Half a Year

Owen OrnamentThe mind is not only its own place, as Milton’s Satan observes, but it can also be a pretty strange place, or mine can anyway, especially these days. Today, for example, it has been six months (six months!) since Owen’s death, and what keeps running through my mind is a mangled version of lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “half a year, half a year, half a year onward, into the valley of death …” and then nothing comes next, it just starts over, because not only (of course) are these not the poem’s actual words but I don’t know what words of my own should follow to finish the thought.

tennysonIt’s hard to imagine a poem that is less apt, for the occasion or for my feelings about it. (I hate this poem, actually, though I love so much of Tennyson’s poetry.*) I can’t think of any reason for this mental hiccup besides the generally cluttered condition of my mind thanks to two years of COVID isolation and now six months (six months!) of grieving. Six months is half a year—half a year! I have to keep repeating it to make myself believe it, and it’s probably just the repetition and rhythm of that phrase that trips my tired brain over into Tennyson’s too-familiar verse.

Half a year. That stretch of time seemed unfathomably long to me in the first days and weeks after Owen’s death—a future too far away to imagine, never mind plan or prepare for. Time passing was supposed to be what helped, but that oversimplifies it, as everyone who told us “it takes time” probably knew but didn’t know how to (or didn’t want to) explain. That feeling I had that he was receding—not from our memories or our hearts, of course, but from our present reality—is even stronger now, which is worse, not better. I don’t want him to belong to the past, but time doesn’t stop. I can’t hide from my own future any more, either: my sabbatical (so eagerly awaited, so much of its work so different than I expected, and so much more difficult) ends today. Half a year, half a year, half a year onward: it’s relentless.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973How should the thought finish? As I walk through the valley of the shadow of Owen’s death, I have no sure path or comfort. All I know, or hope I know, is that at some point, in some way, I will emerge from it and he will not. Six months ago today, devastated beyond any words of my own, I copied stanzas from Tennyson’s In Memoriam into my journal. It remains the best poem I know about grief, though as it turns towards a resolution not available to me, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it contains the best poetry I know about grief. (For that, I can forgive him the jingoistic tedium of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”) This has always been my favorite section—it is so powerful in its stark simplicity:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

He is not here. Half a year. How long, how short, how impossible that feels.

*It is amazing that you can listen to a recording of Tennyson actually reciting it, however. Why do I find this so moving? Maybe for the same reason that I found myself in tears when I ran across some of the original issues of Bleak House at the V&A.

That Extraordinary Extinction

Content warning: depression and suicide

diary v 5Not a happy summer. That is all the materials for happiness; & nothing behind. If Julian had not died—still an incredible sentence to write—our happiness might have been profound . . . but his death—that extraordinary extinction—drains it of substance. (Woolf, Diaries, 26 September, 1937)

I’ve just finished writing a review of Sina Queyras’s new book Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf, a book that (among other things) examines the influence Virginia Woolf has had on Queyras as a writer and thinker. Woolf, as Queyras discusses, may actually be uniquely influential:

If you’re a woman who has written in English in the last hundred years, you have come through Woolf and have at least some cursory thoughts on her work—if this year is any indication, you’ve written at least a paragraph about her.

When I write about Woolf myself, I feel the same anxieties Queyras expresses in their book, about taking Woolf as a subject and about adding to what’s already been written about her. It’s hard not to feel both inadequate and superfluous. On the other hand, there are few other writers (for me, there’s really only one other writer) whose work is as rewarding to inhabit and to think about. Most recently, I’ve been working on The Years, which I reread last summer as I began to lay out my plans for my current sabbatical leave.

holtby-woolfI haven’t written much new about Woolf yet this year (I’ve been focusing on other pieces of my project) but I have thought about her a lot—specifically, I have thought a lot about her suicide. One of my favorite things about Holtby’s Critical Memoir of Woolf is that Holtby died before Woolf did and so no shadow darkens her celebration of Woolf’s capacity for joy. It’s a shame (and I know others, more expert on Woolf than I, who feel this even more strongly) that the popular image of Woolf is so dreary. But she did suffer greatly from depression, and she did ultimately choose not to go on suffering. It’s tragic, of course, but in a way I think the saddest part is not that she died but that she did not wish to go on living, a small distinction, perhaps, but to me a meaningful one. I sometimes feel this about Owen’s death as well: that it’s his life I am mourning—his difficult life, the life he ultimately did not want to live any more—as much as his death. There’s a passage in Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss that captures what I imagine he might have felt:

Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.

