Grief and loss are difficult topics to broach. Death makes us uncomfortable, often renders our words inadequate. In recent months, several people in my life have been dealing with the death of an intimate (none by suicide), a child, a sister, a grandmother. In each case, I have struggled to find words to capture the compassion, solidarity, pain, and understanding I wanted to hold out, the load-lightener I wanted to be able to offer.
Grief, like depression, is easily a lonely place to arrive. I have found—still find—that reading the comforting words of others helps—and equally important is others’ candor. Grief is messy, awkward, unruly, often complicated by guilt, and even anger.
A month or two after my father died, I saw a “grief counselor” weekly for about six weeks. I think, in hindsight, I must have resented Dr. S and his stoic calm; as though he were inured to shock, as though his presence in my life were somehow his fault. In any case, I didn’t particularly take to him. But what I most remember from our half-dozen hours of conversation—monologue or dialogue—was Dr. S’s assertion that I was angry. He was wrong. I was numb, confused, overly sympathetic and understanding even. But I was not (then) angry. And yet he was right. I needed to be angry—why had life done this to me? why had my father?—and perhaps I already was. In naming my feelings, he legitimized them. Much as I resented his presumption at the time, he had offered me a branch to hold onto, one I later needed.
Not long ago the New York Times published an “email conversation” (“Why We Write about Grief”; 2/27/11) between Meghan O’Rourke, author of the newly released memoir, The Long Goodbye, and Joyce Carol Oates. The exchange highlights the inadequacy and awkwardness we so easily feel when faced with someone else’s grief. O’Rourke lost her mother in December 2008. Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story recounts her grief after losing her husband earlier that same year. At times, although each writer is sharing an experience of grieving, notably for quite different relationships and at distinct stages of life—O’Rourke was thirty-two when her mother died, while Oates was sixty-nine when Raymond Smith, her husband died—there is a palpable disconnect. Their experiences overlap, but remain unique. This dance of perspectives is illuminative, as is what is absent from the piece altogether. More on this later.
Literature has long offered solace to the bereft. Despite the buzz from time to time that people only want happy stories, that this is what sells, books with more somber themes continue to attract readers. Sometimes we want escape—sometimes an escape into someone else’s pain or struggle—and sometimes we want to find difficult experiences that resonate with our own. Author, Randy Susan Meyers recently wrote about this at the Huffington Post (“The Solace of Dark Novels and Memoirs“) and the compulsion to wonder “what if,” taking a bad circumstance and imagining how it might have been if things had been even worse. Her novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, deals with the somber subject of two girls whose mother is murdered by their father. A view into someone else’s hardship offers the opportunity for catharsis, and insight into our own troubles. O’Rourke mentions re-reading Hamlet “over and over” after her mother died:
“His father had just died and no one wanted him to talk about it. No wonder he felt the world was ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’!”
When my father died, I had to learn how to talk about death and how to talk about suicide (a whole other trail to pursue at some other time). I found too few candid accounts of grief—really a one-word stand-in for a diverse array of emotions—particularly grief after a suicide, one of the reasons I felt compelled to embark on my own. Kind and comforting words are necessary for healing, for feeling less alone. But honest accounts of the messy realities of loss are invaluable. We don’t always want to be comforted. We want to journey with others, to see how they too felt lost, angry, guilty, confused, listless; how they remembered the dead, sometimes as though they were still there, sometimes forgetting, unable to comprehend, that they never would be; how they made a mess of things, couldn’t get out of bed, or how they pretended over and over that everything was normal when nothing was and, they felt, nothing ever would be again. How they felt all of these things, or some of these things, how once they felt one thing, with overwhelming certainty, then suddenly they were feeling something else. And then how things began to change, how things grew easier; still they were different than before, but somehow they could still go on, still be whole, almost whole, whole again, despite that loss carved from their lives. (I also touch on this in the recent post, “Remembering—who we are.”) This process of grieving is not linear; we move forward, move back, circle around, move forward again, dance back, and so we go, this way and that.
More books have joined the slender shelf of bereavement memoirs, particularly suicide bereavement, since my father died sixteen years ago. (One of these days, I’ll put up a list here.) Recent books by suicide survivors include Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (see the comments section of “Ulnar-nerved mama—when you want to be a superhero”), Nancy Rappaport’s In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (which I mentioned in “Ulnar-nerved mama,” after which Nancy Rappaport posted a thoughtful comment), Linda Gray Sexton’s Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, and in February, poet, novelist, and editor Jill Bialosky published History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, her account of her sister’s suicide at age eighteen, which I’m reading now. These are all memoirs, a genre that holds a particularly important role in literature about suicide, perhaps even loss in general. Sometimes we need to know that a story is true. (I won’t get going here on the importance of honesty in memoir, emotional truth and historical accuracy, slippery though memory can be.)
