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Why We Write About Grief
February 26, 2011

Two new first-person accounts about coping with the loss of a loved one are Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story,” about the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, (published earlier this month), and Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye,” about mourning her mother (to be published in April). Their books add to a growing genre that includes Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), David Rieff’s “Swimming in a Sea of Death” (2008), Anne Roiphe’s “Epilogue” (2008) and Roland Barthes’s posthumous “Mourning Diary”(2010), to name a few recent examples.

In an e-mail conversation, Ms. Oates and Ms. O’Rourke discussed how they wrote about their own grief and why the literature of loss resonates with readers today. The dialog, which has been edited for length and clarity, began by asking them what led them to write about their experiences.

Meghan O’Rourke: You know, writing has always been the way I make sense of the world. It’s akind of stay against dread, and chaos. My mother was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer in 2006; she was 53, and I was 30. As her disease progressed, I found myself writing down all the experiences we had — the day she got giddily high on morphine at the doctor’s office; the afternoon we talked, painfully, about her upcoming death. It helped me externalize what was happening. After she died, I kept writing — and reading — trying to understand or just get a handle on grief, which was different from what I thought it’d be. It wasn’t merely sadness; I was full of nostalgia for my childhood, obsessed with my dream life and had a hard time sleeping or focusing on anything but my memories. I worried that all this was abnormal.

At some point, I realized that what I was writing might become a book. I knew that I didn’t want that book — which became “The Long Goodbye” — to be merely an account ofmy suffering, but a reflection of what I saw as the complexity of loss today. Because my mother died when I was 32,I didn’t know that many peers who’d lost a parent. In those first months, I quickly came to feel almost embarrassed by my sorrow. Most people are uncomfortable around loss. Friends talk to you about “getting through it” and “moving on” and “healing.” We shy away from talking about death, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of fear. No one wants to say the wrong thing; and death is scary. I think this is part of why there are so many memoirs and movies about loss: they create a public space where we can talk safely about grief.

Joyce Carol Oates: Writing always seems so private — I can never quite believe that anything I write, especially in longhand, on scraps of paper, which is my usual way of writing, will ever be read by anyone else!

I never set out to “write” a memoir — the book called “A Widow’s Story”is comprised of journal entries from Feb. 11, 2008, through Aug. 29, 2008. When Ray was first hospitalized, I was very anxious and excited and could not sleep well, so I wrote in the journal late at night, as I’ve been doing, though not so intensely, since the early 1970s. After Ray’s death, this was the only kind of writing that I could do, in fragments of a page or less. The act of writing — of even trying to write — of imagining to write — seemed meaningless, vain and silly.

In the summer of 2009, when I could not write fiction very readily, and was haunted by memories of a very visual nature, I gave in, in a sense, and turned to the journal entries — which I had not wanted to reread, as I certainly did not want to write a memoir — to shape into a coherent structure: what is called, so very abstractly, a “book.” In a traditional memoir, chapters are written; in this sort of composed memoir, chapters are assembled out of small journal entries, developed or expanded a bit, or edited.
The diarist doesn’t know how a scene will end, when it begins; she doesn’t know what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day or the next week; she is wholly unprepared for the most profound experience of her life — that her husband will die.

O’Rourke: It’s interesting that both of our books took shape almost unintentionally, as an organic response to loss — almost as a ritual we had to follow. It may sound strange, but one of the hardest things about a death is recognizing that the person is actually dead. I wasn’t raised as a Catholic, as my parents were, so I had no ceremonies to help me slog through the hazy first months of adjusting to a world without my mother in it.

That work had to happen mostly in my head. Maybe this is one reason you and I wrote about loss in real time, so to speak: writing helped us puzzle through this bewildering change in an age that’s largely let go of the ceremonies that helped bridge the stark boundary between inner sorrow and outer functioning.

Memoir is usually seen as an internal psychological exploration. But I felt that I wasn’t just writing about the personal loss of my mother; I was also mapping the intimate contours of this mysterious transformation we all experience, because that’s what I’d wanted when my mother died: a more resonant description than “the stages of grief” could offer.

