What Am I To Do With These?

‘Jacob! Jacob!’ cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.

‘Such confusion everywhere!’ exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.

Bonamy turned away from the window.

‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’

She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.

“To that question,” Winifred Holtby notes in her book on Virginia Woolf, “there is, indeed, no satisfactory answer.” The novel’s final image “leaves an impression of apprehension, of the solicitude of women and of the indifference of fate . . . Its melancholy, its extraordinary desolation, are indefinable.”

The famous six word story (attributed, apocryphally, it seems, to Hemingway) “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as one of the saddest stories imaginable. I know that grief is not a competition, that there is no hierarchy of loss, and yet I have sometimes thought, since Owen died, that items often worn—like picture books often read—tell a tale every bit as heartbreaking, if not more, because they represent a love and a loss encompassing years. How well Woolf understood: I see myself in Jacob’s bereft mother, baffled, as I have so often been baffled, by the puzzle that completely ordinary things like shoes and clothes remain, even though the person who gave them meaning is gone. For nearly a year now, I have avoided them, but I have not been able to ignore them. Just by being present, by being what is left of him, they have relentlessly demanded my solicitude. But what am I to do with them?

There is, indeed, no satisfactory answer, but in the last few days, with loving help and support, I have at least (at last) done something. His clothes are cleaned, folded, and sorted, some ready to go to others who need them, some saved for our remembrance. I have never done laundry with so much love before: sad as it was, it also felt right, as if I was taking care of him again, as I did for so long. There is desolation in that, but also some comfort.

As always, a poet has shown the way.

“The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.

Reading Week Reflections

Reading

It took some effort and some strategic skimming, but I made it to the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. There’s a lot of it – but that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had felt there was more to it. What was all that accumulated information for, in the end? What comes of it? What are we left thinking about, after wading through so much detail about people who are by and large quite unsympathetic and disappointingly static? I was never exactly bored, but I was also completely unable to get my bearings at anything but the most literal level. But a lot of astute critics loved the novel (that’s one reason I bought it, after not having read anything by Franzen since The Corrections) so as always we are left with the great mystery of reading, the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of it all.

Now I’m reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study. I think it first caught my eye because it was on the Booker longlist. Then I read something else about it somewhere – now I can’t remember exactly what or where (typical of me these days, I’m sorry to say) that sharpened my interest enough that I went ahead and procured it. I’m engaged but not engrossed so far; we’ll see how it goes. I reviewed Burnet’s earlier novel His Bloody Project for Open Letters Monthly a few years ago and concluded it was “not wholly satisfying.” It too was a compilation of purported source documents; my main complaint (besides the voices being insufficiently distinct and exciting) was that it lacked a unifying idea about its elements. Maybe this should have discouraged me from trying another novel by the same author in so similar a vein, but Case Study seems tauter so far. I’ll see. If I can just concentrate on it long enough to read to the end, that in itself will be a mark in its favor.

Update: I did read Case Study to the end, and stayed interested in it the whole time. Success, then! I am not sure I read it in a suspicious enough way: I found the ending curiously anticlimactic and it was only on peering at some reviews that I started to think about more layers of unreliability and thus interpretation than had occurred to me on my own. Curiosity, too, rather than emotional engagement, was my main feeling as I read: I wanted to see how the elements were going to come together, and what they were going to mean, but I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome otherwise. It’s a clever book, maybe too clever for a reader like me whose first instinct, at some level, is to give myself over to the fiction, rather than to mistrust every move.*

Also on my TBR pile are Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club is doing next and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which a member of my book club talked about in such an interesting way at our last meeting that it inspired me to pick it up. I’m stalled about a third of the way into Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, and keep looking at but not actually starting Nicola Griffith’s Spear. I feel as if I keep picking the wrong books, as if my reading radar is malfunctioning. For this reason I am suppressing my urge to rush out and buy Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, even though everything I’ve heard about it so far makes it sound very tempting. Or maybe my “bandwidth,” as we like to call it nowadays, is just overwhelmed by the combination of work (which of course includes a lot of reading) and grief.