How I wish I could have fixed it for him instead, some other way.

v-woolfWith Woolf on my mind again thanks to Queyras’s book, I picked up Volume 5 of her diary (1936-1941), which I have to hand because it covers the time she was working on The Years and Three Guineas. So much is always happening in her diaries and letters: you can dip into them anywhere and find something vital, interesting, fertile for thought. This volume of the diary also includes the lead-up to war and then her experience of the Blitz, and the final entries before her suicide, which are inevitably strange and poignant—even more so to me now. Leafing through its pages this time, though, it was the entries around the death of her nephew Julian Bell in July 1937 that drew me in: Woolf as mourner, not mourned.

Woolf experienced a lot of painful losses in her life, including her mother and father and her brother Thoby. Julian’s death (in Spain, where he had gone, over his mother’s and aunt’s objections, to drive an ambulance) was another terrible blow. Woolf doesn’t write about it at length, but her grief comes up often over the following months in terms that are now all-too familiar. In the first entry she writes after he dies, she notes how odd it is that “I can hardly bring myself, with all my verbosity . . . to say anything about Julian’s death.” There’s a sense of helplessness, as all she can do is be there for his bereft mother:

Then we came down here [to Monk’s House] last Thursday; & the pressure being removed, one lived; but without much of a future. Thats one of the specific qualities of this death—how it brings close the immense vacancy, & our short little run into inanity.

More than once she resolves to let this renewed consciousness of the brevity of life inspire her to make the most of it: “I will not yield an inch, or a fraction of an inch to nothingness, so long as something remains.” “But how it curtails the future,” she adds, “… a curiously physical sense; as if one had been living in another body, which is removed, & all that living is ended.”

“We don’t talk so freely of Julian,” Woolf remarks a few days later; “We want to make things go on.” After another few days, she writes that Vanessa “looks an old woman”: “How can she ever right herself though?” Woolf herself struggles to focus on her writing projects.  “I do not let myself think,” she says; “That is the fact. I cannot face much of the meaning.” “Nessa is alone today,” she notes on August 6; “A very hot day—I add, to escape from the thought of her.” But the thoughts return:

We have the materials for happiness, but no happiness . . . It is an unnatural death, his. I cant make it fit in anywhere. Perhaps because he was killed, violently. I can do nothing with the experience yet. It seems still emptiness: the sight of Nessa bleeding: how we watch: nothing to be done. But whats odd is I cant notice or describe. Of course I have forced myself to drive ahead with the book. But the future without Julian is cut off. lopped: deformed.

“How much do I mind death?” she asks herself in December, concluding that “there is a sense in which the end could be accepted calmly”:

It’s Julian’s death that makes one skeptical of life I suppose. Not that I ever think of him as dead, which is queer. Rather as if he were jerked abruptly out of sight, without rhyme or reason: so violent & absurd that one cant fit his death into any scheme. But here we are . . .

Julian did not choose his death (although presumably he accepted the risk of it, when he chose to go to Spain). That’s a big difference between his “end” (which causes Woolf so much grief) and hers. I have always respected Woolf’s choice (and also Carolyn Heilbrun’s, though her circumstances were very different). I try to respect Owen’s too, to understand it as an expression—the ultimate expression—of his autonomy, his right to decide he had suffered enough. I cannot accept it calmly, though; I feel like Vanessa, “bleeding.” “Here there was no relief,” Woolf says in the immediate aftermath of Julian’s death, watching her sister suffer; “Then I thought the death of a child is childbirth again.”

Everybody Hurts

I remember soon after Owen was born feeling as if I had been admitted into a vast secret society, one where people talked freely about really personal things like sore nipples and episiotomy stitches and traded used onesies and shared tips about teething pain and diaper rash. I looked at (and talked to) people we knew who were already parents in a new way—not necessarily as guides or models, but as people who had been where we were and who had, one way or another, come through it still standing, or at least seemed to have.

