Curtin University of Technology
The first dead body I saw was my mother’s. This wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds – I was at the place where you expected to see dead bodies, and I knew it was going to happen – but it was dramatic enough for me. It was a small room, her coffin propped up in the middle, flowers strategically placed in all corners of the room. Her eyes were closed, white satin framing her body and climbing her skin. I remember thinking her wrinkles were missing. Someone else’s make-up and her shirt buttoned right up to her neck and her downturned lips (I’d never seen her lips do that). Her body devoid of all the lumps and folds and lines I’d known. The mood lighting too; how it all formed some sort of grotesque retail display.
That word: grief. It is a word I never needed until I did, and then it wasn’t enough. It had always felt so far away from me – all black veils and drawn curtains and hushed tones – and the word just sank, vaguely and without effort, into a part of the universe I wasn’t interested in. And when it did catapult itself into my life, I spent days looking at it, willing myself to understand it like the inner workings of a clock.
I began writing, as we sometimes do, trying to find words for events that seem beyond them. A character appeared; a seven year-old redhead named Millie Bird. When I let her loose on the page, she asked all the questions I didn’t know how to answer.
Like Millie, and a lot of Western children I suspect, my Very First Dead Thing was Bree, our family dog. I was away at the time and never saw her body. I have never felt connected to that undulation in the ground beyond Nan’s lemon tree. There was Francesca, a loud and toothy friend I had when we lived in America. We were back in Australia when my parents led me into my room and closed the door behind them. Her heart stopped, Mum said, and cried. I waited until they left the room and cried too. I don’t know where I learnt to be ashamed to cry. In my journal, I wrote, When someone dies, it feels like you have pins and needles. I have no idea what this means, and I doubt I did then either, but I do remember trying to manufacture sadness; I do remember the guilt for not feeling enough. I was nine, I already had a new best friend, and Francesca had become this vague blob in my head that didn’t mean anything anymore.
I read Bridge To Terabithia (Paterson 1987) over and over again, and cried every time Leslie died. I’m not sure why I so enthusiastically subjected myself to this feeling. As I grew older, I cried watching the news of people dying in far-away places. Three of my grandparents died, in that inevitable way the elderly must. I cried at their funerals, and at other times, behind doors and under covers, but I was crying for them, and not for me; crying at old age, at the way life is, at how things don’t stay the same.
But then, on 27 January 2006, my Mum on the front page of the newspaper for all the wrong reasons: Freak Gate Crush Death in capitals. Letters so thick, so black; death so close it could have been me.
That word: grief. It is a word that has been forced on me, but it is a word that I have chosen to bring closer to me. Robert Neimeyer, with a nod to Freud, says that, for most of the twentieth century in Western culture, bereavement was understood ‘as a process of “letting go” of one’s attachment to the deceased person, “moving on” with one’s life, and gradually “recovering” from the depression occasioned by the loss so as to permit a return to “normal” behaviour’ (Neimeyer 2002: 2). Here, grief is an experience that you endure, and then it ends. As the literature on loss grew, he says, ‘this modern conceptualisation of grief was gradually expanded to detail...both “complicated” and “uncomplicated” bereavement, and the presumed stages through which it would be “resolved” ’ (2). These stages, or stage models as they are commonly referred to in the literature – this idea that grief could be universally experienced as unfolding in a specific sequence of phases – was popularised in the 1970s by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s (2003: 9) work on death and dying. She described Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance as the emotions one experienced when diagnosed with a terminal illness. Models like this ‘began to dominate the Western cultural perspective on bereavement’ (Hagman 2002: 16) because, Neimeyer says, they were ‘associated with recovery’ from grief, or closure on grief, offering ‘an apparently authoritative road map through the turbulent emotional terrain’ of grief (Neimeyer 2002: 2-3). This way of looking at grief ‘became accepted as nothing short of the truth’ (Hagman 2002: 16).
It makes sense to me, to want to classify grief in this neat way, because don’t we like order? Isn’t that why we get so much pleasure out of narrative? These stage models remind me of a narrative arc: beginning, middle, end; act one, act two, act three; set-up, confrontation, resolution. We do like to put labels on things, to shelve them in easily accessible containers, to put them in handy little books priced $19.95. It’s about comfort. More specifically, perhaps, it’s about control.
