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.