Since Owen died I have been unwillingly inducted into a different society: the mourners’ club. It’s a surprisingly welcoming place, perhaps because nobody already in it wants to belong to it either: each of them has already had to deal with the wrenching realization that membership is neither optional nor revocable, and so they empathize effortlessly with your shock and confusion. At the same time, it is quieter, or at least less conspicuous, than the parents’ club—you can’t hide your children, after all, but a lot of people, it turns out, are hiding their grief, which, once you start listening for it (or people start talking to you about it) really is “the roar on the other side of silence.”

“This instant enlargement of human sympathy,” as Denise Riley puts it, can be overwhelming, especially at moments when my own personal feelings of loss are more than I can bear. There’s so much, too much, sorrow in the world: this is not news, of course, but as George Eliot observes in Middlemarch, if we allowed the scope of everyday tragedy to be constantly present to us, “our frames could hardly bear much of it”—and thus, as she says with her characteristic blend of insight and critique, “the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.” It’s a matter of survival, not (or at least not just) self-centeredness that we aren’t constantly preoccupied with “all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth” (to quote Dorothea’s “Hamlet-like raving”). And yet to retreat into solipsism is a failure: enlarging our sympathies is both an aesthetic principle and a moral imperative for her. It’s a beautiful theory but one that’s not easy to put into practice, especially when our own suffering is intense and immediate.

Like my changed perspective on the other parents in my life, my heightened awareness of other people’s grief is a source of strength, though not always comfort. There are concrete ways other mourners have helped me: by being generous enough to share their own experiences, by offering a sympathetic ear, by passing on a poem or a book or an idea that helped them and they hope will do the same for me. But it’s also strangely, a bit perversely, encouraging just knowing there are so many other sad people out there. I don’t imagine that it feels easy to any of them, or that they are “over it” or have “moved on,” but there they all are, carrying on with their lives while also somehow carrying their grief. “How do they do that?” I still wonder, even though I suppose I am now doing the same, however haltingly.

Looking again at Riley’s book this week, I paused at the section headed “Five Months After,” which seemed such an unfathomable distance away when I first read it in February. Though the received wisdom about grief these days is that there is no common timetable, it turns out that Riley’s “five months after” feelings are very much like mine. The overwhelming sensation is of disorientation, “knowing and also not knowing that he’s dead. Or I ‘know’ it, but privately I can’t feel it to be so.” There’s the “recall” of the person you knew, so complete and vivid and real, and “your knowledge of the fall of sudden blackness”; “you struggle to hold both in mind at once.” Recently I have experienced literal, physical dizziness trying to do that, as if my brain cannot reconcile itself to the two facets of my new reality, which is a world in which all the familiar features of Owen’s life surround me but he is not here (“what could it mean to know this,” Riley asks in her poem “He Lies Somewhere in France”). Poking around in books about grief, I have a few times come across the term “integration.” I don’t know its technical meaning, but “disintegrated” seems like a good way to describe how I feel. It’s not just that I can’t adjust, though: I don’t want to integrate Owen’s death into my life. Like Riley, I resist calling this “denial” (“Yet who,” she wonders, “is policing my ‘acceptance’ of it?”). I’d call it “refusal,” which I’m sure is (therapeutically speaking) not any better for being more self-conscious.

My most recent related reading has been Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief, which I didn’t find offered me much that other books haven’t, though it does some useful synthesizing. The most helpful aspect of it, for me anyway, is its emphasis on “account making.” She quotes Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby on stories: “we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.” Edelman describes her own early grieving as a state of “narrative limbo.” Inevitably, this literary take on mourning appeals to me. “Lives do not serve as models,” Carolyn Heilbrun says in Writing a Woman’s Life, the small critical book that has had such a large influence on my own thinking and writing; “only stories do that.” It’s interesting that though we all have, or will inevitably have, our own stories of loss, that doesn’t make them all the same (quite the opposite, in fact, as they are as unique as each of us)—or any easier to tell.

My Dear Bright Child

oliphant autoI’ve assigned Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography many times over the years in the graduate seminar I’ve offered on Victorian women writers. I read it first myself in a similar seminar offered by Dorothy Mermin at Cornell: I realized later that this was while she was working on her excellent book Godiva’s Ride: Women of Letters in England 1830-1880, which I have always recommended to students as background reading in my course. I’ve usually focused on Oliphant’s self-conscious and often defensive positioning of herself as a woman and a writer (“I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children”) and especially on her much-quoted comments about George Eliot, which emanate both bitterness and pathos (“Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of? . . . No one even will mention me in the same breath with George Eliot”).