But as we move further into the 21st century, we start to see a backlash against this neat compartmentalisation of the experience of grief; the emergence of a “new wave”, one that embraces the disorder of grief. Pat Jalland, for example, author of Australian Ways of Death: Changing Ways of Grieving in 20th Century Australia,says that psychologists have ‘modified this early theoretical “stage” model’, arguing that ‘the final stage of “acceptance” of death had often been interpreted too rigidly to mean “closure” or detachment from the dead person’ (Jalland 2005: 355). The philosopher Thomas Attig, another contributor to this “new wave”, says, ‘Grieving is nearly always complicated – “nearly” because sometimes we grieve moderately for someone who was not particularly close...nearly “always” because, ordinarily, grieving involves nothing less than relearning the world of our experience’ (Attig 2002: 33). And this is where I caught the light: at ‘relearning the world’.
‘Relearning the world’ began for me at the Ho Chi Minh airport in Vietnam, when my Dad’s voice said over the phone, ‘Now you’re going to get some very bad news here, so you have to prepare yourself.’ It was my Dad’s voice, but it wasn’t my Dad, because he wasn’t supposed to say those kinds of things to me, and his voice had never sounded like that. And then the blur that followed: the lady at the check-in counter who said, so very bluntly, ‘What is the matter with you?’ And my discovery that, despite all my best efforts and expectations, I couldn’t say, ‘I just found out my Mum died,’ without crying. The man sitting next to me on the plane who said, ‘Have a cold do you?’ The CNN ad that kept appearing on the screen, ‘By the time this plane lands, the world will be a different place.’ The little boy who gave his Mum hell on the plane ride, and how much it startled me to realise that from now on I will notice mothers and their children. The circle of family that I fell into when I arrived at Melbourne airport; how seeing them made it suddenly very real. The front page of the newspaper with a picture of my Mum’s car and that horrifying white sheet next to it. Waking up that first morning without Mum and having to remember, again. The physicality of it, how my body was very much involved in this, how it was not just something of the mind. Having breakfast every morning with my brothers on the verandah of my mother’s house, taking time to share our dreams or nightmares, to cry, to laugh, to be silent together; I believe this is what saved me. Writing messages to Mum in the sand at the beach with my brothers on her birthday. We wrote them in really big letters, out of some sort of hope or instinct. How I constantly felt like someone else was speaking out of my mouth. How we didn’t know who to ask about getting rid of the pollen stains on the carpet. Finding a loving, adjective-heavy letter from me in amongst Mum’s things; the great, sobbing relief and the words I said over and over: ‘she knew.’ How the funeral came and went, and the flowers stopped coming, the casseroles stopped appearing, and no one visited anymore, and the quietness of it all was so loud.
Later, I would come across a line from Yeats in an Irish museum that would remind me of these early moments: ‘All is changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.’
In the beginning my grief made the world a television screen. It came upon me suddenly, this feeling that I was outside of everything and looking in; that I was somehow invisible to the people in the television. It gave me a most curious feeling of infallibility, coupled with an utter vulnerability. The glass eventually – shattered? Smashed? Broke? There was nothing that dramatic, that clear; nothing that metaphorically neat. It was more like a fading away; a barely perceptible slinking back onto the other side of the screen.
French philosopher Georges Bataille might call this a moment of ‘disintoxication’: ‘a brief awakening from the “projects” of love and work that function...like “narcotics” to help us repress the consciousness of our own mortality’ (Bataille 1988: ii). Virginia Woolf would say that I had experienced a ‘moment of being’ (cited in Schulkind 1990: 21). Where the individual is ordinarily cut off from “reality”, she says, there are ‘rare moments [when one] receives a shock’ (cited in Schulkind 1990: 21). Lynn Davidman in Motherloss describes experiences such as these as a ‘biographical disruption’ (Davidman 2000: 7), a break in the middle of a life story, causing someone’s narrative to depart from the traditional, linear life story most other people can tell, or, perhaps, for whatever reason (film, technology, hospitals, Western comforts), most people expect. My life was not to follow the linear structure that I assumed it would; the one in which I was married when I was supposed to, I got that book deal when I was supposed to, and people died when they were supposed to. My Mum’s death signalled a new Beginning, a new Middle, a new End. Like ‘relearning the world’, these phrases – disintoxication, a moment of being, a biographical disruption – felt closer to my experience of grief than the word grief ever could.