Reflections

Today is exactly one year since Owen moved back in with us, for what was meant to be a restorative stop-gap measure while we sorted out his next steps. The onset of fall weather, with its crisp sunshine and bright colours, has intensified the feeling I’ve talked about before of time coming somehow full circle: the intervening months have been so strange, so foggy and disoriented, and the events of this time last year are still so immediate and vivid in my mind, that it is almost easier to believe I am still there, in November 2021, than here, helplessly reaching back to that hopeful reunion across the unfathomable chasm Owen’s death created in my life and my memories. But I’m not there, of course, but here, and soon there will be other, even harder, markers of the relentless way time puts more and more distance between us. I think often of Denise Riley’s comment that “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” Current wisdom is that grief is best treated by finding ways to continue our relationships with those we have lost. It is an ongoing struggle, for me, to understand what that means in practice, although I am learning that it includes grief itself, which for now at least is the truest expression of my ongoing love for my son. Its pain is no less fierce now, but it is at least more familiar.

These lines by Philip Larkin capture so well what it feels like to live with sorrow, sometimes sitting quietly with it but sometimes sensing it stir, or stirring it yourself, so that it flares up once more, rending your heart. I know a lot of you live this way too. 

If grief could burn out
Like a sunken coal,
The heart would rest quiet,
The unrent soul
Be still as a veil;
But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,
The grey ash soft:
And I stir the stubborn flint
The flames have left,
And grief stirs, and the deft
Heart lies impotent.


* One of the challenges of a novel like Case Study for me is that, deliberately, we are discouraged from accepting any of it as sincere. And yet in the midst of it, there was a passage – narrated by a character we can’t trust, about someone who by the end of the novel I’m not 100% sure ever actually existed within its fictional space – that hit very hard:

Then something else occurred. One evening, as we sat at supper, I turned to the place Veronica had lately occupied and was about to say something to her, before I checked myself. For the first time, I keenly felt her absence. From that moment, I saw her death in a different light. There was a Veronica-sized void in the world. As well as her physical presence, the contents of her mind were gone. The question I had been about to ask would never be answered. Everything she had learned, the memories she had accumulated, her future thoughts and actions had all been snuffed out. The world was diminished by her non-existence.

In the novel, this moment is either poignant autobiography or strategically affecting fantasy (or, perhaps, sadly troubling delusion). Whichever of these it is meant as, it’s also, in its own way, truthful, as are many of Burnet’s remarks – off-hand though they seem – about suicide and “dark thoughts.”

Hands of Water

PPP flowers“This is me trying,” I said in a post back in May. I was trying to read again, and also to write about my reading again. I have been trying even harder recently, though with mixed success: I’m still abandoning more books than I used to, and watching TV instead of reading because it’s more quickly and easily distracting, but I’ve also written up some of the books I have managed to read in something more like the old spirit of “just say what you think and don’t second guess it.” What a liberating feeling that was, back in the early days of this blog, and it really has continued to be freeing—this space, while in some senses a public one, is my space, a place where I just write what I want to.

I was surprised, after Owen’s death, by how strongly I wanted to write about it. Words and phrases came to me and would echo in my head until I found a place for them. That still happens, but as time keeps relentlessly passing the sameness of my grief feels like a reason to write less about it; I have been trying, here anyway. What else is there to say, after all? My son is still dead; I am still grieving him daily and deeply. And yet things aren’t exactly the same: how could they be, eight months later? One of the strangest things for me now—and here I think I am understanding better what Denise Riley meant when she talked about her grief in terms of dropping out of time—is that the passing time suddenly feels less linear than circular, as if instead of its carrying me further and further away from Owen (unwillingly left behind in his timelessness, as Riley puts it), it is bringing me back, impossibly, to a time when he was right here with us, because it was just (just!) last summer that, after hardly seeing each other in person for the first year of the pandemic, we had begun visiting again, and just (just!) last August that he came to share his finished Hackenbush video with us. He was also starting classes again at Dalhousie; things seemed to be looking up on all fronts. Those days are so vivid, so immediate, in my memory, that it makes me literally dizzy sometimes when I bring myself back to this moment, this August, the start of this new term.

Something else that’s different is how emotionally confusing and therefore exhausting I’m finding the present. The early days of grief are awful but absolute, almost simple, I realize now: there are no options, no expectations, for anything besides mourning. I have learned so much about grief since then, from experience but also from others, and from reading. One thing I’ve learned is that “it takes time” doesn’t mean that with time the grief lessens; it means something more like you get used to living with it, you learn to walk around with it, but it’s still there, fierce and painful and disorienting. Something else I’ve learned is that grief changes your relationship with happiness. I’ve read a lot of poetry in the last few months, taking comfort in finding words “in the shape of [my] wounds” (in Sean Thomas Dougherty’s phrase). I like this poem by W. S. Merwin, which captures both the relief of finding words for my pain and the pain of encountering “the joy of the world” when it feels impossible to share in it.