Oliphant was incredibly prolific. I’ve read and enjoyed two or three of her 80+ novels as well as some of her short fiction and quite a bit of her criticism; I included her essay “Modern Novelists—Great and Small” in my Broadview anthology.  But it’s the Autobiography that has made the strongest impression on me, as it did on Virginia Woolf, who though generally disparaging about Oliphant (notably in Three Guineas) singled the Autobiography out as “a most genuine and moving piece of work.”

It isn’t Oliphant’s literary or professional ruminations that are “moving,” of course; it’s her incredibly raw accounts of the deaths of her three children. How many times in class did I talk about how heartbreaking these sections are—just as, so many times, I have run down the sad record of the Brontë children’s deaths as part of my introductory lectures for Jane Eyre or Villette or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or noted that part of Gaskell’s impetus for writing Mary Barton was her struggle to cope with her grief after the death of her baby son. Imagine, I always said, the death of a child. How terrible. How terribly sad.Portrait_of_Margaret_Oliphant_Wilson_Oliphant

Now, of course, I don’t have to imagine it, and when I picked up Oliphant’s Autobiography again this week I found that it was not so much terribly sad as terribly familiar. “I have not been resigned,” she says after the shockingly sudden death of her ten-year-old daughter Maggie, her “dear bright child,” on a trip to Rome in 1864; “I cannot feel resigned, my heart is sore as if it was an injury.” “The hardest moment in my present sad life,” she goes on,

is the morning, when I must wake up and begin the dreary world again. I can sleep during the night, and I sleep as long as I can; but when it is no longer possible, when the light can no longer be gainsaid, and life is going on everywhere, then I, too, rise up to bear my burden. How different it used to be! . . . Things must be better than one thought, must be well, in a world which woke up to that new light, to the sweet dews and sweet air which renewed one’s soul. Now I am thankful for the night and the darkness, and shudder to see the light and the day returning.

Her grief throws her into agonizing religious doubt, especially when she wonders what Maggie might have felt at their separation (“Did she not stop short there and say, ‘Where is Mama?’ . . . This thought of very desolation”). She seeks but does not find consolation in the conviction she clings to, that “God cannot have done it without a reason.” I do not share her religious beliefs, but I understand her desperate struggle to reconcile her shocking loss with ideas about her life and its meaning and direction that she had taken for granted before.

Margaret_Oliphant_and_her_FamilyTwenty-one years pass between these painful sections and the next section of the Autobiography, and in that gap is, as she notes, “a little lifetime.” “I have just been rereading it all with tears,” she says, “sorry, very sorry for that poor little soul who has lived through so much since.” Writing those words in 1885, she had no idea how much more sorrow lay ahead. First came the death of her son Cyril in 1890 (“I have been permitted to do everything for him, to wind up his young life, to accept the thousand and thousand disappointments and thoughts of what might have been”), and then in 1894, the death of her son Cecco (“The younger after the elder and on this earth I have no son—I have no child. I am a mother childless”).  “What have I left now?” she laments. “My work is over, my house is desolate. I am empty of all things.” In her despair (“It is not in me to take a dose and end it. Oh I wish it were”), her vast literary output brings her no comfort: “nobody thinks that the few books I will leave behind me count for anything.”

library-windowShe kept writing, though, not just the Autobiography—which she reconceived somewhat, pragmatically, once it was no longer intended for her children, as something lighter and more anecdotal—but also more fiction, including her excellent ghost story “The Library Window,” recently reprinted by Broadview. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of ghost stories to a mother whose beloved children would have been there but not there every waking minute. I know what that’s like.

The Autobiography concludes on a note of supreme desolation:

And now here I am all alone

I cannot write any more.

It’s sad to think that Oliphant doubted her writing would last, that it would “count for anything.” If this were my seminar, something we’d probably talk about is why it might be that it’s her most personal writing, her writing as a mother, that (for me and Woolf, anyway) seems the most powerful. Are we just (and I do think Woolf was) underestimating her skill as a novelist, and the value of the contributions she made in other forms? How does the reception of the Autobiography play into the contradictions she, like so many of her contemporaries, knew were assumed between the identities “woman” and “writer”? (“Henceforward,” Elizabeth Gaskell writes in her biography of Charlotte Brontë, “Charlotte Brontë’s existence becomes divided into two parallel currents—her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman.”) I’m not teaching now, though, just reading, and grieving my own dear bright child.

