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.


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.