Past and Present: Lessons from Ancient Greece for Today’s Grieving

Late second-century Greek mosaic from the House of Theseus (at Paphos Archaeological Park, Cyprus), showing the three Moirai: Klotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, standing behind Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles. / Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons

Loose threads: Life unravels when a loved one dies.

By Bethany Grey


According to Greek mythology, before we were born, high above the clouds, the three Moirai spun thread on a spindle to determine our fate. As the goddesses of life and death, ancient Greeks entrusted them with ensuring that a mortal’s destiny would be fulfilled, as granted by the universe. Without contention, our time on Earth was decided at birth.

When a pregnancy enters its ninth month, the goddesses are called. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures its length and with “abhorred shears,” Atropos severs it at exactly the point the new life should end. They uphold a single goal: to maintain law and order among the mortal and divine. Their verdict is written in the stars and is not to be altered, squashing all hope of everlasting life. The foolish who try are pursued by Furies, the deities of vengeance. 

And that is that. We get what we get. For some, the end is abrupt. A quick, unforeseen final breath. For others, the thread wears thin, either from disease or hardship, gradually weakening with the passing of time. But a single thread does not exist alone. It falls to Earth and weaves into the fabric of life, integral to its pattern until Atropos makes that fateful snip.

A Family Unravelling

So, it made perfect sense that while enjoying a chicken curry dinner, I bluntly muttered to my husband what I’ve been ruminating on for weeks, “I feel as if I’m tearing at the seams.” If the ancient Greeks were correct, I was. A thread I’ve reliably leaned on is about to break. My fabric is frayed.

My father has battled prostate cancer for more than seven years, never fully able to get rid of it, but rather, treating it like a chronic disease. At times, it was well-controlled, even undetectable. Mere days after chemotherapy, he’d run circles around his grandchildren, bellowing “Papa’s here!” before his car door slammed. But inevitably, cancer reared its ugly head. What we’ve cognitively understood, but optimistically shoved aside, is that physically and spiritually, his thread’s wearing thin.

Last Friday, I buckled in my daughter and drove the 1.5 hours to my hometown. My father and mother recently moved from my childhood home, downsizing from a two-story stand-alone to a one-story duplex.

Returning doesn’t bring a punch of nostalgia like it used to. In truth, not only has their address changed, but the town has. The population has shrunk in the last decade. There’s a palpable decline in energy that parallels my father’s health, as if they’re one and the same.

We arrived after his ritual morning coffee and doughnut, his wheelchair parked before the bay window, inches from a space-heater. His head cloaked in a blanket, engulfed by the sun. Heat layered upon heat, still unable to get warm.

A garden sits outside the window. A small bed with budding flowers, new life, that appeared with the entrance of spring. Among them, a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, silently preaching to thirsty birds perched on the miniature fountain. The mood was uncharacteristically calm.

Quietly, I observed, before he noticed our presence. His tired body cradled in the wheelchair. His socked feet propped on the plates. My father is 68, which is 24 years older than Saint Francis was at the time of his death. Both, by modern standards, were given short threads. Victims of Atropos’ cruel indifference.

He livened upon hearing his granddaughter’s voice. “Is that my girl?” he hollered, in a boisterous, more recognizable tone. We spoke of the drive, the weather, the usual pleasantries, while in between, taking moments to rest and welcome silence.

My father was born into Catholicism but became a student of theology. Having formed strong opinions about the nature of this world, and what is or isn’t to come next, I was curious if his circumstances had changed his conclusion. In a quiet moment, I asked, “Are you afraid?”

He paused, then decided, “No, I am not.” Then, turning to his granddaughter, he smiled and said, “I must go to make room for new babies, like her.”

The Wisdom of Atropos

Goddesses of Fate: Thread, dove, spindle, scissors. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

My father would stay if he could—he would live—but he also accepts what the ancient Greeks cleverly illustrated with the three Moirai: certain conditions are beyond our control.

If I could, I’d swat the spindle out of the hands of Clotho, knock the measuring tape from Lachesis’ grip and break Atropos’ ruthless shears. I’d grant my father another inch, or a centimetre at the very least. But I am not the seamstress. Like those before me, and those that will follow, I must adhere to the law and order of the universe. I have no choice. We get what we get.

As the tiny square of fabric that is our family unravels, stitched within the greater quilt of humanity, I am grateful for having once been entwined. A durable unit. When a thread finally falls, we will eventually mend the seam, but as is what happens with the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend, the pattern will change.

Though it pains me to admit it, perhaps the wisdom of Atropos is greater than I’ve given credit. For my father’s spirit fiercely loves his earthly experience, but is also composed and prepared to let it go. What could be more fulfilling? A lesson I will revisit the rest of my days, until my own thread breaks free.

Originally published by The Mindful Word, 04.27.2021 under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.



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