Guest Blog by Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D.
When my sister died suddenly, unexpectedly, I should have had all the books I needed. I was a clinical psychologist with 20 year of experience. My office was filled with books on adult trauma and grief, and child therapy texts to help me console my three-year-old niece whose mother was suddenly gone.
But none of it helped. I’d sit, reading page after page without remembering a word. None of it made sense. It was logical, sequential, practical. And what was going on inside me was chaos.
The first book that made any sense to me was a small paperback I got from the local Center for Grieving Children (Companion through the Darkness: Inner Dialogues on Grief, Stephanie Ericsson, 1993). It was written by a 35- year old woman, pregnant with her first child when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. It had nothing to do with my loss, but it had everything to do with my pain.
Ericsson wrote each chapter in two fonts; one a voice of descriptive explanation, framing the topic at hand. The second, in italics, told the experiential story: fluid, wilder, a rageful journal entry, a crazed letter to her beloved, or a moment of finding herself frozen in the world.
Profound grief is one of the most primitive, dislocating experiences any of us will have. What we reach for, what helps the most, is knowing one thing: others have felt this devastation and survived. Others have walked this treacherous ground and found a path. It does not matter that their path is different, their loss unique. What matters is sharing the human experience of terror and despair that defines profound grief. Knowing that there are words for this pain grounds us and gives us a floor to stand on as we face the unknown.
This may be why memoir remains the most powerful way to write about grief. And why memoirs that do it best, endure. C.S. Lewis’s 1961 classic, A Grief Observed, is a profoundly personal, but universal story. When Lewis loses his wife to cancer, he loses his deeply held Christian faith as well. His story resonates with anyone who has experienced how one profound loss can upend everything we believe, all the truths that we hold dear about ourselves and the world. Walking with Lewis as he finds his way back to his God is an exercise in trust. If he can find something to hold onto again, so can I.
Joan Didion has written two books that articulate grief in profound ways. A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is her memoir of the year following her husband’s death. She dances with insanity, feels her mind losing hold on reality, and describes it with unflinching honesty. No one reveals this aspect of grief better. The wondering if it will drive you insane, or, at times, if it already has. In her deepest pain, she lives in magical thinking, flitting between denial and despair, desperately trying to wind reality back in time, living in a myth that she can undo the truth, then wondering if that means she is losing her mind.
A year and a half after her husband’s death, their only child, daughter Quintana, dies at age 39. It takes years before this story is written. Blue Nights (2011) follows a stream of consciousness of grief, the wailing, wounded words that often cannot form a sentence, but somehow convey meaning. It is a different loss, this out-of-sequence burying of a child. And the writer’s language reflects that brokenness. Nothing is ordered or logical, yet the reader understands.
Two other grief classics have stood the test of time. Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 1981), a conservative rabbi, watches progeria condense decades of his son’s life into months, his whole life into a few short years. His faith collides with the tragedy unfolding before him, and he struggles to find reason and God.
At the other end of life, Morrie Schwartz invites his student to visit, to talk with him about the process of his own dying. Tuesdays with Morrie (Albom, Mitch, 1997) invites us in to those visits, and in his gentle confrontation with pain, and dignity, Morrie teaches us how to grieve ourselves.
These books all taught me something about grief. But more importantly, they gave me the courage to choose memoir when it was my turn to write. And when I’m asked why, I answer with a simple truth. We learn best from story, from myth and parable and oral histories that resonate with the deepest human experiences. We find comfort and courage in that resonance, and can find our own way home from there.
Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is the author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child. Visit her at www.maryeplouffeauthor.com or look for essays and musings on grief at Mary E Plouffe author on Facebook.