No Words

PPP-ShoreI’ve been thinking about how many times people have expressed their love and sympathy for us by saying “there are no words,” and then about how important it has felt to me, since Owen’s death, to try to find some words for what it feels like to lose him and grieve for him. Writing has helped, even though I have also often felt the truth of Tennyson’s lines:

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Now what I’m discovering is that it is hard to keep finding new words in the absence of change. Narrative requires movement, not repetition or stasis. How many times (how many ways) can I say “I am sad”? If it weren’t so painful, it would be dull. (Maybe it already is: I’m sorry.) I suppose that’s one reason novels and memoirs about grief usually end on a hopeful note, with a moment, or at least a promise, of uplift. Where else would the momentum come from—without some sense of being on a journey towards a better place, why turn every page?

Life is not a book, though, and while time does of course pass and thus some things do change—some good things even happen!—the hard facts of his death remain the same and I seem to have have no words for it now except to say that I am, still, sad.


Owen died three months ago today. I’ve been remembering how, with babies, you begin by measuring their new life in days, then you slip into counting by weeks, then months, then years. I suppose it makes sense that something similar happens with deaths, except that it’s no longer about growth, about a presence expanding further into the world. Instead it feels like he is receding, which might be why it’s true (as people warned) that the loss actually feels worse now in some ways. At first, the overwhelming grief was because he had left us so deliberately and irrevocably. That sorrow remains, with all of its complications, but as time passes for us but not for him, it’s hard not to feel that now we are the ones leaving him, which we did not choose to do—which we desperately do not want to do, but can’t help or stop.

“The dead slip away,” Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’ve been thinking about other times I left Owen, more or less willingly—the first time I dropped him at daycare, for example, and then I sat and cried in the car, because even though everyone told me (and everyone was right) that he would adapt and come to love it there, it felt unnatural to walk away while he cried and reached for me. I watched him head into school so many times, knowing things weren’t always easy for him there but that I couldn’t go in with him and try to make it better, as much as I wanted to. I also remember, more happily, leaving him in residence when he started his degree at Dalhousie—that was such an optimistic time for us all. Separation is part of growing up, of course, part of parenting, part of life: as wise Joe Gargery says, “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” But this parting is different, because instead of holding our lives together it has broken them apart.

“Unwillingly”: yes. I think that’s why it still feels impossible, unbearable, to sort out his room, his clothes, his few other possessions. There were things we had to do after he died—practical things, from arranging his cremation and writing the obituary to sorting out his bank accounts and cancelling his phone plan. These steps weren’t voluntary, though: they were hard necessities, responsibilities his choice had pressed onto us. The rest of it, whatever else we do, is up to us. We will be doing things on purpose: we will be making deliberate choices (willing choices) that put him, that keep him, in the past, separate from our present, which—no matter how much we wish otherwise—will keep getting further and further away from his last day.

That doesn’t mean we are or will be “moving on.” Megan Devine (who rightly notes how unhelpful it is to be “reassured” about the imaginary “better” future in the very early days of grief) offers a hopeful vision of what might happen eventually:

In your own ways, and in your own time, you will find ways to stitch this experience into your life . . . Grief changes you. Who you become remains to be seen. You do not need to leave your grief behind in order to live a newly beautiful life. It’s part of you.

Now, though, I still find that new world hard to imagine, much less look forward to. How can I go there willingly, knowing it would represent (in Riley’s words) “a second, now final, loss”? I still, hopelessly, just want to hold on to him, to keep him from slipping away, not from his life, which he had the right to leave on his own terms, as he did, but from mine.

Time Passes

I was really annoyed by the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse the first time I read it. It’s beautifully written, of course: evocative and poignant and intentional. But it draws so much attention to itself, to its writing: it’s fiction as high art, and not just art but art on self-conscious display. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, on its own terms, but that’s not (usually) my favorite kind of fiction. Woolf’s “calculated parentheticals” especially rubbed me the wrong way.