There were other things to notice: things I could do, and couldn’t do. There wasn’t anyone who specifically informed me of these social limitations, it was just instinct. I wasn’t supposed to cry in the middle of the supermarket. I wasn’t supposed to say that my Mum had died or was dead; I had to use skeletal phrases like passed away or gone. It seemed incredibly at odds with the way my Mum’s death was so brutally and succinctly worded in the newspaper – Freak Gate Crush Death – as if there were different rules for the words you say and the words you write. I wasn’t supposed to enjoy driving around in the car Mum died in. I loved, and still love, how close she was when I drove it. I had to park Mum’s car at least two blocks away whenever I was visiting friends and family, because, as a family friend informed me, ‘People don’t want to see the dent.’ The anger that rose in me at this; I wanted to scream, ‘But I’m her daughter, and if I have to see this dent written on everything that’s ever existed and will exist, then so do all of you.’ I wasn’t supposed to request a copy of the autopsy, and pore over it. I wasn’t supposed to ask to talk to the police about what happened. When the police officer showed me the statement from the man who had tried to save my Mum, and photos of the scene of the accident, he said, with a kind of wide-eyed breathlessness, ‘I haven’t included the other photos.’ I realised two things at this point: that photos of my Mum, dead, existed somewhere; and that this man was frightened I would ask to see them. I could see all these Not-Supposed-To’s on the faces of people around me; people who were overwhelmingly kind and supportive, but who told me with a flicker of their eyes that there were things I simply could not do.
Jules Renard said, ‘It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish,’ (1925, cited in Barnes 2009: 38) and, accordingly, it was at this point that I endeavoured to get answers the only way I knew how. I wanted to know that other people had blazed the trail before me. I longed for the shared experience. I dismissed the psychoanalytical books, the sociological, the psychological, the self-help (I would, of course, dissect them all in detail later) and made a beeline for the area in which I felt most comfortable: the books by people who I knew could write. There were three writers in particular whom I relied on at this time, and it is these three writers from three different time periods – Virginia Woolf, CS Lewis and Joan Didion – from whom I have learnt and continue to learn so very much.
Published in 1961, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed consists of notes from a journal he kept while grieving for the loss of his wife. It reads like a grief chart of sorts, plotting the process of his grief over an unspecified period of time in an emotional, honest and lyrical account. From Lewis, I quickly learnt that this Television-Screen Grief and Not-Supposed-To Grief – this feeling of being disconnected, of being on the margins, of being marginalised more specifically – is not unusual in the bereaved. The title itself, A Grief Observed, suggests a different version of this Television-Screen Grief, as if he is outside of his own grief, and bearing witness to it.He writes of an ‘invisible blanket between the world and me’ (Lewis 1961: 5), that eventually lifts without a ‘sudden, striking, and emotional transition’, but rather ‘like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time’ (52). Lewis also writes about the unexpected feeling of being marginalised, socially, by his grief.
And later, ‘Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers’ (Lewis 1961: 11). Poet and theorist Sandra Gilbert, author of Wrongful Death (1997), a memoir detailing the death of her husband in a botched operation, writes of her delight in stumbling across this passage by Lewis, as she, too, felt a ‘strangely muffled sense of wrongness’, a ‘mystifying oppression’ (Gilbert 2007: xx), a ‘persistent, barely conscious feeling that...in [her] sorrow [she] represented a serious social problem to everyone except [her] circle of intimates’ (xix). This ‘set of social and intellectual commandments “forbidding mourning”’, Gilbert says, was the driving force in her desire to write about it, ‘to assert [her] grief, to name and claim [her] sorrow’ (xx).
The most intriguing thing about this is the gap that begins to appear between that written on the page and that in the social realm. Gilbert talks of a ‘new, multifaceted attention to death and bereavement’ (xxi) taking place across fiction and non-fiction – and it is certainly my experience that there is no shortage of books on the subject of grief. Yet, there is still this ‘persistent, barely conscious feeling’ experienced by the bereaved that they ‘ought to be isolated in special settlements’. Western culture does not appear to have difficulty in digesting mediated representations of grief, but it is when you are the representation of grief in a social setting that the expression of grief becomes problematic. I can write it, but I cannot speak it. This brings new meaning to Ariès’ claim that, in contemporary Western culture, there is a ‘social obligation’ not to be sad, and to only be happy (Ariès 1974: 94) ; perhaps this ‘obligation’ does not apply to the written word. Perhaps, as writers, we have access to a cultural space that the general population does not.
