In Swan Lake, we see the anguish of life after death.

In death, we learn the story of love

  • October 30, 2014

My sister and I used to get season’s tickets to the ballet. They brought colour, beauty and music to long winters, and gave us an opportunity to visit. They also took us to performances we wouldn’t normally select, which is how we ended up at a performance of Swan Lake. We had tickets, so we went.

And so we discovered Swan Lake is a masterpiece of imagery portraying the agony and glory of love and life. Its closing scene has stayed with me forever. “Is there life after death?” is one of those human questions that lurk behind everything, spoken or unspoken, explored or ignored. In the version we saw, Swan Lake responds to this question by showing the anguish of life after death. Enchanted princess Odette swims by day as a swan on a lake of tears. By nights she is a woman. She falls in love with a Prince. The evil enchantress lures the Prince to his death in the lake, but bestows immortality on Odette. Now she’s condemned to eternity without the one she loves. Her final dance, by the lake of tears, embodies the sorrow of unending grief for the beloved. The bitterness of life after the beloved’s death.

The only escape from pain is to stop loving. For those of us who aren’t enchanted princesses, this truth remains. If we carry the love for the one who has died, then we carry the pain always.

What kind of choice is that? Could a loving God have set all this up? No wonder we so often set our chins and refuse to go to Him for help. On my bookshelf at home is the title: Divinely Abused. It’s apt. The cruelest abuser is the one who owes us love but deliberately inflicts pain upon us. Doesn’t God, at times, appear as the Divine Abuser? He inflicts pain by creating us for love, knitting us together such that we must love, and yet must suffer death.

He creates us for Life, but isn’t Death the victor?

So these days, we’ve decided to make Death our servant. Rather than be subject to it, we will tell Death what to do. It seems so simple: make it legal to end the life of a suffering patient, or ask someone to end ours when we’re in pain. Now we’re in charge of Death, and in control of pain, too. It’s illusory, of course. We like illusions. Meanwhile, we can use the seeming kindness of euthanasia and assisted suicide to take power over one another, deciding whose life is worth saving and whose isn’t. It’s the original sin, the error of Adam and Eve: rejecting God’s terms and making ourselves God.

Fortunately for us, the deep truth of the Gospel endures despite our attempts to escape it, be they crude or sophisticated. Love woos us past our fear of pain and urge to control.

It’s sane and healthy to seek to end pain and alleviate suffering. But above all, it’s necessary to learn how to hold and carry pain in love. Even through death. Even through tragic death, violent death, bringing a grief so great it must surely crush us.

I’ve seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, the splendour of such a love. I saw the face, heard the voice, of a woman I love suffering the grief of her son’s death, as the second anniversary of his suicide comes close, too close. She, too, swims on the lake of tears. “I know two things,” she said. “Christ is. And Bobby is in joy.” These truths are the burnished jewels wrested from a love transfigured by pain. She has not found the way out of pain.

She has not stopped loving. She knows the secret of pain, for she carries her pain within her love.

These things she teaches me.

Today, our problem isn’t that we have more pain than at any other time in human history. It’s that we don’t know where to put our pain, the pain of life and the pain of death. So it goes into control and cruelty, barbaric cruelty as with ISIS or civilized cruelty as in our own culture.

History, like Swan Lake, is the story of suffering. But it’s a story we can’t understand if we can see only the suffering. The tragedy and beauty come from somewhere else.

How blessed we are by teachers, witnesses, who have shown us how to carry pain in love. They’ve taught by their lives that it’s possible, necessary, life-giving, to carry pain that way.

It’s possible because that’s exactly the way we are carried: in love everlasting. Death can’t undo this truth, because death itself now tells the story of love. (Marrocco can be reached at