I admitted at the time that I’m not a very good reader of Woolf’s fiction, and it showed. I wouldn’t say I’m much better at reading her now (although last summer I read The Waves and was completely entranced, so something has changed) but I have been thinking a lot lately about the way time is passing, about the way time has passed, since Owen’s death, and just as the poets were there for me when I was first searching for ways to express my shock and grief, it turns out Woolf is here for me now as I struggle with the strangeness of a world that has its own process of continuity and change, indifferent to my personal loss. Like Mr. Ramsay’s, my arms remain stretched out but empty; here too spring is coming, “bare and bright,” “entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” For all its beauty, Woolf’s account of time passing is not a comforting vision: it isn’t a version of the mourners’ mantra “it takes time.” Perhaps the beauty of the writing is its own consolation. Woolf’s illuminating attention, too—not just to the effects of time passing but to her beholders, like Lily Briscoe, and to herself as a beholder—resists that cold carelessness.

Time passes.

Woolf described the structure of To the Lighthouse as “two blocks joined by a corridor,” with “Time Passes” connecting the main parts, “The Window” and “The Lighthouse.” One way I suppose I could think about where I am right now is precisely in a corridor between two blocks, one of them my previous life, which included Owen, and the other my future life, which will go on without him. In a literal sense, of course, I am already in that new life, but it doesn’t feel that way yet: I feel disoriented, adrift, unsettled. What’s missing, I’ve been thinking, at least in part, is meaning, which is not to say that there is some intrinsic meaning in Owen’s death for me to find out (thankfully, nobody has been insensitive enough to tell me “everything happens for a reason”), but that eventually I need to figure out how to incorporate his death into my understanding of my life. Somehow, that is, the end of Owen’s life has to become part of the story of my own life: rather than considering it a break, a catastrophic rupture, in that story (the way it feels to me now), I need to learn to see it as belonging to a new, different continuity. (Mrs. Ramsay, though dead, is still very present in “The Lighthouse.”) I just don’t know how to tell that unified story yet, or how to live that life, a life connected to but also separated from my past, with this sad, confusing period as the passage from one to the other.

I’ve realized that some of the books I picked up to reread, seemingly at random, in the first few days after his death were actually stories about lives that have been broken in this way: The Accidental Tourist, for example, which is a novel all about grief, or Disturbances in the Field. I put them down again without finishing them, I think now because ultimately these novels are about recovery and renewal, and I wasn’t (I’m not) ready for that. The “it gets better” narrative is insistent and not as encouraging as I know people mean it to be. It has been a relief, in that respect, to spend some time with Megan Devine’s (badly titled) It’s OK That You’re Not OK. Devine’s mission is to push back against efforts, however well meaning, to “fix” someone’s grief; like Ignatieff in On Consolation, she emphasizes the importance of acknowledgment, and of just letting sad people be sad. Everyone’s grief is different and so books about grief are bound to strike people differently as well. I don’t like everything about Devine’s, but some of it makes a lot of sense to me, and I found this video on her website both soothing and wise:

In her book, Devine quotes a friend who wrote to her after her husband died and explained “how my therapist used to ask our group to ‘be like the elephants’ and gather around the wounded person.” “Gather your elephants, love,” her friend tells her; “We are here.” I am so grateful to my elephants; thank you for being here.


This so-called ‘work of grief’ is turning out to be a shatteringly exhausting apprehension of the needed work of living. It demands to be fully lived, while the labour of living it is physically exhausting—like virulent jetlag, but surging up in waves.

The notes and emails of condolence have stopped arriving and I’ve acknowledged each of them. Yet after all this ritual and effort, he still hasn’t come home. What more does he want?

Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without its Flow

rocky shores

“How are you doing?” people ask a lot these days in emails and messages, kindly reaching out, letting me know they are still here, still available, still caring. I am genuinely grateful, because (as many of them who have known grief themselves have said) grieving is a lonely business even when it isn’t midwinter during a pandemic. And yet somehow as time goes on I find I am less and less able to reply with grace, because (unfairly, unreasonably) what I hear, even though of course it isn’t what they’ve said, is “How you are doing now, what has changed, are you doing any better yet?” Actually, some people probably are tacitly asking that, or at least wondering it, hoping—for my sake—that I am doing better. “How would you be doing?” I sometimes want to reply. Riley talks about “kindly onlookers” saying “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.” “I’d like them to try to imagine,” she says; “it’s not so difficult.”

