Sunday, February 27, 2011

Writing About Grief

Many of you have at least heard about if not read one of the following books in the past several years:

  • Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), (Pallimed: Arts review here)
  • David Rieff’s “Swimming in a Sea of Death” (2008),
  • Anne Roiphe’s “Epilogue” (2008)
  • Roland Barthes’s “Mourning Diary”(2010).

Two new contributors to this growing genre are Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story,” (2011) and Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye,” (2011), and the New York Times did us the favor of letting us in on what drove these authors to write about their grief.



The article is an edited compilation of email exchanges between the authors, and is full of very choice quotes, some of which I will share with you below with a few comments from me.
Meghan O’Rourke: You know, writing has always been the way I make sense of the world. It’s a kind of stay against dread, and chaos.
The family members who have shared that they write often (digital or analog) about the experience of caring for a dying loved one, seem to have a very realized and deep understanding of what they are experiencing. I can’t say it is exclusive to them, but they seem much more ready and confident in expressing themselves.
O’Rourke: 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.
I sometimes find myself counseling family members outside the room in how to talk about dying and death, and am curious if anyone else in any discipline does this. Part of me wishes that if we as a larger culture stood up to the fear of talking about death, we might really change how we all cope with the inevitable. I really appreciate O’Rourke’s description here.
O'Rourke: That strange, kinetic commingling of love and pain has been, for me, the atmosphere of grief.
Just wanted to include this quote because it is so descriptive in so few words.
Joyce Carol Oates: 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.
Oates wrote her book after going back through her journal, so her writings may reflect the unknown that she describes here. These are the moments we interact with families. Not after they have ‘written their book.’
Oates: “…the essence of widowhood is to find a way, however desperate, to keep yourself alive.
Another great quote from the article. Clearly needs to be part of a bigger conversation as I have heard a similar sentiment from those who have lost.
Oates: I don’t think that ritual would have been, for me, any sort of solace. There is too much irony in ritual — too much that is impersonal in a way to deflect the horror of the specific, unique death.
Some colleagues and I had a large discussion about the role of medical, religious and spiritual rituals surrounding death and dying. Central to the discussion was how to go about creating or finding meaningful rituals for any individual being a challenging experience. Oates captures this wonderfully here.

The authors do discuss the medicalization of grief through research and I have conflicted feelings about their sentiments expressed here:
O’Rourke: 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.
Oates: 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.
While science aims to break apart, define, and understand complex issues it can make the spirit of the problem at hand flee, which is where the arts can be so helpful in helping keep the humanity present. It would be my hope that through the objective lens of science and the human touch of the arts we may find the real truth.

If you have read any of the books mentioned and would like to offer a guest post to Pallimed Arts and Humanities, email me at christian@pallimed.org

Photo 'Grief'  from Flickr User: Saipan Jack

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