Nicole Kidman on Losing Her Father

While promoting her latest film, Before I Go to Sleep, Nicole Kidman appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and spoke about the recent death of her father. She credited her husband, Keith Urban, with helping her to survive the ordeal. She also spoke about the reality that, in our society, we shy away from talking about death but connecting with other people can actually be very beneficial and make us feel less alone.

Nicole Kidman is an actress I admire. Several of her films--primarily The Hours and Birth--have profoundly affected my life. When I heard that her father died, I was saddened. The truth is, any time I hear that a woman has lost her father, a pain goes through my body because I know that she will never be the same and will have to find her own way of grieving and living with the loss.

I Want To Remember

I never want to forget my mother and I on the porch at night, laughing and talking, the scent of her cigarette on the wind, the lights of the stars trembling in blackness. The feeling of a full, warm, solid life. Our laughter cuts the silence apart, our voices spread into the night, the concrete porch is cool under my bare feet. I want all that my skin can hold, all that a life can be. I want to know that I touched love. I want to remember it. Only the memories are left. Memories on top of one another, strata of time and beauty. Maybe I'm always digging back. Maybe life is archaeology in the end and we keep excavating our pasts for the bright, glittering shards, the ruins that mark our place. This is what I had, I'll say to myself after it is gone.


Jean Valentine - Friend

You came in a dream, yesterday
--The first day we met
you showed me your dark workroom
off the kitchen, your books, your notebooks.

Reading our last, knowing-last letters
--the years of our friendship
reading our poems to each other,
I would start breathing again.

Yesterday, in the afternoon,
more than a year since you died,
some words came into the air.
I looked away a second,
and they were gone,
six lines, just passing through.

for Adrienne Rich

with thanks to Except in Dreams

Kevin Young - Wintering

I am no longer ashamed
how for weeks, after, I wanted
to be dead - not to die,

mind you, or do
myself in - but to be there
already, walking amongst

all those I'd lost, to join
the throng singing,
if that's what there is -

or the nothing, the gnawing -
So be it. I wished
to be warm - & worn -

like the quilt my grandmother
must have made, one side
a patchwork of color -

blues, green like the underside
of a leaf - the other
an old pattern of the dolls

of the world, never cut out
but sewn whole - if the world
were Scotsmen & sailors

in traditional uniforms.
Mourning, I've learned, is just
a moment, many,

grief the long betrothal
beyond. Grief what
we wed, ringing us -

heirloom brought
from my father's hot house -
the quilt heavy tonight

at the foot of my marriage bed,
its weight months of needling
& thread. Each straightish,

pale, uneven stitch
like the white hairs I earned
all that hollowed year - pull one

& ten more will come,
wearing white, to its funeral -
each a mourner, a winter,

gathering ash at my temple.

with thanks to Except In Dreams

Michel Faber Eulogizes Wife in Final Novel

The New York Times writes about Michel Faber's decision to give up writing novels. Faber wrote his latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, while his wife was dying, and the author says that it will be his final book. Many believe his decision is the result of profound grief over his wife's death.
Those who work closely with Mr. Faber say that his decision to stop writing novels may be a manifestation of grief for Eva Youren, his companion of 26 years and his wife since 2004. 
“Eva was the one he wrote for, and he was blessed in having someone of her intelligence and judgment be his constant sounding board,” said Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate, which has published Mr. Faber’s books in Britain for 16 years. “In terms of his creative process, she was the absolute center of it.” 
Mr. Byng said that Mr. Faber’s decision to end with a novel that eulogizes his wife was fitting. 
“It’s such an extraordinary novel about grief and loss and people being forced apart, and the emotional integrity and power comes from the very heartbreaking things that he was going through when he was writing it,” he said. “If it’s the last novel that he ever writes, so be it.” 
Mr. Faber, who lives in the highlands of Scotland, said that lately he’s been writing poetry about Eva and may eventually seek to publish some of it. He also hopes to find an outlet for the creative work that she left behind, he added, which included writing and photography.
Read the full article 

Mourning Attire in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently showing the exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. According to The Guardian, it traces "the evolution of mourning garments through the 19th and 20th centuries." I've mentioned the exhibition on this blog before, but now I can post more photos from the retrospective.

All images are courtesy of The Guardian, Newsweek, The New Republic, Time, The Daily Beast, and New York Magazine

Detail of a Victorian mourning dress
A black straw and silk mouring hat from around 1915.

Mourning dresses

Mourning dresses

Mourning dresses

Mourning dresses

Evening dress, ca. 1861

Mourning Dress, 1902-1904

Mourning dresses

Mourning dress

Evening Dress, 1902

Evening dresses

Brooches from the 1850s and 1860s, filled with human hair

A mourning parasol made of silk, wood and tortoiseshell.
Actor Pola Negri (centre) is supported by friends at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral.