Often these true stories have elements of the unreal, details that seem impossible, more than fiction might even get away with. We need to know that these strange or extreme realities are the case in others’ lives, not just our own. That said, I have also been a big fan of David Vann’s collection of stories, Legend of a Suicide, which arose from his father’s suicide (and his memoir, A Mile Down, though it treats suicide only obliquely, informative in its own way). (Vann’s new novel, Caribou Island, which I have not yet gotten to, has also been highly praised.) Legend of a Suicide was selected by Lorrie Moore for the New Yorker’s book club last spring; a pick which felt a bit like a personal triumph, involving as it did public exposure for an often stigmatized or taboo topic, a private crusade for years.
Circling back…. The Times piece“Why We Write About Grief” is fronted by a list of recent memoirs about grieving, including Joan Didion’s fantastic book The Year of Magical Thinking, and yet none of the six books mentioned (including the authors’ own) takes on the subject of grieving after a suicide, despite this spate of new accounts, at least one (Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide) even published the same month as the conversation and accompanying list. This omission is illuminative, whether an accident (entirely plausible) or deliberate. If we wish to keep our distance from grief, certainly we feel this in spades when it comes to suicide.
A year earlier, Meghan O’Rourke published an engaging compendium of perspectives on grief in The New Yorker, “Good Grief: Is there a better way to be bereaved?,” which I’ve only just read as I wrap things up here. The essay is particularly attentive to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her theories on the stages of grief and of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Later in life, Kübler-Ross came to lament that these “stages” had been taken too programmatically. Grief is much messier than any straight-forward list or trajectory. I found a number of interesting reminders and insights in O’Rourke’s essay; and yet, I regret to say that much of this was dwarfed for me by the conclusion, a moving Emily Dickinson poem, “I Measure Every Grief I Meet,” a poem which certainly deserves a place in a discussion of the painful emotions of grief, but one which in the context of suicide—a context which affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it, or have been forced to acknowledge it, or not—is careless and distressing. As O’Rourke points out, “the speaker’s curiosity about other people’s grief is a way of conveying how heavy her own is”. . .
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long—
Or did it just begin—
I could not tell the Date of Mine—
It feels so old a pain—
I wonder if it hurts to live—
And if They have to try—
And whether—could They choose between—
It would not be—to die.
I am no stranger to the feeling that death was easier for my father than the grief he left in death’s wake—and I do not say this lightly. Although his life was painful at the time of his suicide, from his suicide notes I can see the agony of dying; this without even knowing what torment went through his mind and body after he put down his pen, once he picked up his gun. In ending his agony, my father bequeathed it to others. So, on some level I can agree with Dickinson, it was easier for my father to die than for me to deal with the mess he left afterwards. But, taken too far, this homage to grief comes too close to recommending suicide as a way out of grief’s temporary pain. Not temporary as in here for a little while and then forever gone, but temporary because life goes on, the joys of life return. So, yes, let’s say how hard grieving is—but let’s remember why we are so much more fortunate to be alive. The essay, dealing as it does so adeptly with the very real difficulties and fluctuations of grief, has a responsibility to offer balance. Not to make things falsely bright or cheerful, but to remind that grief, while something we continue to experience throughout life, is not a permanent condition.
Perhaps I have been too harsh here. It is all too easy to romanticize suicide, something my father did exceedingly well. (German literature, his field of expertise, offers some of the best examples.) I’m sure I must be guilty of it myself at times. But I believe wholeheartedly in the struggle against this temptation. Suicide—death—they are not romantic, for the dying or those left with the aftermath. Hard as grief is, nothingness is worse. And they are not something we choose between; grief is rather unfairly doled out.
We need narratives about grief, about suicide and suicide survivors, honest true accounts, and honest imagined versions too. Certainly, they are not always easy to read, but this makes them no less necessary. (At its best, Dickinson’s poem, while dangerously suggestive as a conclusion to an examination of grief’s scope, is a reminder of this.) Stories of grief, of suicide, are painful, filled with what-ifs, with dramatic and hurt-filled choices, with unchangeable events, with survivors left with anguish, with a messy aftermath. Grief is like this. (I still think back on a memoir I read years ago about a young man whose wife, barely thirty, suffered from terminal cancer. I recall It Takes a Worried Man, by Brendan Halpin, as a wonderful and honest book about illness, loss, and living.) How necessary it is to read of others’ experiences, whether better or worse than our own. We learn about ourselves, and we learn about the complicated web of humanity, our minds and actions—what makes us alike and what makes us different.
~ Meghan O’Rourke‘s memoir, The Long Goodbye, about her mother’s death was reviewed in this weekend’s NYT Book Review. A moving excerpt is also included. ~
~ For an interesting clinical analysis of the differences (and similarities) between grief and depression, take a look at “Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know,” by Sidney Zisook and Katherine Shear in World Psychiatry. ~
Thanks for exploring this subject, Kara, fraught as it is with literary, psychological, and personal material. You bring so much to bear on it.
Thanks, Barbara. There is really so much to say about grief, so many directions to go in. I found I had more trouble than I’d expected getting this post up. It’s heartening to be getting feedback. Even having explored grief and tangents of grief for years, I’m still noticing (in myself) a lingering hesitancy when it comes to addressing it ‘out in the world.’ There are so many different experiences, and so many different ways of approaching the subject, and yet so much is held in common.