Mark Twain on a Dumb Sense of Vast Loss

Mark Twain writes about a “dumb sense of vast loss” upon learning his daughter has died unexpectedly from meningitis in chapter 6 of his autobiography. He offers an analogy to a house burning down causing an overwhelming sense of loss that takes years to process.

Dumb Sense of Vast Loss

I was standing in our dining-room thinking of nothing in particular, when a cablegram was put into my hand. It said, “Susy was peacefully released to-day.”

It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock, and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their fall import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss–that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details, and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss. A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And, when he casts about for it, he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential–there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. He did not realize that it was an essential when he had it; he only discovers it now when he finds himself balked, hampered, by its absence. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.”

Mark Twain “Chapters From My Autobiography” Chapter 6 OCTOBER 5, 1906

There are predictable losses, or at least ones that are highly likely. And then there are unanticipated losses. Twain did not expect his daughter to live forever, but he did expect her to outlive him and his life.

I expect to outlive my mother but not my sons or daughter, it’s not quite a coin toss that I will bury my wife–the odds are probably two to one the other way–but either way saying goodbye will be hard.

Making the decision to shut down a business can be very hard. But it should in the category of likely losses, and in the hierarchy of serious losses that you or friends can suffer it has to be in the middle third.

I have reproduced the Holmes and Rahe stress scale to the right. The scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness. Total the number of “Life Change Units” listed next events in the past year; this is a measure of the total stress and a score of more than 300 indicates risk of a major illness.

The theory behind the scale is that change, whether from a positive event such as marriage (#7) or an outstanding personal achievement (#25) or a negative event (most one the list) requires adaption and change and therefore stress.

What’s interesting is that an inability to correlate all of the changes required by a catastrophic house fire or the death of a child would spread the life changes required over a longer period of time and reduce the amount of stress.

Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

  1. Death of a spouse 100
  2. Divorce 73
  3. Marital separation 65
  4. Imprisonment 63
  5. Death of a close family member 63
  6. Personal injury or illness 53
  7. Marriage 50
  8. Dismissal from work 47
  9. Marital reconciliation 45
  10. Retirement 45
  11. Change in health of family member 44
  12. Pregnancy 40
  13. Sexual difficulties 39
  14. Gain a new family member 39
  15. Business readjustment 39
  16. Change in financial state 38
  17. Death of a close friend 37
  18. Change to different line of work 36
  19. Change in frequency of arguments 35
  20. Major mortgage 32
  21. Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
  22. Change in responsibilities at work 29
  23. Child leaving home 29
  24. Trouble with in-laws 29
  25. Outstanding personal achievement 28
  26. Spouse starts or stops work 26
  27. Beginning or end school 26
  28. Change in living conditions 25
  29. Revision of personal habits 24
  30. Trouble with boss 23
  31. Change in working hours or conditions 20
  32. Change in residence 20
  33. Change in schools 20
  34. Change in recreation 19
  35. Change in church activities 19
  36. Change in social activities 18
  37. Minor mortgage or loan 17
  38. Change in sleeping habits 16
  39. Change in number of family reunions 15
  40. Change in eating habits 15
  41. Vacation 13
  42. Major Holiday 12
  43. Minor violation of law 11

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

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