OUP MiddlemarchIt is terrible, the damage grief does to one’s own generosity. I don’t like it, though for now I can’t seem to help it. Anger is often mentioned as one of the ‘stages’ of bereavement; I haven’t seen any discussion of selfishness, but that’s what it feels like, or self-absorption. All these years reading Middlemarch and now I can’t displace myself and my sorrows from the center of my narrative: I’m disappointed in myself. How I have always admired Dorothea’s resolution after her night of mourning her lost love: “She said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.” Of course, thinking the man you loved is not the man you thought him to be—even believing that your chance at joyful passion is over—is hardly the same as knowing your child walked away from you into the night and will never come back.

How am I doing? I am still sad, still (how, after two months?) shocked, still struggling to make sense of a life that has been dealt such a blow, still trying not to think about it but also still unable not to think about it, still counting the days since it happened, still remembering the days before it happened and marveling at their innocence. (Who know a bullet journal could take on such pathos when it turns out that its cheerful notations—decorate tree! Maddie here! Christmas dinner!—were counting down to this?) I am still unable to bear going in his room or looking at baby pictures (why are the happiest memories the saddest ones?), still finding it surreal that his ashes are on our bookshelf, still frequently startled into painful sobs by thoughts or reminders of his life and his death.

ignatieffThe other question I’m hearing more and more is some variation on “have you considered talking to someone?”—meaning, of course, someone else, someone professional, someone who knows what to say. (Maybe that’s why the “how are you doing” question feels a bit loaded, as the combined subtext starts to seem like “this has gone on long enough.”) This has made me think again about Ignatieff’s comments in On Consolation about our current reliance on “therapeutic professionals” who “treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover.” “When suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure,” he says, “something is lost.” I don’t think anyone who has suggested this to me means to imply that it is wrong for me to still be grieving; again, I know that they want to help, they want—for my sake—for me to be feeling better, doing better, living better. I don’t know if a therapist would approach my grief as something to be fixed or cured. I hope not: I don’t want to “recover” from it, and I don’t think I could. (“Some part of you may still remain in the underworld,” Riley says, and that seems right, meaning both true and appropriate.) I will find out, though: I have found “someone” to talk to (it’s not an easy process, as many of you probably know), though they can’t fit me in for a while. It is hard to think even that far ahead, but it seems likely I will still need whatever it is that they have to offer.

I feel like I need to add: I mean it that I am truly grateful to everyone kind enough to check in with me. Please don’t read this as my wishing you wouldn’t.

Owen Maitzen


Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973The two things I’ve heard or read most often about grief are “it takes time” and “wait until you’re ready.” These are helpful comments, as far as anything is helpful; they lessen my anxiety and confusion by reminding me that there is no timeline, there are no rules, there are no ‘oughts’ that follow from this shocking and disruptive ‘is.’ They are also, less reassuringly, very vague: nobody knows how much time or can say exactly what “it” is, or when, if ever, I’ll be “ready” for the things I currently can’t face doing—sorting through his belongings, for example, so poignantly scant and so heartbreakingly reminiscent of him. But it has been good to remind myself that it is OK for now just to get from one day to the next as best I can.

SnowyTreesThe world won’t wait for me, though. The days keep relentlessly coming and going, their accumulation inexorably putting distance between this sad present and the innocent times before—especially that last happy day, the day when he knew but we didn’t that it was the last one, the day he told us, as it came cheerfully to a close, that he would remember for the rest of his life (how different that remarks sounds today). And now winter is starting, slowly and haltingly but perceptibly, to change to spring. Usually I am impatient, desperate even, for this to happen: the contrast between the shorter, milder winters I experienced growing up in Vancouver and the longer, harsher winters we suffer through here has always made me depressed. I never understood why April would be considered cruel until I lived here; if winter comes, I often crankily exclaimed, spring can indeed be ‘far behind.’ Now, however, the lighter mornings, the lengthening days, the brighter sunshine all exert the kind of pressure on me that those consolatory phrases attempt to protect me from.

Mourning in winter has been very hard, and very isolating, because of the added complication of COVID concerns, but it has also made emotional sense to me that the weather has stayed as bleak as my feelings. “He left us in the dead of winter,” as Auden’s poem goes; “the day of his death was a dark cold day.” Beauty and brightness seem so incongruous. I went to the park one rare mild morning, hoping to find some consolation in the loveliness of sea and sky, but I was immediately flooded with memories and overwhelmed with grief knowing that Owen would never again turn his face to the sun.

