I love to read, so I’ve been searching out all the books on grieving I can find. I’ve read mostly memoirs, personal accounts of the author’s passage through grief. Interestingly, the books I’ve found so far are about the loss of a spouse or a parent. For some reason the best-known books in this genre don’t seem to include books by those who have lost a child. Is that loss too painful to write about?
My favorite book, by far, and clearly a favorite of many because it is often mentioned, is C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. The book is very short but quite powerful—raw, immediate, passionate, questioning. There were many passages when my eyes were too full of tears to see the page. I felt like he expressed my feelings over and over again.
Lewis is remarkably honest about the details of his grief and about how his wife’s death caused him to question both his faith and the nature of God (you can read pertinent passages here).
His questioning of God rang true for me. I was shocked that the other writers I’ve read didn’t talk about this. Grief was an existential crisis for me that entailed the questioning of everything. Lewis doesn’t question the existence of God, but asks whether God is a Cosmic Sadist, or a Vet intent on Vivisection, tearing our guts apart while we’re still alive for some reason of His own. I wanted to know what the purpose of life was—what’s the point if we’re just going to die?
Lewis describes how he desperately wants to know where his beloved wife is, and hates platitudes like “she’s at peace” or “she’s with God.” His experience was that once he passed through the early days of desperation and was less passionately seeking her presence, he began to experience her presence in a unique way. Not in the ways he would have thought, but with an unemotional, almost intellectual knowing.
This book gave me the sense that I wasn’t alone, that others had been here before me.
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander, is my next favorite. What a beautiful work! If you want to know what it’s like to lose a beloved spouse, read this book. Ms. Alexander is a poet and even though this is prose her poetic sensibilities inform every graceful line. I wept for her loss many times as I read her book. She and her husband had a passionate love affair, and when her husband died suddenly at age 50 their beautiful dream life turned grotesquely wrong.
Another book that will give you a good sense of what it is to lose a spouse is Grieving, a Love Story, by Ruth Coughlin. The author met her husband when she was in her mid-30s. She was the editor for one of his novels. She had never been married, and it must have been like a fairytale to fall in love and marry this judge and novelist who was a widower. Then, less than eight years after their wedding, he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Apparently this is a particularly brutal cancer and he was dead in nine months.
One thing that jumped out at me: Ms. Coughlin says she and her husband had almost no conversations about his dying. This is incomprehensible to me. There were nine months between his diagnosis and his death. I can understand not talking about it in the first months and focusing instead on the slim chance he might have a remission, but in the last few months, when it was clear he was dying? What else could possibly have been more important to talk about than that? Not the morbid details, but what it meant to him to die at 62. What his life meant. What she meant to him, what he meant to her.
She had mentioned quite pointedly a number of times that they weren’t discussing his death, so it’s hard to believe that she wouldn’t have told the reader that they finally did have that conversation. When I finished the book I burst into tears. Was her husband ever able to share his sadness at his life not turning out as he had hoped? I am sad for him because he may never have had the chance.
Nothing was the Same is by a clinical psychologist who also suffers from bipolar disorder, Kay Redfield Jamison. She also lost her husband. What was fascinating in her book was the comparison of grief with depression. Jamison has been clinically depressed at times, and was hospitalized in the past, so she was quite persuasive in her discussion of the differences between depression and grief. This last year I have felt extremely sad but not depressed, and at times I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me, like I wasn’t grieving deeply enough. Jamison helped me understand that grief is not the same as depression.
At times I was annoyed with her though. Many times she seemed to spend more time writing about the people she had dinner with than how she was feeling.
And this brings me to Joan Didion and The Year of Magical Thinking.
One day last spring, not long after Arthur died, feeling like I was drowning in a wave of grief, I thought, “Grief is fundamentally irrational. There’s this magical sense that if you wail and keen and cry enough you can bring your loved one back.”
When I told a friend about this she said, “You have to read Joan Didion’s book. She says something just like that!”
My husband and I were creative partners, just like Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. We were together 24/7/365, just like Didion and Dunne. So it seemed like this would be the perfect book to help me through my grief.
Which is perhaps why I was so disappointed in it. I felt her writing was very cold and reserved. I know more about what she ate for breakfast when her daughter was in the hospital in L.A. (huevos rancheros with 1 scrambled egg at the Beverly Wilshire) than what she loved about her husband as a human being.
Ms. Didion had what she called the “primitive instinct” that if she did the right things, her husband might return: the night of his death she wanted to be alone in the apartment so the space would be open for him to come back. This description of her entry into magical thinking begins the book and was very expressive of my experience. I had high hopes at that point, but it was downhill from there.
I found it odd how little she talked about the process of grieving. Actually it sounded like she avoided it by distracting herself with friends and family. She talked of steering clear of places that would make her think of Mr. Dunne, which I couldn’t understand at all—I want to think of my husband.
In particular, she didn’t write anything for months. This I find extremely odd. Personally I don’t see how a writer could not write during an experience like this. I have found myself writing my feelings and insights in a journal, returning to it many times during the day to help me express my overflowing emotions. Writing helps me understand how I’m feeling.
This, I think, explains the coldness in her prose. It’s stylistically lovely, graceful and rich with substance, yet there’s a feeling that something’s missing. And what’s missing, I think, is a connection to her feelings. There’s a lack of detail in her description of her grief, because this book was written so many months later.
This isn’t to say she never talks about her feelings. She mentions repeatedly the painful desire to discuss things with Mr. Dunne, knowing that will never again happen. She also talks about the feeling that comes when you look at a photo or other memento of your loved one, and realize that at the time you had “not sufficiently appreciated” that moment. This is a particularly painful feeling when you realize all the incredible moments of life that you let slip by unnoticed and underappreciated.
But nowhere does she analyze her grief, her magical thinking, and the nature of the emotions that accompany death. For this, you need C.S. Lewis.
These are all the books about losing a spouse I’ve read so far. Since this is long enough for a blog post I’ll continue this discussion of books another time.