Words

When the pain of the world finds words
they sound like joy
and often we follow them
with our feet of earth
and learn them by heart
but when the joy of the world finds words
they are painful
and often we turn away
with our hands of water

I am trying—to read, to write, to be—but it’s hard and uncomfortable and often I would rather not. Turning away is easier. Still, time keeps passing, and soon I won’t be able to default to comfortless passivity: next week, I will be back in the classroom.

In a Dark Wood: William Styron, Darkness Visible

Content warning: depression and suicide


styronThe vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal . . . is that of Dante, and his all-too-familiar lines still arrest the imagination with their augury of the unknowable, the black struggle to come:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.

Early in his brief “memoir of madness” Darkness Visible, William Styron tells us about the op-ed he wrote for the New York Times after Primo Levi’s suicide, which to his great annoyance had left so many “worldly writers and scholars . . . mystified and disappointed.” “The argument I put forth,” he explains,

was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.

Straightforward, perhaps, but the “spontaneous—and enormous” reaction to his article convinced him that it was worth saying more about his own experiences with depression. The result was first a lecture, then an article in Vanity Fair, and then this slim but powerful book.

darknessI read Darkness Visible on the recommendation of a friend who knew that I have been struggling to understand Owen’s decision to end his life from his point of view, not just because he did not share many details of his struggle but because I have never experienced depression myself—sadness, yes, and now grief, but these are far from the same thing.

There are always going to be things about Owen’s life and death that elude my understanding. An article I read about grief after suicide loss talks about the damage suicides do to people’s “assumptive world,” the things they assume to be true, which includes their beliefs about other people. There can perhaps be no more drastic reminder that other people are ultimately, precisely, other. I am working on accepting that many questions I have will never, can never, be answered. I also think it would be a mistake to think that depression in itself answers those questions: for one thing, as Styron emphasizes, many—in fact, most—people who suffer with depression survive it:

one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease—and they are countless—bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.

Still, keeping that in mind, and also knowing that Styron’s experience was uniquely his own (something else Styron is clear about—”I don’t intend my ordeal to stand as a representation of what happens, or might happen, to others”), I was grateful, reading Darkness Visible, for the clarity and intensity of its depiction of depression from the inside, from the perspective of the sufferer. It was not an easy read, especially in my situation, but it made depression less “unimaginable” for me.

Darkness Visible by William Styron: 9780679643524 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  BooksStyron dislikes the term “depression”: “melancholia,” he thinks, “would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder,” whereas “depression,” bland and innocuous sounding, inhibits understanding “of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron carefully chronicles his own descent into the worst of it, frankly examining the role of his drinking (which he believes actually held the depression at bay for some time), the onset of “a kind of numbness” in which his own body began to feel unfamiliar to him, and then a pattern of “anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread” leading to “a suffocating gloom” and “an immense and aching solitude.” He recounts the medications he took (this was before the widespread use of today’s most frequently prescribed antidepressants), the therapy he finally sought out, and his eventual hospitalization, which in his case proved life-saving, mostly because (as he tells it) it bought him precious time:

In the hospital I partook of what may be depression’s only grudging favor—its ultimate capitulation. Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.

visibleNot always, of course, and as a book like this can only be written by just such a survivor, it is bound to tilt more towards optimism than might in other cases seem warranted. From his own experience, Styron appreciates that convincing a depressed person (usually “in a state of unrealistic hopelessness”) to see things as he now does is “a tough job”:

Calling ‘Chin up!’ from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough . . . the endangered one can nearly always be saved.

In some ways, these cheering “chin up” sections of the book were harder for me to read than the other, grimmer parts. This one in particular actually angered me, for implicitly blaming friends and families for not offering dogged enough encouragement or, Styron’s other key term, “devotion,” to save their loved ones.

Instead, insofar as depression is an explanation for “drowning,” its deadly force surely lies in what Styron powerfully conveys as its horrors, which can be “so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression”: 

for those who have known it, [depression] is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death, and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.

“If our lives had no other configuration than this,” he considers that “we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish.”

PPP-ShoreTrue to his own experience, though, Styron does not end on this gloomy note, but on a more uplifting one:

For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.”

The last words of the book are not his but Dante’s:

And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.