Marlene Dietrich at Edith Piaf’s funeral.

Racegoers at Royal Ascot in 1910, after the death of Edward VII. It became known as ‘Black Ascot’.
Jacqueline Kennedy in the funeral procession for her husband, JFK.

Crown Princess Michiko wearing mourning clothing after meditating before Emperor Hirohito’s coffin.

Queen Victoria after the death of her daughter,Princess Alice, with Alice’s husband and children.

Using Books to Explain Death to Children

The Guardian provides a selection of picture books that explain death to children and young adults. Loss is a difficult thing for a child to understand but, by using books, adults can prepare and comfort a grieving young person. Books can make death a more approachable subject rather than one to avoid.
Dealing with death, in picture books and early readers, is a challenge for parents and publishers alike. There’s often a knee-jerk feeling of revulsion to contend with – “That’s a bit dark”, or “Surely they’re too young for that?” – the readerly equivalent of the sign against the evil eye. 
But toddlers and pre-schoolers are likely to encounter some form of loss, even in their early lives – whether in animal form, or when a grandparent or even a parent dies. For a choked-up, grieving adult, or for one who wants to prepare a child for life’s only inevitability, a well chosen book can speak volumes.
Read the full article and recommend other books for bereaved children 

The Political Power of Grief in Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone

The opening chapter of Every Man Dies Alone is one of gradually accumulating dread. The tension mounts just as Eva Kluge, the mail woman, climbs the stairs to the second-floor apartment of Otto and Anna Quangel, an elderly couple living in Berlin during Hitler's reign. It is the beginning of World War II and their son, Otto (tenderly referred to as Ottochen), is a soldier in the German army. In her hands, Eva Kluge holds Otto's death notice and she must hand it over to the Quangels. The loss will irrevocably alter their lives, plunging them into a deadly confrontation with the Nazi state.

The Quangels are based on the real-life Hampels, who wrote subversive postcards encouraging the German people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. From 1940 to 1942, Otto and Elise Hampel secretly placed the postcards all over Berlin until they were arrested and later executed by beheading in 1943.

Otto and Elise Hampel

Postcard written by the Hampels

Through a friend, Fallada discovered the Gestapo files on the Hampels and decided to write a book about the couple. In Fallada's fictionalization of the Hampels' story, he raises compelling questions about morality in times of war, what it means to resist a genocidal government, and how our individual actions ripple across history. But what I want to examine is the role that grief plays in the narrative.

I want to return to the opening scene of Every Man Dies Alone and the moment at which the Quangels learn of their son's death. In real life, Elise Hampel lost her brother, not her son, but Fallada makes a carefully calculated decision to portray the loss of a child and the devastation it causes. Anna Quangel's expression of grief is visceral. As she reads the death notice, "she emits a soft scream, a sound her husband has never heard from her." Her grief is intensely physical: her "cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake." Otto has not yet read the letter and doesn't know what it contains. Upon asking Anna to explain why she is reacting in such a violent way, she says "What do you think's happened? Nothing has happened, there is no Ottochen anymore, that's all!" The quake in Anna's body extends to the room as a fault line forms between Anna and Otto, separating them in their opposite expressions of grief. She is shaken while he remains stoic, unsure of what to say and unable to comfort his wife.

The death of Ottochen is a personal moment of rupture for the Quangels, but also a catalyst for political action. While the initial, brutal shock of his death temporarily cleaves Anna and Otto apart, they come together in a shared desire to fight back against the Nazi state that murdered their son. Grief awakens the Quangels, stirs them from their passivity and moral complacency. Grief at once destroys and rebuilds them. Who they were before Ottochen's death is obliterated. They are reborn as individuals dedicated to resistance.

Many lives were lost over the course of World War II. Every instance of personal loss did not spark a larger political consciousness but, for the Quangels, their grief is not just individual but social. It represents a call to arms, an awakening to the shared grief of an entire nation trapped under totalitarianism. Rather than seclude themselves or turn inward, the Quangels are compelled to do something, to take drastic measures. Writing postcards and placing them in public areas throughout Berlin may not seem like a major project and it certainly does not rise to the level of what partisans and organized resistance movements throughout Europe were doing during World War II, but, nevertheless, it carried the punishment of death. Anna Quangel observes that "whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back."

The Quangels' first postcard directly addresses the death of their son and uses Ottochen's death as a rallying call for the people of Germany to stand up against Hitler and the Nazis. The card begins with the provocative statement: "Mother! The Führer has murdered my son." It continues with: "Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world." The Quangels use their grief to appeal to the mothers of Germany (and the world), to warn them that more death is coming and they too will know the grief of losing a child. The postcard could have started out in a number of ways, appealing to other demographics and rasing other issues but it is telling that a mother's grief is what the Quangels choose to emphasize.

