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Reading Grief

Grief comes in all sizes and shapes, kicks us in the nose when we least expect it. Out of the blue it appears, and suddenly we are grabbed by this thief of complacency. A phone call, a diagnosis, an obit in the paper. We grieve over innocence lost, childhood landscapes disappeared, parents’ clear minds fading, children harmed, lovers gone. Our losses may be in body, mind, or spirit, but we must grieve. There are no operating instructions for grief though, so we search for solace and some of us try to prepare.

We look to religion, nature and each other for clues on how to handle the huge things in life. Some of us look in places unlikely to provide them, like alcohol and drugs.  I read books.

Prior to my daughter’s arrival, I worried about how I would answer her questions about being adopted. The newborn would ask no questions, but would I know what to say when she queried as a toddler?  I found books that offered to help me navigate this terrain. They were infinitely useful and they served me well. I answered her questions and fielded concerns as though I really knew what I was talking about. The more conversations I have over the years about these issues, the more I know I really do know.

Now I find myself asking questions about grief.  I read these books with the same sort of interest I had as I waited for my daughter to arrive, trying to prepare for the inevitable.  Or maybe I’m soothing loses already sustained.

Over these last few blog entries, I’ve been reading memoir by adults adopted or not, searching for biological footprints, following their sadness, sense of something missing, their grief in not knowing their family of origin or their history. I’ve read about genealogical searches by adoptees (The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes (2007) or biracial and white folks (Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan (2012)) curious to know the torn roots and broken branches of the family tree. These books offer insights from history, connection and narrative that help me understand others’ grief about racism and disconnection, and move through my own.

But now I’m drawn to stories about grief of a different kind, the intimate grief that follows the loss of someone deeply loved.

In Speak To Me: Grief, Love and What Endures (2011), author Marcie Hershman writes about reawakening to life after her brother Robert died of AIDS in 1995.  The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief by David Plante (2009) is about the forty-year relationship Plante had with Nikos Stangos before he succumbed quickly to cancer. Both writers found that grief hid everything when they tried to write the world after death. They each produced a slim volume packed with the pain of never hearing the other’s voice, or feeling the weight and nuzzle of a head on a shoulder. They are both searching for their own place in the world now without the other.

Hershman delicately explores sibling rivalry, the siblings each coming out, and the career trajectories they chose. Her brother, Robert Hershman, loved to tease his sister, “Why do you have to dramatize everything, Sarah Bernhardt?” (p. 10), and while reading her carefully guarded prose, we long for his sister to laugh again.

Plante describes his lover’s life in intimate descriptive paragraphs so the reader gains knowledge about the history of Greece, Greece during World War II, the couple’s life together from rags to a much richer way of life meeting poets and writers through their career trajectories. And so he won’t be lost forever.

Herschman’s book reminded me of all of the memoirs and essays I have read in the past about the grief of the AIDS pandemic.  To name a few: Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (1988) was my first introduction to HIV/AIDS memoir, along with the stories Michael Klein and Maria Howe collected for their anthology, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (1995). Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast (1996) chronicled walks in the Provincetown dunes with the dogs and the solace the poet found there as he wrestled with the grief of losing his partner of a dozen years. “An Exile’s Psalm” is an essay in which he wonders how to juggle that loss with newfound love in the Beacon Anthology, Here Lies My Heart (1999).

On the advice of a writer-friend who recommended it for the strength of its prose, I’ve just re-read Catcher in the Rye (1945). Holden Caufield’s character is a16 year-old, caught in the vise grip of having lost his brother Allie but never having time to grieve. The red hunting cap and little sister Phoebe on the carousel horse save him from himself.  J. D. Salinger captures many dimensions of grief from a young man’s perspective, especially depression born of such deep sorrow.

The lesson that runs through all these books is that weaving loss into the fabric of life is what we must do.  No arrangement of words will totally soothe the writer for the loss of a lover, child, sibling, friend or parent. Books cannot heal us back to the way we were before, but each and every word offers hope to the living and succor in the moment. We need all these guides to fathom our personal losses, and by extension to negotiate the losses we face as community members watching others lose loves through acts of public violence. I understand without a doubt that grief is something we all must get through. Grief is a giant wave that will splash, suddenly pull us under, pop us back into the light and roll us along, over and over again. From the darkness and the undertow we right ourselves into the light of the moment and continue, as we must.