Oates: Yes, I’m sure that you are right, Meghan — the act of writing is an act of attempted comprehension, and, in a childlike way, control; we are so baffled and exhausted by what has happened, we want to imagine that giving words to the unspeakable will make it somehow our own.

Most of “A Widow’s Story,” however, is determined by what was actually happening rather than by a somber reflection upon its meaning. Later, I thought of composing “A Widow’s Handbook” — to offer advice to others who, like me, had been totally unprepared and na?ve. But all that remains of this is a final, brief chapter of a single sentence — the essence of widowhood is to find a way, however desperate, to keep yourself alive.

O’Rourke: When it comes to ritual, I was thinking partly of laments and widows tearing their hair and rending their garments — things that help express grief’s physical intensity — without the mourner having to be embarrassed. I don’t know about you, but I often felt embarrassed in those first months of grief. I worried I would cry whenever a stranger was rude to me on the subway; I was angry that on top of my loss I had to be concerned about what to say when people asked “How are you?” I read “Hamlet” over and over and suddenly his character made a lot more sense. 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”!

Did you feel any of this embarrassment — an embarrassment at the collision of private and public selves?

: Yes, often I felt that only a part of me was “present” in any social situation — the more essential part was elsewhere, seeing again certain hospital scenes, reliving certain key moments in which — (so I told myself) — I might have done something else, that would have a different result. I did feel that I was to be blamed — I felt that there had to be an action commensurate with the punishment that followed. I thought that people might be justified in speaking contemptuously to me — You! Still alive! What are you doing, still alive!

I can’t say really that I feel so very different now, though months and even years have passed.

: Because I’m a daughter rather than a wife — I was supposed to outlast my mother — I don’t feel guilt about her death. But often on a sunny, pristine day I get a pang that I am here when she is not. That unmovable fact — that she will never be here again — hurts me because I love her. (My love did not die when she did.) That strange, kinetic commingling of love and pain has been, for me, the atmosphere of grief. Entering that atmosphere was full of anguish but it brought with it a deeper note, an adult note of recognition and relinquishment, complicating the adolescent world of demand and want.

As for time passing: It’s been two years since my mother died. I — like my entire family, I think — am certainly less in grief’s grips than I was a year ago. But it’s not gone. I’m changed by it, the way a tree is changed by having to grow around an obstacle. Every now and then I see article by journalists or scientists who say studies show grief should pass in “six months” or what have you. But loss isn’t science; it’s a human reckoning. In my case, it means I have to reckon every day with my mother’s absence, and what it has meant for my father and my two brothers (one of whom was 30 and the other 21 when she died).

: Yes, there is a strange sort of expectation that grief should conform to a general pattern or principle. There are even scientific polls of measurement — what is “normal” — what is “extreme” grief. As if individuals are not radically different, and as if even the course of a common disease, like cancer, will not manifest itself differently in different individuals.

Profound losses leave us paralyzed and mute, unable really to comprehend them, still less to speak coherently about them. Yet, eventually, we do speak — we breathe, we sleep, we eat, we go for walks in the sun, we find ourselves laughing with our friends — we marry again (as I have), to our astonishment — as we lose the white-hot flame of the most intransigent grief, and pass into another, less desperate sort of being.

Often it’s said that survivors must “move on” — “make a new life” for themselves. It’s impossible to say if this is only just wishful thinking, or has some basis in human psychology. But surely those who have been magnanimous in life can be imagined as magnanimous in death. We want to believe that the deceased whom we loved would love us enough to wish us well, in what remains of our lives.

For the old life is gone, the old love has vanished. Grief is the most humane of emotions but it is a one-sided emotion: it is not reciprocated.

: It reverberates among the living, though, in our shared laments. Because the mystery of all this is that lamentation is consoling instead of just painful. Consider “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams: “Sorrow is my own yard/ where the new grass/ flames as it has flamed/ often before but not/ with the cold fire/ that closes round me this year.” That cold fire is strangely warming, isn’t it? And so we burn through the days, passing from one person to the next the lit match of memory.

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