The Stages of Grief through the Lens of Catullus 101
By Lily Nesvold
There is no easy way to cope with the death of a loved one. Regardless of the circumstances, the devastation that those affected must face is seemingly insurmountable. Personally, I have dealt with the unfortunate passing of my grandfather and great aunt, both of which were great losses for my family. What provided me comfort in these difficult times, however, was turning to those who understood my situation for consolation and support. But this approach isn’t universal—everyone deals with grief differently. Some might throw themselves into their career or take up new hobbies as a distraction, while others might seek religion for an answer to the meaning of life. Though one individual in Ancient Rome, Gaius Valerius Catullus, ultimately found solace in the creation of art.
This expression of mourning manifested itself into a humble, thoughtful, and tender poem showing a different side of Catullus—a contrast to his poetry that mocks, ridicules, and even harasses his on-again-off-again lover, Lesbia. This poem portrays a heartfelt goodbye to a brother (“frater”) who died while Catullus was partaking in mandatory military service. Catullus is completely authentic in this poem, and the vulnerable nature of his writing communicates his true emotions—the poem is not only a way for Catullus to mourn, but the lines themselves also convey his stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, acceptance.
The first line: “[I] having been carried through many peoples and over many seas”—doesn’t immediately divulge the subject of Catullus’ poem. At first, this poem seems to be that of his regular writing. It is not until the second line, “I come to these sad funeral rites, brother” that Catullus reveals that his brother has died. Rather than an outright proclamation, the reader is left to infer that his brother has died when Catullus makes mention of his funeral. This passive style of writing demonstrates how Catullus is in denial—he almost can’t believe that his brother is gone. It’s common for people of all ages and across all cultures to feel this way, as no one can truly fathom the death of a loved one when it initially occurs. However, rather than avoidance, confusion, or fear, Catullus is mostly infused with shock—I felt similarly when my family members passed. I racked my brain thinking of how I had seen them so recently and so they just couldn’t be gone; I never dreamed it would be the last time.
In lines 5-6, Catullus’s emotions evolve into anger: “Fate stole your very self away from me. Oh, my brother, undeservedly taken from me.” (fortuna . . . mihi). Catullus emphasizes, through diction such as “abstulit” (stole), “indigne” (undeservedly), and “adempte” (taken) that his brother’s death came as a surprise to him—it was not his brother’s time. Additionally, lines 2-4 conclude with the words “inferias,” “mortis,” and “cinerem”—words purposefully held off until the end of the line, again, for emphasis. The syntax, blindsiding the reader, shows how the death of Catullus’ brother was unforeseen; Catullus feels frustrated and irritated. I didn’t feel quite as filled with rage as did Catullus, perhaps because my relatives were older in age. I reasoned that they led long and wonderful lives, and while unfortunate, their demises were inevitable.
Catullus continues on his journey of emotions to depression: “accept the constant drippings from brotherly weeping.” (accipe . . . fletu). The chiasmus and alliteration found in this line indicate that this portion was well-thought-out, and, by extension, that the funeral rites for his brother were also considered carefully and in great depth—a proper burial was extremely important in Ancient Rome. I remember attending the memorial services for my family members. We had both a traditional church service, but also, a celebration of life event in which we told our favorite stories involving the deceased. For this reason, I didn’t feel such strong sadness and despair, rather, I remembered the good times and smiled.
Finally, a line that leaves the reader in tears, much like Catullus at his brother’s funeral: “and for forever, brother, hail and farewell!” (atque . . . vale). After a rollercoaster of emotions, Catullus reaches the last stage of his grief, acceptance, when he calmly utters the words “hail and farewell” (ave atque vale). For myself, I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment I made peace with the deaths of my grandfather and great aunt. My acceptance didn’t mean I no longer missed them or had moved past my grief, but I had somewhat adjusted to life without them.
Catullus begins the poem distraught over his brother’s death but is able to make peace with his passing through the act of writing. Catullus, by publicizing his grief and making himself vulnerable to the world, eventually gains the strength to overcome his brother’s death. From this poem and my experience, I have found that time is an inevitable constraint in the process of mourning. Overcoming a loss is an encounter that cannot be rushed and doesn’t have a predetermined end date, in which one will finally become reconciled with the happening. My main takeaway is the following: grief is inherently a personal journey. There’s no right or wrong way to tackle this hardship—what matters is that a person is able to eventually recover.
Lily Nesvold is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania double-majoring in Economics and Classical Studies.