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November 17, 2006

About Grief: What Chekhov’s Cab-Driver Needs to Say

There’s a story by Anton Chekhov entitled, simply, “Grief”. I first learned about the story from Mary Swander’s essay, “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle. The story itself can be found in The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. It speaks particularly well, I think, to what it is that grief may require.

When the story begins a cab-driver waits at twilight in the snow for a fare. His son has died the previous week. He waits a long time in the snow, and then finally—a passenger. As the evening wears on, the cab-driver attempts conversation with three different passengers. Three different times he attempts to tell his story—what has happened with his son. Each of the three interrupts him. One closes his eyes to stop the story. One informs him that we all must die. One simply gets out of the sleigh. Still later, the cab-driver attempts to stop and speak with a house-porter, but the house-porter tells him to drive on.

There’s so much that the cab-driver needs to tell. Chekhov writes:

One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. One must describe every detail of the funeral, and the journey to the hospital to fetch the defunct’s clothes. His daughter Anissia remained in the village—one must talk about her too. Was it nothing he had to tell? Surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?

The details must be told. And then—that gasp—that sigh—from the listener.

At the end of the day the cab-driver returns to the stables. He begins to speak to his horse:

Now let’s say you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?

The horse munches his hay and breathes his warm breath—and does not interrupt him. And that is how the story ends—with the cab-driver telling his story, finally, to his horse.

Perhaps what grief requires, as much as anything, is that the process not be interrupted. That it find a time and a place in which to unfold--with a companion (when possible) and without (too much) interruption. And, perhaps, at least for some of us, writing can play a role in this process.

Writing as a companion that does not interrupt?
Writing as a prelude to telling the story to a companion?


In the process of writing about my mother, who has dementia, I found this post to be really helpful.

I am grieving the passing of my "good enough" life, wondering why I have taken to writing through my first cup of coffee every morning. Thank you for your last two questions above:
Writing as a companion that does not interrupt?
Writing as a prelude to telling the story to a companion?

One of those two. Or both.

You are most welcome. And wishing you good things as you respond to the questions. Writing and coffee--a good habit I think.

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