going back.

Therefore, it is important to be alone and observant when one is sad….The quieter and more patient , the more open we are when we are sad , the more resolutely does that something enter into us , the deeper it is absorbed into us, the more certain we are to secure it and the more certain it is to become our personal destiny. When it ‘happens’ at a later time – when it becomes obvious to others – then w feel an intimate kinship with it .

And that is necessary. It is needed , and our evolvement will gradually go in that direction: nothing strange shall befall us , but rather that which has for a long time belonged to us . ….Surely it is possible that we shall gradually learn to recognize that what we call fate emerges from human beings.

What Rilke has so eloquently expressed is the simple truth that we must understand our emotions, our fears and the changes in them. Once we do that, then nothing in the external world could perturb us.

In this age when we live in a culture of faux positivity, embracing sadness is seen as a social crime , however psychologically damaging it may be . Rilke, however expounds poetically and wisely on the necessity of embracing all that is happening within us and how it opens and enlarges our heart and capabilities to experience and understand.

We must accept our existence to the greatest extent possible : everything, the unprecedented also, needs to be accepted. That is basically the only case of courage required of us : to be courageous in the face of the strangest , the most whimsical and unexplainable thing that we could encounter.

The fact that people have been cowards in that regard has caused infinite harm to life.

..The fear of unexplainable not only impoverished the existence of the individual , but also caused the relationship of one person to another to be limited.  It is as though fear has caused something to be lifted out of the riverbed of limitless possibilities to a fallow stretch of shore where nothing happens. For it is not inertia alone that causes the unspeakably monotonous and unrenewed human condition to repeat itself again and again. It is the aversion to anything new, any unpredictable experience , which is believed to be untenable.

He goes on imploring us to explore and understand, to understand and accept the myriad experiences we sum up as life.

Only he who can expect anything , who does not exclude the mysterious will have a relationship greater to life than just being alive : he wll exhaust his own well spring of being. If we liken the existence of the individual to a room of larger or smaller size , it is evident that most people are familiar with only a corner of their room, perhaps a window seat or space where they pace to and fro. In that way they have a sense of security. Yet every uncertainty fraught with danger is so much more human.

….But we are not prisoners . There are no traps or snares set for us , and there is nothing that should frighten or torture us . . ..We hav no reason to mistrust our worlds ,for it is not against us. If it has terrors , they are our own terrors. If it has precipices , they belong to us. If dangers are present , we must try to love them.

As Rilke attempts to guide us through the forest of grief, we see that a light of hope reaches to us through the space between his words. With this he guides us towards courage and acceptance.

How could we be capable of forgetting the old myths that stand at the threshold of all mankind, myths of dragons transforming themselves at the last moment into princesses? Perhaps all dragons in our lives are really princesses just waiting to see us just once being beautiful and courageous.Perhaps everything fearful is just helplessness that seeks our help.

You must not be frightened , Dear Mr. KAppus, when a sadness arises within you of such magnitude as you have never experienced, or when a restlessness overshadows all you do , like light and the shadow of cloud gliding over your hand . You must believe that something is happning to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall.

This brings to our minds the beautifully self assuring words of Baal Shem Tov – Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me. Rilke again returns to the question of grief and the evolution we go through with it.

Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief , any melancholy from your life , since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing in you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where everything comes from and where it is headed?

You do know that you are in a period of transition and wish for nothing as much as to transform yourself . If some aspect of your life is not well then consider the illness to be the means for an organism to free itself from something foreign to it. In that case you must help it to be ill and to have its whole illness, to let it break out. That is the course of its progress.

Poetry is grand and necessary . Pragmatism is human and necessary. Rilke delivers both as he places a hand of loving care upon young Kappus’s shoulder. Nowhere does this love and care weakens the spirit, but rather strengthens it to take its destiny and its course in its own hands.

So much is happening within you at present dear Mr. Kappus. You need to be as patient as someone ill and as optimistic as one recuperating, for perhaps you are both. And more: You are also the physician who must watch over yourself. But in the course of many every illness there are many days in which the physician can do nothing but wait . And that , above all, to the extent that you are your physician you must do now.

Do not scrutinize yourself too closely. Do not draw conclusions too quickly from that which is happening to you . Just allow it to happen. Otherwise you might easily begin to look with blame ( that is, morally speaking) upon your past . which, of course , is very much a part of every thing that you encounter now. The influences of the vagaries, the wishes and the longings of your boyhood upon your present life you pass judgment on.

As Kappus had a very lonely childhood, similar like Rilke, the poet consoles him with his words which are reminiscent in the soul of what Kahlil Gibran says and helps us cut the shackles of guilt which we have wrongly chosen for ourselves. Though Rilke says this for childhood, I believe it to be true for life in general.

The unusual condition of a lonely and helpless childhood are so difficult , so complicated , vulnerable to so many influences , and at the same time so distant from all real connections with life , that, whenever a vice may have entered , one may not simply call it a vice. One must , in any case , be very careful with the nomenclature. It is often the name of the crime upon which a life shatters, not the nameless and personal act itself at all. It might have been a definite necessity of this person’s life, of which he may have simply availed himself.

Growth and grief, difficulty and upheaval and the quest for greatness is understood and summed up poetically thus-

Do you recall, from your childhood on, how very much this life of yours has longed for greatness? I see it now , how from the vantage point of greatness it longs for even greater greatness. That is why it does not let up being difficult, but that is also why it will not cease to grow.

This letter is a beautiful document speaking to us from its time that though the times may change, the eternal questions of grief, courage , acceptance of life and the enlargement of human spirit will always be the same.

Lest we forget,  Naomi Shihab Nye said –Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. To be as kind as Rilke one must have to brave the sorrows of life. The last paragraph tells us this and also makes us believe that all things said of courage and metamorphosis in the letter are not mere words, but experiences burnt and etched on the skin and soul. And it is true that a  person blossoms, after encountering a sorrow if she chooses and embraces it with enough large -heartedness.

  If I were to tell you one more thing, it would be this: Do not believe that the one who seeks to comfort you lives without difficulty the simple and humble words that sometimes help you . His life contains much grief and sadness and he remains far behind you. Were it not so , he would not have found those words.


Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Pet is a beautiful treasure which answers many questions that we face in our lives.