PPP February 11 2022

It takes time, I know. I’ll try again, when I feel ready. But spring will come whether I’m ready or not, and this year I can’t imagine that the renewal of warmth and life around us will seem anything but painful, a constant reminder of our loss. It takes time—but “the dead slip away,” as Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’m not ready for that.

smith springAs it happens, my recent reading has also been seasonal, though I don’t think there’s any connection to these ruminations. At any rate, if there is a link, it’s not conscious or deliberate. Prompted by my attempts to conceptualize my book project, I looked up information about Ali Smith’s recent Orwell Prize win. What I read about it and her it sent me back to reread Autumn, which I had liked but not loved before; with questions about form and content and ‘novels with a purpose’ in mind, I found it engaging and thought-provoking, so I read on through Winter and Spring, and I will get to Summer soon. I’m not confident that the connections I was making between her series and the other earlier books I am planning to write about are good ones, or that it makes sense to include a contemporary example, but the flicker of intellectual excitement this idea gives me feels good enough to make it worth following up on anyway.

Image: Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Gallery)


Mona Arshi’s essay talked about Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow in a way that made me want to read it for myself. Riley wrote the essay after the sudden death of her grown son from an undiagnosed heart condition. After he died, she found herself experiencing time differently; the essay is a meditation on “that extraordinary feeling of a-temporality” and its implications for grief and consolation.

I hadn’t been thinking about my own experience in temporal terms, though I have often had the sometimes overwhelming sensation that I am standing still while the rest of the world is moving, which I suppose is a version of what she means about “living in suddenly arrested time.” When I try to describe my emotional state, I am drawn to metaphors of weight and especially of carrying: it’s a lot to carry, I can’t put it down, I can’t bear it, it’s very heavy. Arshi’s word “sticky” resonated with me because I also feel stuck in one place, unable to let go or move forward; there is a repetition, a sameness, even a tedium to my grief. Reading Riley’s essay, I thought that this feeling too could be a form of “temporal suspension,” a state in which, as she notes, “your reflections will crop up all over again but as if, on occasion, they’re newly thought.” On the other hand, perhaps her grief and mine are not the same: grief is such a strange blend of the intensely individual and the commonplace, even universal.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow begins with a series of notes recorded at intervals (from two weeks to three years) after her son’s death. They are followed by an analytical postscript that includes comments on some poetic treatments of grief and “temporal distortion”—”this is literary criticism as love,” Max Porter observes in his Afterword. After his own first reading, Porter says, he sat “marvelling that so few pages could have such an impact, could contain so much.” My own reading experience was not so thrilling. I found the essay more abstract than I expected, more conceptual, less immediate; I regretted the same lack of sentimentality Porter admires. Porter calls it “non-fiction burnished to the point of poetic intensity.” It is, but (like Riley’s own poetry) it’s very cerebral—which is not to say it is not often moving and powerful. There are lines in it that will echo in my mind for a long time, especially this one:

Perhaps what’s specific is this: that with the death of your child, your own experience of time may be especially prone to disturbance because the lost life had, so to speak, previously unfurled itself inside your own life.

Commenting on the inevitable return to “a communicable social life and its familiar chronology,” Riley notes that

the cost of recovering your conventional apprehension of flowing time is intolerably high. The dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.

How well that explains something I’ve been trying to understand: how being “stuck” in grief can feel preferable to the alternative, which is “a second, now final, loss.” Riley’s concluding vision, though, is a consoling one: a “temporality of love,” in which “the time of the dead is…freshly contained within your own.”

Riley’s collection “Say Something Back” is included in the same NYRB volume as Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Here’s an excerpt I particularly liked from one of its poems, “A Part Song”:


They’d sworn to stay for ever but they went
Or else I went—then concentrated hard
On the puzzle of what it ever truly meant
For someone to be here then, just like that,
To not. Training in mild loss was useless
Given the final thing. And me lamentably
Slow to “take it in”—far better toss it out,
How should I take in such a bad idea. No,
I’ll stick it out instead for presence. If my
Exquisite hope can wrench you right back
Here, resigned boy, do let it as I’m waiting.