For the Quangels, this is the natural thing to do. Grief triggered their political awareness and their subversive acts of treason. Without the death of Ottochen, there are no postcards. His death and the personal devastation it causes directly instigates the Quangels' political resistance. Fallada writes:
The first postcard in the war that was started by the death of their son is rightly about him. Once, they had a son; the Führer murdered him; now they are writing postcards. A new chapter in their lives. On the outside, nothing has changed. All is quiet around the Quangels. But inside, everything is different, they are at war.
People enlist in causes for countless reasons, from a desire to help their communities to a lust for power. For the Quangels, their fatal plunge into the anti-Nazi resistance movement, though performed on a small scale, is inspired by grief. The personal automatically becomes the political in the world of the Quangels. Shattered by the death of their son, they choose to fight back against the system that killed him and to use their grief as a warning call to others that, until the Nazis are defeated, the death will continue, children will keep dying, and mothers and fathers across Germany will suffer the Quangels' same fate.

Grief can be debilitating but it can also be a force for consciousness-raising, for ethical engagement, for communal connection. Grief can inspire massive protests or even just individual acts of courage that may seem small but can reverberate through history and affect the future in unknown ways. The Hampels were executed; they did not bring down the Nazi state on their own, but that's not what mattered. Though they died, they went to their death knowing that they had taken a stand for what they believed in. Fallada honors their lives in Every Man Dies Alone and ensures that their acts of bravery, rooted in profound grief, are never forgotten.

Dorianne Laux - Evening

Moonlight pours down
without mercy, no matter
how many have perished
beneath the trees.

The river rolls on.

There will always be
silence, no matter
how long someone
has wept against
the side of a house,
bare forearms pressed
to the shingles.

Everything ends.
Even pain, even sorrow.

The swans drift on.

Reeds bear the weight
of their feathery heads.
Pebbles grow smaller,
smoother beneath night’s
rough currents. We walk
long distances, carting
our bags, our packages.

Burdens or gifts.

We know the land
is disappearing beneath
the sea, islands swallowed
like prehistoric fish.

We know we are doomed,
done for, damned, and still
the light reaches us, falls
on our shoulders even now,
even here where the moon is

hidden from us, even though
the stars are so far away.

with thanks to The Bakery

Jane Kenyon - What Came to Me

I took the last
dusty piece of china
out of the barrel.
It was your gravy boat,
with a hard, brown
drop of gravy still
on the porcelain lip.
I grieved for you then
as I never had before.

with thanks to

James Richardson - Metamorphosis

The week after you died, Mom,
you were in my checkout line,
little old lady who met my stare
with the fear, the yearning
of a mortal chosen by a god,
feeling herself change
painfully cell by cell
into a shadow, a laurel, you, a constellation.

with thanks to

What Could Have Been

I woke this morning thinking about my father. I remembered the two of us together, how our lives were once joined. Now we are separate, as "I" and "him"-- no longer "we."

I remembered his physical presence in the house and in my life. I remembered him laying on the couch in the living room; that's where he often napped and watched television.

 I remembered how he hugged and kissed me before he went to bed each night. I remembered the two of us talking. Small things, small memories that matter only to me but that were constant, dependable, real things in my life.

Memory gave way to speculation about the future he never had. He died in 2006. I tried to transplant him to the world of 2014. Would he be on facebook and twitter? What would he post? Would he use spotify or stay faithful to his CDs and vinyl records? I don't know. I will never know. This not-knowing is painful.

When a person dies, you lose them as they were but you also lose them as they might have been. I mourn that. I grieve the loss of the self he might have become, how he would have evolved and transformed.

 I also mourn the fact that he will never know me as I am and that I have been deprived of him for eight years--deprived of his love and how it could have enriched my life. Who would I be today if he had not died?

With his death, I lost him, I lost my past, my childhood, and I lost my future.

I'm shattered. I won't apologize for it. I won't be ashamed to wake up thinking about him. I deserve to grieve and his life deserves to be grieved.

Grief is the gift I give; it's how I say that I love him, I miss him, I remember him.

W.H. Auden - Funeral Blues

John Hannah recites "Funeral Blues" in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


written on October 6th and 7th of 2014 while in the waiting room of the hospital where my father died in 2006

I feel an unspeakable pain

The hospital is a window to another world

In the waiting room, an elderly couple sits across from me. A woman and a man enter, sit at a table. The woman is crying. The man mentions there are no tissues. The elderly woman rummages through her purse, finds a tissue, and takes it to the crying woman. The phone rings. The crying woman answers it but cannot speak. The man takes the phone and explains to the caller that the crying woman's mother will be taken off life support and will not die for another few days. The man and woman get up to leave but the woman pauses before opening the door and thanks the elderly woman for the tissue. I imagine she will always remember that one act of kindness. All of this makes me cry.