Joan Didion also writes about this ‘set of social and intellectual commandments’ in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a memoir thatdescribes the year in which her daughter fell severely ill and her husband died of a heart attack (Didion’s daughter would also die after the book was published; Didion, however, refused to revise the book). When she arrives at the funeral home to prepare for her husband’s funeral, she is ‘so determined to avoid any inappropriate response (tears, anger, helpless laughter at the Oz-like hush) that [she] had shut down all response’ (Didion 2005: 18). It would be considered culturally and socially appropriate to cry within these walls of the funeral home – it would even be something the staff might expect – but Didion is so unsure of her new position within the culture, and so acutely aware of these ‘commandments’, these unspoken rules, that she is reluctant to let herself react at all. Later, when Didion turns to books to dissect her newfound experience of grieving – because ‘in time of trouble, [she] had been trained since childhood, read, learn...go to the literature’ (2005: 44) – she finds a scientific book that documents the most frequent immediate responses to death: ‘ “Subjectively,” ’ she quotes, ‘“survivors may feel like they are wrapped in a cocoon or blanket; to others they may look as though they are holding up well”’ (46). She refers to a comment that a paramedic had made about her at the time of her husband’s death: ‘Here, then, we had the “pretty cool customer” effect’ (46).
Didion’s memoir exemplifies this ‘cool customer effect’, in its analytically distant and emotionally restrained writing style, and in the way the work often reads like a literature review. It is obvious that Didion has read widely on grief, hospitals, memory, autopsies, and death. Like me, was she interested in those who had blazed the trail before her? Or is there something more to this: the idea of information as control? Didion is also careful to note dates, days and times for every movement, thought and gesture. This is in contrast to Lewis’s version, where we are very much lost and floundering in the temporal sense, not unlike the feeling of grief itself. Why does Didion see this to be important? Perhaps if she can assign a narrative arc to her experience, she can create some sort of order out of this unsettling disorder.
The intersection between the title of the book and her approach to the grieving experience is, however, perhaps the most revealing part of Didion’s memoir. Magical thinking refers to the ‘belief (especially characteristic of early childhood and of many mental illnesses) that thoughts, wishes, or special but causally irrelevant actions can cause or influence external events’ (Oxford University Press 2009). We see these moments of magical thinking peppered throughout her rational thoughts, such as the time she refuses to donate her husband’s clothing and organs because ‘how could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’ (Didion 2005: 41) Here is an irrational, unscientific and childlike idea coupled with an analytically detached style, the instinct to intellectualise, and the need to control. It was at this precise intersection that I learnt about the difficulty in labelling, controlling, or even defining grief; that grief, sometimes, cannot be intellectualised.
Part of my own process of ‘relearning the world’ is writing my own grief, like Lewis and Didion, but in a fictional form. Virginia Woolf says that this is something she did in To the Lighthouse (1927). In A Sketch of the Past, a memoir by Woolf, she describes To the Lighthouse as an elegy for the mother she lost when she was just thirteen years old. ‘I did what psychoanalysts do for their patients,’ she writes. ‘I expressed some very long and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest’ (Woolf 1990: 90). But just how much did she “lay to rest”? Literary critics, such as Mark Spilka in Virginia Woolf’s Quarrel With Grieving (1980), have long claimed that Woolf’s work and life was indicative of her constant state of pathological (or “complicated”) grieving, and that the quality of her life and work was diminished because of her inability to grieve in an “uncomplicated” (or “normal”) way. Tammy Clewell, however, in A Consolation Refused: Virginia Woolf, the Great War, and Modernist Mourning (2004), says that this way of reading Woolf’s fiction, ‘as a case history of neurotic grief’ (Clewell 2004: 198), has now ended. Critics now say that her unresolved grief was not the cause of her illness – that she was in fact an undiagnosed manic depressive – and that her work contributed to a ‘positive reinvention of mourning’ and a redefinition of the grieving process as an ongoing experience (198). ‘Her textual practice of endless mourning,’ Clewell writes, ‘compels us to refuse consolation, sustain grief, and accept the responsibility of the difficult task of remembering’ (199). Either way you look at it, her life and work demonstrate the sheer complexity of grief work (Attig’s notion that ‘all grief is nearly always complicated’), and that grief does not end. Most important of all, however, is that Woolf used the writing of fiction as a space to grieve.
