How Reading Rilke Helped Me Cope With Grief
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After months of radio silence, Omi finally said goodbye. “I hope you find happiness, and I know you will,” he wrote in a farewell email that I later deleted. That was over two months ago, and that would be the last I would hear from him. Omi was someone I met through a language exchange app, who eventually became my best friend and hermano for over two years. But we were quite the opposite; nearby, we were neither. He was an actor making independent films in Mexico City. Devil-may-care he was, jet-setting across Europe even at the height of a global pandemic. And I was a struggling writer in Manila hoping to find a literary agent – introverted, enigmatic, my head still buried in a second-hand copy of Atlantic.
When I told him to keep the door open, casually hoping he’d change his mind and ask me to “fuck it, man, forget it,” I felt bitter at the sudden turn of events. Nostalgic memories of a bygone past and sweet illusions threatened to resurface. It was hard to let go and move on with my life, and there were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. And so, like many bookworms, I turned to literature for solace, finding myself reading the works of Rilke.
Known for collections Letters to a young poet and The Book of HoursRainer Maria Rilke was a famous German poet.
In his book The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation, which was compiled in 2018, the preface states that Rilke wrote over 14,000 letters to friends and people he briefly met. Twenty-three of them deal with loss, which forms The dark interval. In the book, he addresses friends and former lovers who are going through a difficult time in their lives. “What can you say in the face of loss, when words seem too flimsy and ordinary to communicate our grief and soothe the pain?” writes the translator Ulrich Baer.
Although Rilke originally wrote in German and French, his English translated works never lost their wisdom. Reading his intimate letters, written more than a century ago, I felt like I was being comforted by a close friend. And while a “break in friendship” isn’t as painful as, say, death, reading his prose compels me to find acceptance. “You must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it was unfinished; his life has now passed over yours. You, who really knew him, can really carry on in his spirit and on his path. Make it your grief’s task to explore what he had expected of you, hoped for you, wished for to happen to you. If only I could convince you, my dear friend, that his influence has not disappeared from your existence,” writes Rilke, almost chiding me.
Much has been said about the healing power of literature; many readers find escape and solace in books when needed. Rilke captures for me feelings that I cannot put into words; I let his intimate letters guide me through my grief. For indeed, what could one really do in the face of an agonizing loss, in the midst of a pandemic where many friendships have crumbled?
In 2019 BC (Before COVID), Omi and I had found each other by chance. I wasn’t really looking for friends at the time as I thought I was fine with the few friends I had, but I downloaded HelloTalk anyway to practice my Spanish. “Buscando a alguien para practicar mi inglés,” an Argentinian wrote in a post. “Actor for a Netflix TV series,” put another in his bio; I was immediately intrigued and gave an overly forward and possibly embarrassing “hola, wey”! But little by little, the actor and I progressed as mejores amigos: a non-binary Filipino and a cisgender Mexican as friends. It was straight out of a telenovela.
Over the next two years, I grew attached to him. We shared many milestones, from his graduation and our anniversaries — he made me a magic wand based on a book I loved — to our plans for the next 30 years of our lives. And to my surprise, he was also a reader, even gobbling up the poetry book I had written some time ago.
“I’ll try to find the magic wand, and if I do, I’ll send it to you,” he wrote to me two years later in his last message when I asked him about the fucking thing. stuff (he couldn’t send it for me the first time). But he never answered. The realization then, no matter how cliche it was, hit me that people really come and go in life. As I leafed through Letters to a young poet again, writes Rilke, “let life take its course. Trust me: life is fair no matter what,” which made the rejection a lot less of a pain.
Before I found the courage to email Omi after the falling out, there had been months of no contact. But despite all the bitterness and anger we both harbored, his response was nonchalant, even wishing me good luck in life. “In my case, what was dead to me, so to speak, was dead in my own heart…” Reading this one from Rilke, I wondered why even a failed friendship would scar you for life? That despite the short time you and the person have shared, they bleed into other aspects of your life? I didn’t want to think about Omi anymore. I’d like to think I’m done crying. “It was deeply moving to feel that he only existed there anymore,” borrowing Rilke’s words.
As I purged all the texts Omi and I had sent to each other over the past two years, I couldn’t help but have a bittersweet feeling. I realized now that, in a world where men tear each other apart thanks to patriarchal masculinities, what he and I had was rare. I will always remember that. And although we no longer speak to each other, and he found better companies to take advantage of, I am still grateful that, once, we crossed paths. “While I’m completely engulfed in my sadness, I’m happy to feel you exist,” Rilke writes, giving me hope that one day, once the dust settles, maybe my hermano will say hola again .