Let me hit this one straight on.
Both the books reviewed here are about death and grief.
And that’s not for everyone, I reckon.
It isn’t light-hearted and isn’t funny and likely might not fit with that glorious spring day you are experiencing—wherever you may be.
So I wanted to warn you.
Over the last two weeks, I have read two books that look at death, loss, and grief. That they were read together is a complete accident. That I loved both of them and they spoke to me was decidedly not.
The brutal truth in life is that people we love die.
And the people who are our friends love people who die.
And for some people, and even at certain moments, this is just too painful to examine in real life. But through a book, maybe we can see it and experience it more clearly.
For those of you that might have had recent experiences which deal with the complex emotions around losing someone you love (and please, I assure you, also for those who have not), let me recommend two absolutely excellent books. Their exploration of death–and what follows before and after–is masterfully delivered.
Joan Didion, one of the most prolific writers of our time, wrote a book called “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2005. She won the National Book Award for her fantastic memoir that describes in harrowing detail losing her husband to cardiac arrest and watching her daughter battle a surprising illness that ultimately takes her life. These tragic events happen simultaneously.
Didion portrays in great detail the hospital, funeral and other iconic moments in death, but reports it in a way as if detached from the situation. But his single scarf on the back of the dining room chair, the notes on a notepad in his office—the symbols of their everyday life as a loving couples and as friends–depicts so clearly the loss and emptiness she feels at John’s passing. The magical thinking refers to the fact that if she wishes hard enough, he may return. She does not give away his shoes. He may need them.
In an era of reality TV and voyeurism, Didion opens up her personal grief in an analogous way. The amazing detail she shares allows you to feel like you are experiencing it with her. But also safely, intellectually, from a distance.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes. IN the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
While it is a sad and tragic situation, I want to communicate that it is not depressing. It is simply profound. It is credible, accessible and appreciated. It is a love story of sorts. It feels in some way like a gift. Preparing us for a road ahead which we don’t want to contemplate.
When a male friend insisted I read the “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner, I digested the slim 175-page novel in one glorious, childless plane ride. It consumed me, reading the story of a woman in her mid-60s (“Helen”) who tends to Nicola, an adult friend enduring alternative treatments to her late onset cancer. Unlike Didion’s book, in which death happens instantaneously and we follow her through an excavation that follows, Garner’s book takes us on an imminent glide path to death—the preparation for, the caring of, the letting go. It is a different view and a different kind of pain.
Slyly sniffling on the plane, I read about this dedicated friend who struggled with being selfless and selfish, who wanted to allow her crazy friend hope yet bludgeon her with a dose of reality. Only when I finished did I see the jacket cover describe Garner as ‘Australia’s Joan Didion’.
They share a knack for clean language, brutal honesty and strength with tenderness.
“The Spare Room” is positioned as a novel but the story seems so raw and so real, one can’t help but believe that it is simply a memoir where the facts have been changed. (Call me a rocket scientist, the main character is named Helen). This captivating story simply could not have been created in the imagination; the honesty about the many complex emotions you may feel in the process could not have been so realistically recounted without personal experience.
So, I admit it.
To me too, it seems such a strange post for a warm spring day.
The sun shines. It feels hopeful and warm. The kids play little league and the dog chews on a pinecone and the New York Times gets read and a spouse travels home safely.
It is calm and blissful.
Didion opens her book with these simple words:
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instance.
The ordinary instance.”
On the flip side of death and grief, there is gratitude.
Savor your warm, delicious spring day.
We have built “Top 5” list before. Are there any other powerful fiction and memoir you have read about death and loss? Share them here….