Memoirs Help Normalize Grief
May 5, 2016
Grief experts agree that widows get too much advice—too many people telling them how to grieve, how long to grieve, when to make decisions, when to move on. What works for one person may not work for another. There is no single right or wrong way to mourn the loss of a spouse. Nevertheless, most books on grief are how-to books written in second-person. Self-help books also tend to deal with only a few aspects of grief: What one needs to know in settling the estate, in managing finances, in dating again, in rearing children alone.
The experts also agree that platitudes about the loved one being with the angels and the like are not helpful, yet most religious devotional books on grief do exactly that. And while they usually concentrate on faith, heaven, and eternity, other books are almost completely devoid of any reference to the spiritual dimension of grief and healing.
When Lev died, I found no books on grief that helped. Instead, the Apostle Paul’s short letter to the Philippians, crammed with the words joy and rejoice, became the roadmap for my journey from grief to joy. I did not begin to read the literature of grief until almost five years later, when my own memoir was almost finished.
These books by widows are beneficial because they capture the craziness and haziness of those first months. Like grief recovery groups, they normalize the experience of overwhelming grief for the new widow. She learns that she is not alone. She is not losing her mind. Her reaction is normal. However, many memoirs are based on journals kept those first dark, painful months. Few offer hope that life will be good again.
The stories of sudden, unusual, traumatic, and young death are more likely to be published; yet less than one percent of women under 40 are widowed and under two percent of women between 40 and 49. The overwhelming majority of memoirs are self-published. However, I recently stumbled upon an exception, the story of a 78-year-old woman, widowed after 54 years, published by Knopf and breaking into the best-seller list.
On My Own, by Diane Rehm
Journalist and long-time NPR host, Diane Rehm begins: “On June 14, 2014, my husband, John Rehm—age eighty-three—began his withdrawal from life. The aides at Brighton Gardens were instructed to stop bringing medications, menus, or water. His decision to die came after and long and difficult conversation the day before with [his physician]….”
John’s quality of life had seriously deteriorated due to a longtime, losing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Diane sat beside her husband’s bed for 10 days and watched as he starved himself to death. As I read, I had flashbacks of my parents’ long, slow, cruel deaths (Mama’s also from Parkinson’s), rather than Lev’s. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how many times I thought, that’s how I felt or that’s what I did. I will not become an advocate for the right to die, as Rehm has become, but neither will I judge her.
No one else is qualified to judge another’s behavior in the aftermath of death. As Mama lectured me after a cousin lost her husband when they were in their early 30s: You can’t judge until you have walked in her moccasins and slept in her tipi. [Widows, having walked down the long road of grief, wearing in the same moccasins, sleeping in the same tipi, are generally even more determined than before not to judge others who grieve.]
Those of us who grieve will identify with Rehm’s guilt—her decisions to move John from their small D.C. apartment to an assisted living complex, rather than modify the space and hire round-the-clock caregivers; and to continue to work instead of becoming his fulltime caregiver. We all have guilt and regrets. Rehm spends a lot of time looking back on her marriage, regretting the periods of stress and emotional withdrawal, regretting not spending more time with her children when they were growing up.
She eventually arrived at the place that most of us reach: Acceptance, letting go of what if and if only, planning and repurposing her life “on my own.” She wrote her slim book a year after John’s death. I look forward to hearing her twice at the upcoming Nantucket Book Festival: “Reading and Writing in Times of Crises” and “On Her Own: Continuing Chapters.” With two years of reflection behind her, will her outlook be different? I will report in a blog next month.
Diane Rehm: On My Own. New York: Knopf, 2016.
Three More Memoirs
The Light of the World: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Alexander, was published in April 2015. Alexander, a noted poet, was married 15 years to an artist from Eritrea, in East Africa; and her grief was that of a 50-year-old woman with two young sons. Her descriptions of him and his culture, of their family life, and their love are lyrical; and her ability to describe her grief resonates. My bed, the bedroom, the house, was suffused with sorrow. Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.
Unlike memoirs of grief by two literary authors a generation older than she, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, Alexander’s book expresses hope for the future and gratitude for what she had and what she still has.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, was published in 2007, three years after her husband died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. For much of that first year, her only daughter was in a coma, greatly complicating Didion’s grief.
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, by Joyce Carol Oates, 2011, also dealt with the sudden death of her husband in February 2008. Both Didion and Oates describe the horrors of those first months of widowhood in painful, graphic, elegant language. Both are very dark, devoid of faith and hope. Some reviewers criticized Oates for ending her story in August 2008, before she met Dr. Charles Gross, a professor of neuroscience, whom she married in 2009. It was as if—to tell a more compelling story—she omitted the fact that life does go on and can be happy.
All four memoirs of grief assure new widows that they are not losing their minds. The waves of grief that pound them are normal. It is as if there is a lexicon of metaphors of grief. That is probably the greatest value of memoir, especially for those widows who do not have friends who can function as role models and mentors. While these unique, individual experiences often fail to offer explicit guidance on how to move from grief to happiness, the continuing, active lives of the authors are testimony that—yes—we can reclaim joy.