Another woman comes into the room later. She is also on the phone with someone. She says she is "all tore up" over her sister who is dying of uterine cancer. The dying sister told her, "I wanna die. I wanna die. I wanna go to heaven. I wanna go to heaven."

This place is outside life, outside the world, or is it at the very heart of it?

People arrive here and never leave.

Families gather.

I hate being here, the place where my father died. To be here is always traumatic. Is he still here? Do the hallways and rooms remember him?

The gravity of this place.

Terrified of ending up here not as a visitor but as a patient.

Hospitals make the body visible, mortal. You feel like an embodied person.

People are dying and the trees keep swaying. Our breath stops but the wind never does.

We turn off life support and continue. We gather around deathbeds and continue. We grieve and continue.

We delay death but do not destroy. How I long to destroy it.

I know what it's like to enter a hospital as one person and to leave as another. The hospital is the threshold between life and death, between before and after.

Elegy, Edward Hirsch, and the Work of Mourning

At The Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Gerstler writes about how elegy creates a space in which grief and mourning can occur. As death is increasingly hidden in Western society and grieving consigned to the private rather than public sphere, poetry gives us permission to express our grief and to remember the dead. Gerstler discusses how Edward Hirsch's Gabriel--a book-length elegy for the poet's son--approaches the work of mourning and resists the glorification of the dead by constructing a complicated and nuanced portrait of the deceased. Hirsch mourns his son through poetry, and he also humanizes him.
The successful elegist may create portraits not just of the deceased in their complexity and vitality, but also of their time, milieu, struggles, and relationship to their elegist and/or the world. The elegist may also create a map of grief itself, its wrenching particularities and historical resonances, and the stubborn resistances to language that real anguish reveals. 
Elegy is both artifact and illumination of “the work of mourning,” which is incredibly important, persistent, and I would say noble human work. The phrase is Freud’s, from his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” and Edward Hirsch quotes it as part of the “elegy” entry in A Poet’s Glossary, a readable, mightily erudite single-volume encyclopedia of every poetry-related term you’ve ever heard, and a few you never dreamed existed.In defining elegy, Hirsch writes, “It ritualizes grief into language and thereby makes it more bearable.” (He is careful not to credit poetry with the impossible, writing not “bearable” but merely “more bearable.”) 

Lack of shared ceremony around grievous loss is oft-cited as a reason elegiac poetry is now more crucial than ever in Western societies. According to this line of thinking, our ability to mourn effectively and collectively has deteriorated with the erosion of shared traditions and beliefs, and the loss of communal rituals and forms. It may be one of elegy’s most important missions to address that growing lack, to remind us that forms and time for mourning were once embedded in our culture because we actually need them.
Read the full article 

Kathryn Simmonds - Elegy for the Living

We wash up side by side
to find each other

in the speakable world,
and, lulled into sense,

inhabit our landscape;
the curve

of that chair draped
with your shirt;

my glass of  water
seeded overnight with air.

After this bed
there’ll be another,

so we’ll roll
and keep rolling

until one of  us
will roll alone and try to roll

the other back — a trick
no one’s yet pulled off — 

and it’ll be
as if   I dreamed you, dear,

as if   I dreamed this bed,
our touching limbs,

this room, the tree outside alive
with new wet light.

Not now. Not yet.

with thanks to The Poetry Foundation

Colm Tóibín on the Literature of Grief

At The Guardian, Colm Tóibín writes about the experience of losing his father at a young age and how this became the inspiration for his new novel, Nora Webster. He also delves into the long history of literature about grief.
Novelists make things up, but the things, or the feelings surrounding them, come from the world; they have a shape like the world's shape, or the shape, indeed, of experience, including the writer's experience or the writer's pressing concerns. Thus the experience of grief for a novelist makes its way into the work in the same way as the waters from the flood may be channelled into a living stream. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, the books about losing her husband and her daughter, and Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name, his book about the death of his wife, use with skill and subtlety the very gift for narrative which distinguishes the authors as novelists.
The novelists have become characters in their own books. By the urgency of the tone, they make clear, however, that, in the aftermath of loss, nothing they can invent compares to it. And that, since they are writers, what happened needs to be written down so that it can be known and shared and understood, so that it can lose its incoherence. And so that they, in their powerlessness and helplessness, can at least still do this, can at least write down what it was like.
Read the full article