The Isolation of Grief
This past weekend, I thought about grief. I signed up for Quarterly with Maud Newton because she is one of my favorite critics and writers and I was interested in anything she might send me. As a small aside, I’ll leave it to you to guess what might irk me about this contributor list even though all the people on it are great. I mean… But this is not about that. Maud’s first mailing was about grief—a letter, a poem by Denise Levertov, Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, and the song, Tristesse, composed by Gérard Souzay. I had no idea what to expect from Quarterly but this was a really beautiful, well considered package. Newton even includes Post-It notes with thoughts and observations throughout Mourning Diary. It’s a nice touch.
As I read Mourning Diary, a book I would have never otherwise come across, I thought of how writers express grief, how it is both a blessing and a curse to have an ability to purge or intensely examine your grief through the written word. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, we see this intensity, this rhapsodic recitation of grief over the loss of a mother, how that grief changed Strayed, what she did to learn how to live with her grief. That book resonated with so many people because it was so naked, so honest.
I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way to write about grief. I have been fairly lucky to have little to grieve in my life. Still, I have grieved and there are times when I think grief can truly break a person. There are times when I think grief has broken me. For the past few years I have, in my way, been consumed with a grief. It spills into a lot of my writing, mostly my fiction. I write the same story over and over. There are differences, but there’s the same gaping loss or absence. I write my grief into my fiction because I can’t talk about it. I try and fail, even with my closest friends. I don’t know what to say or I know that if I start to talk about it, I won’t stop. This is why I think so much about strength and why I don’t feel strong. When I was younger, I just rolled with the punches. There were terrible things but I absorbed it and kept moving on. The older I get, the less I am able to absorb, the more that lingers on the surface of my skin. Or maybe I am just full up. Or maybe it’s healthy to allow myself to feel.
We don’t see a lot of writing on grief from men, or I should say, I am not very familiar with a lot of writing on grief from men. In Barthes’s Mourning Diary, I kept thinking, This fragmented, exquisitely naked morning, this is the only way to accurately capture the nature of grief, the wholeness of it.
Each passage is a note Barthes wrote to himself about how he grieved his mother’s death, how he suffered. There’s a freedom to the writing. Barthes looks his grief straight on, allows his grief to consume him, and maybe that’s best to just truly allow yourself to feel the depths of such sorrow. In the diary, Barthes writes about how he has lost many of his desires, how without his mother, there’s no real reason to live because there is no one, any longer, to live for. He says mourning is too psychoanalytic: “I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”
On November 21, he writes, “Depression comes, when in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing.” I keep coming back to this line because it is such an interesting articulation of that place of sorrow where not even writing can save you. I’ve been in that place. It is bleak and Mourning Diary shows that bleakness in ways that made me ache. For more than a year, Barthes writes how he lives within his grief, how he longs for his mother, how he struggles to connect with anything.
In Tristesse, there is a similar lamentation. Everything is lovely. April is in full bloom. People are enjoying themselves, their laughter filling the air. Young lovers are kissing passionately, languorously, and still, says the singer, he lives with a terrible sadness—une tristesse affreuse. There is nothing but this sadness. A man, it’s complicated, asked me this summer, “When are you going to stop writing these stories?” If I had read Mourning Diary or heard Tristesse by then, I might have said, when I no longer feel a terrible sadness. Instead, I said, “I don’t know,” and heard the disappointment in his silence reminding me that all the writing in the world won’t make grief a less solitary exercise.