I only wish that were true for us.

July

ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.

 

An Unwilling Elegy

reasons-endNo, it’s not an elegy, I thought. No parent should write a child’s elegy.

I read Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End three years ago. It was hard: I could barely finish it. “Imagine,” I said then. Now, of course, I don’t have to imagine.

I reread it this week, because I’m still always looking for words, and finding some comfort when they are in the shape of my wound.

Two more excerpts.

4.

Days: the easiest possession, requiring only automatic participation. The days he had refused would come, one at a time. Neither my allies nor my enemies, they would wait, every daybreak, with their boundless patience and indifference, seeing if they could turn me into a friend or an enemy to myself.

“I don’t have to live in days,” Nikolai says. “And yet I have to live in days,” his mother replies. Me too.

5.

Words provided to me—loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma—never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me. One can and must live with loss and grief and sorrow and bereavement. Together they frame this life, as solid as the ceiling and the floor and the walls and the doors. But there is something else, like a bird that flies away at the first sign of one’s attention, or a cricket chirping in the dark, never settling close enough for one to tell from which corner the song comes.

“I am in fiction now,” he says. Yes: but what story? This is the ongoing work.


yiyun-liJuly 2019

Three excerpts from an unwilling elegy.

1.

We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,

2.

How can anyone believe that one day he was here and the next day he was gone?

Yet how can one, I thought. How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end? And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?

How good you are, Nikolai said, at befuddling yourself.

3.

You write fiction, Nikolai said.

Yes.

Then you can make up whatever you want.

One never makes up things in fiction, I said. One has to live there as one has to live here.

Here is where you are, not where I am. I am in fiction, he said. I am in fiction now.

Then where you are is there, which is also where I live.

Some books are too hard to write about. Imagine how hard this one was to write: if you think about that while you’re reading it, you might have to stop, as I nearly did. I liked this review by John Self, in the Irish Times. This one by Rachel Veroff in the LARB is good too.

In This Room

Why did I come in here.

For Wedge.

Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.

I’ve been working (and it does feel like work) on going out a bit more—not far, not anywhere unusual or exciting, just out of the house and a little way further into what used to be my everyday world. I didn’t expect it would be so hard. I used to go to campus almost every day, after all; I worked in my office there five days a week pretty much year round, until we all went home in March 2020. I went there so often that I was getting tired of it. I used to pull into the parking lot with resignation. Now I arrive in tears. I can’t help it: they start on the way there, as I travel the streets and pass the schools that are mundane but evocative landmarks in our family history, and they continue as I wander the grounds where I loved to visit the kids at lunch time during their summer camps, and when I look up at the residence where Owen spent two pretty happy years and then more unhappy ones, and when I remember the flags flying at half mast in his honor. Then I sit at the desk where I have sat for so many hundreds of hours before, and there are pictures and reminders everywhere.

It isn’t just the memories, though: it’s the uncanny sensation I get when I’m there of having traveled back in time. Because I have spent so little time there since COVID, the campus feels as if it belongs to another life altogether—except that Owen was alive in that other, past, life, so the disorientation that has settled somewhat around home (where he has been dead for so long now) comes back full force. “Every new room you enter,” the grieving narrator realizes in Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, “you will make your dad dead in it.” That’s it exactly: that’s why it is so hard “just” going back to campus, and why it was also so hard when I made myself go to the Public Gardens, where I had not been since just before he moved back in with us in November. I love the Public Gardens, but going there meant that now Owen is dead there too.

Everywhere I go, I have to keep doing this. It’s easier when I have a focus, a task, a distraction, a friend. Constant distraction is a kind of avoidance, though, a way of not thinking or feeling. It’s a useful strategy—it has been invaluable, really, essential (as mindless TV has been) for helping me get through this hardest of all times. Before long I am going to need to be able to walk across the quad and not break down, though, and that means not just getting used to being there again but somehow closing the gap between the old life it was the setting for and the realities of my life now. I’ve been thinking again about Woolf’s image of the corridor between two blocks. I feel as if I am still in that transitional space: I am further along it, but I haven’t emerged yet, and I haven’t yet figured out that new story that reconciles what still seem like incompatible realities—the sameness of it all, and, simultaneously, the absolute difference of it. The dissonance still can make me reel, literally. I have been grateful for the quiet benches that let me rest for a while, just sitting with the sadness until I’m ready to take it with me somewhere else.

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.