Clewell also posits that it is precisely this ‘persistent attachment to the lost object’ that represents this approach to grief ‘not as a debilitating form of melancholia, but as a creative and productive engagement with the past’ (Clewell 2009: 7). Woolf, Clewell says, recognised that her ‘novels might step in and provide a kind of shared mourning practice ... for a culture bereft of viable expressions of grief ... by creating a social space and shared language for grief’ (2009: 13).
What does this all mean for me, as a grieving subject, writing a novel about grief? That I am “allowed” to keep my Mum close and ‘sustain grief’? That this may even help my creative practice (is this the ‘terrible beauty’ that Yeats was talking about?)? That I can use the writing of a novel as a space to grieve at a time when social expectations make these spaces difficult to find? Perhaps, but there is something more to this than just my own grief. Louise DeSalvo says:
As I write this novel, I become increasingly aware that it is, like Clewell says, ‘creating a social space and shared language for grief’. Not, of course, in the way Clewell intends when referring to Woolf – as a revolutionary figure in the field of grief in Western culture – but in a much humbler way that is about me, and the connections I am able to make with other people. In social settings, the very idea of my novel feels like a matchstick in my hand, and, once struck, flares up – colourfully and warmly. A person will begin a conversation with the ritual question, ‘What is your novel about?’ and end up relaying long, teary stories about their own experiences of grief. We begin as two “I”s, and then become “we”. It seems we want to speak grief, but we don’t know how. Or perhaps we don’t know when. It is in this way that my novel works as a shared site for the expression of grief, and as a way of making connections between that written on the page and that spoken in social settings. In writing this novel, I’ve come to realise how speakable grief really is; that, perhaps, all I needed to do was speak it in the first place.
Agatha Pantha is another character who enabled me to speak my grief, and is a part of my novel Lost and Found. If Millie tries to find out the answers for me, Agatha does not want to know the questions exist. An eighty-two year-old woman, she has not left her house since the day her husband died, seven years ago.
That word: grief. In bringing it closer to me – trying to catch the light with it – I have found the word is not enough. But there are other words, always. Relearning the world. A moment of being. Disintoxication. A biographical disruption. Complicated. Uncomplicated. An invisible blanket. A television screen. A cocoon. Individual. Shared. Never-never-ending.
Nearing the end of his memoir, Lewis finds the word ‘sorrow’ to be appropriate when talking about the endlessness of his grief:
Grief is not neat like a narrative arc. It does not end; it is not “resolved”. It does not follow a checklist of emotions from beginning to end. It is not one thing, or the other thing; it is lots of things. And to say that binaries and stage models are reductive approaches to the grief process is not new; there is, in fact, an entire body of theory devoted to this very notion. But the process of grief is new to me, and it is new to me every day. Every day I learn something about grief, from myself, from my writing, from others, from everything around me. In Lewis’s emotional and lyrical account, I learnt that he, too, felt socially marginalised; that he, too, felt disconnected from a world he once knew. And to experience this kind of connection with a devout Christian man, living in England in an historical period removed from my own, says something profound about the notion of grief; that, despite all I have said, there is an underlying universality to its experience. In Didion’s analytical and emotionally restrained memoir I recognised a shared instinct and need to intellectualise the process of grieving. In the study of Woolf I began to understand grief as an ongoing experience – as such I was able to relieve myself of the pressure to “get over it” – and I learnt how the writing of fiction could be used as a space to grieve. From all three, I learnt about the complexity, individuality and universality of grief; that in feeling marginalised, I was actually enduring a shared experience; that, perhaps, in a culture that puts limits on the spaces for grief, I am lucky to feel comfortable with the blank page. There are lines drawn on the air between us, these three writers and I.
There is no neat closure; it does not end. As I go about ‘relearning the world of [my] experience’, driving my Mum’s car around with the dent in the side, chronicling the adventures of Agatha and Millie, I will move back and forth and up and down and over and sideways through different stages of grief for as long as I’m allowed to be here. Like Woolf, Lewis and Didion, I am beginning to understand that grief is now, simply, a part of everything I do, everything I say, everything I write. Everything I am.
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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo