DEAR CYNTHIA

Nick Cave illuminates love and loss in a letter to a fan

Nick Cave and Susie Bick, months before their son’s death in 2015.
Nick Cave and Susie Bick, months before their son’s death in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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Nick Cave is anything but a bad seed. The gloomy musician, artist, writer, and actor who looks a bit like a vampire is, in fact, a romantic who takes relationships seriously—be they with family or fans.

This is evidenced in Cave’s recent response to a fan’s letter about her experience with the deaths of several loved ones. Unfortunately, he’s all too familiar with the subject. In 2015, one of Cave’s twin sons, Arthur, then 15 years old, stumbled off a cliff in England after taking LSD and hallucinating.

The fan from Vermont, named Cynthia, wrote to Cave that she lost her father, sister, and first love but feels they still communicate with her through dreams. Cynthia asked Cave if his son talks to him, too. The query prompted a thoughtful response that illuminates love and loss.

“This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it,” Cave writes. “It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable.”

He explains that grief is overwhelming and its manifestations include “madnesses,” like “ghosts and spirits and dream visitations.” Cave says that he has seen his son and spoken with him since his death, yet notes that “he may not be there.” The musician believes that the anguish of the grieving wills the people they’ve lost back into existence in various forms. He calls these visions “precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be.”

Cave sees these spirits as ideas, and as signs of hope. They represent “the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness,” he writes. “They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility.”

Real or not, Cave urges Cynthia to embrace the spirits. “Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption,” he writes. “Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.”

The letter is not just a thoughtful reflection on grief, but a personal testimony to the fact that life goes on for the living even when they feel the cannot continue because their anguish is too overwhelming. In 2017, Cave’s wife, fashion designer Susie Bick, told Vogue that the loss of Arthur was devastating. She didn’t want to get out of bed and couldn’t conceive of how to keep living. “I said: “Nick, I can’t do this…Everything is over.”

In his letter, Cave confirms that grief was not the end for the family. He tells Cynthia that Bick still communicates with Arthur in dreams, and in her sleep the boy comforts her. These exchanges have helped give them the strength to go on.

A physicist’s grief 

Grief, as Cave notes, is a common feeling. No one who lives and loves is ultimately spared the experience of loss. And no matter how rational or scientific a person may be, the response to this is almost invariably inexplicable in factual or technical terms.

The Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, for example, wrote a letter to his deceased wife, Arline, about a year-and-a-half after her death. They were teenage sweethearts who fell in love and married, though she had already been diagnosed with Hodgkinson’s disease and was not expected to live long. Feynman’s parents opposed the marriage, but he insisted that Arline was his one and only true love.

Over the years of their union, war, work, and illness often kept the couple physically apart. They exchanged letters, and in every missive to Arline, Feynman reminded her that he loved her. “I have a serious affliction: loving you forever,” he wrote.

In 1945, while Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in a secret lab in Los Alamos, California, Arline died. Feynman was not a mystical type. He believed every mystery had an explanation that science could someday explain.

Nonetheless, he wrote Arline a letter after her death, penned in 1947. In it, he tells her that he has come to understand that death is not the end of their love story. Feynman wrote:

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you—almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do…I always will love you. I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead…I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do? We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

The letter acknowledges that it’s a strange proposition. As Feynman noted in the message, “I love my wife. My wife is dead.”

But he wasn’t being grim. If anything, he seemed pleased to realize that he could keep communicating with Arline, even if she would never write him back. He ended the missive with a joke in the postscript, “Please excuse my not mailing this—but I don’t know your new address.”

Dealing with impossible probables

The Mayo Clinic oncologist Edward Creagan, who has dealt with death in his family and seen a lot of grief after the demise of his patients with cancer, says that grieving is a challenge like no other. He has some suggestions for how to handle it—understand that grief is normal, allow yourself to mourn, seek support, take care of yourself, avoid major decisions initially, and remember that grief is unpredictable.

And he also notes that while no two grieving processes are the same, no one who has been touched by grief remains unchanged. ”It will be unique to you, depending on your own personality, your relationship to the person you lost and even the circumstances of the death,” Creagan writes. “The acceptance of your loss, the memories of your loved one, and your sorrow will gradually become an integrated part of how you see yourself as a whole person.”

Grief is not an easy emotion to deal with. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. Its intensity is evidence of our love. It is part of what makes us human, and a testament to those we’ve lost, a kind of proof of life’s value. In the words of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose sentiment Cave echoed in his letter, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”