The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes (2007) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson (2012)

Here are two memoirs by adopted women about searching for identity. They are both professional fiction writers. I was drawn to their books because I think we all seek to understand why we are as we are and we look to our childhood and of course to our parents for clues. We try to unfurl our context of geographic location, historic events before and during our lifetime, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, body size, shape and abilities or disabilities. You know, all the things that make us the same or different. Adoption adds an entire extra layer of mystery and surprise to this sense of self and integration of all the elements of who we are.

Until about twenty years ago adoption was secretive and birth records were sealed. Babies were “matched” to look like the adoptive parents and some kids were not told they were adopted. Social services opened the adoption procedures to provide more information for birth givers, adoptees and adoptive parents. The triad could be far healthier in the light of truth. Still, the daydreams of children about their birth parents continue to thrive. Many kids wonder, “When will my real parents come and get me?” A. M. Homes fantasized about being the daughter of Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Her adoptive home was literary, artistic and progressive, and so too her imagination.

Jeannette Winterson grew up under the spell of the Pentecostal. She was left out on the stoop all night or beaten for being incorrigible, and she walked miles to church six nights a week. She was forbidden books, so learned to read swiftly in the outhouse or anywhere she could be out of Mrs. Winterson’s wrath. And wrath there seemed to be plenty of. Her childhood home in Manchester, England was cold—physically and emotionally. She left Mrs. Winterson behind and went to college, with her education she also got her freedom. She wanted to write of “experience andexperiment,” of  “the observed and the imagined”(p.3) as men could. Her novels provoke and prod, defy gender (Written on the Body) and twist history and philosophy into lyrical dimensions (Passion and Sexing the Cherry). These novels are mystifying and erotically teasing. There are many more novels and essays; these three are the brightest in my memory.

Winterson reveals in an interview with Stuart Jefferies for The Guardian Books that she came upon records that revealed she had initially been with her birth giver for months before she was adopted. This information provoked her to realize that not knowing this detail of her adoption “leaked” into her fiction. She now sees some of her seductive scenes toward lovers as actually scenes of searching for her lost birth giver (Feb. 21, 2010).

A.M. Homes is a novelist and she has little patience for memoir, even distain (“I’m completely opposed to them,” she says in an interview for New York Magazine). Her heart is in her fiction, but she was convinced to write The Mistress’s Daughter.  When she is thirty a message arrives via a lawyer that her birth giver would like to meet her. Homes had never been compelled to initiate a search but she is propelled after meeting her birth mother into several years of attending to her birth origins. She meets the alleged father as well. After publication of the memoir he denies the DNA test — the results of which he never shared, though he demanded the test — was positive. Homes becomes obsessed with genealogy—of all four of her parents—and spends hours and years researching, she even hires research assistants, trying to connect the dots of ancestry. Her birth and adoptive parental legacies become intertwined and she comes to understand their designs are within her.

Boris Kachka asks Homes, in the New York Magazine interview, “How much did you wonder what it would have been like to grow up with your birth parents?”  Homes replies, “I don’t know that I would have survived growing up with my biological mother. She claimed my father wanted to adopt me, but I think it would have been like Cinderella, in that they’d never let me out of the kitchen”  (April 1, 2007).

In a question that became the title of Winterson’s memoir, Mrs. Winterson asked Jeannette, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” And Jeannette comes to understand:

“Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kinds of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.

My mother tried to throw me clear of her own wreckage and I landed in a place as unlikely as any she could have imagined for me” (p.225).

We raise our mothers (remember Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel), or do our mothers raise us? My own mother (biological) looked at my sister and me once, adults by then, and asked, “Where did you two come from?”

As an adoptive mom I find it utterly freeing to love my kids for just who they are, no ancestors to compare or contrast with. I hope to give them the opportunity to be fully who they can be. I get to open the doors—they must walk through them.

As any mother would if she could.



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