Coping with Grief Through Books

At the BBC, Hephzibah Anderson recommends books that offer comfort during bereavement. Anderson's list is a solid collection of grief texts that, I think, others will find useful, like C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and the anthology Poems of Mourning by Everyman's Library Pocket Poets.

Lewis's A Grief Observed is at the top of a great stack of books on my night table. I reach for it often, opening to a random page and finding a passage that knocks the wind out of me. The rawness is so refreshing, so necessary, especially at times when I feel so raw myself. I need to connect with a language that is equally raw and truthful, that doesn't pretend to put a positive spin on devastation. I need the bones and blood. Don't let Lewis's Christian theology scare you away from the text. I'm an atheist and I still find the book resonant.

Anderson's take on A Grief Observed:
One place to start might be CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, whose opening words will give you permission to be afraid. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”, he writes. The book is strung together from reflections on the loss of his wife, American poet Joy Davidman, who died of cancer just four years into their marriage. Though best remembered for children’s classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis was among other things a lay theologian, and coming from a devout Christian, his book was shocking to some. How could a person of faith feel such utter despair? He is still a believer in the book, it’s just that he is appalled by God’s cruelty. Regardless of your own beliefs, it’s Lewis’ acknowledgement of his bewilderment that makes the book so comforting.
I read Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking a few years ago when I was still in college. I remember lying in bed in my dorm and feeling emotionally flayed. With her straightforward style, Didion delved into all the messiness of grief without drowning in it. I was the one always drowning. While some people are put-off by Didion's celebrity and class privilege, these things are superficial parts of the book. Didion moves beyond them and touches a true depth that strikes a nerve with many readers.

Anderson writes of The Year of Magical Thinking:
For Didion, calamity was twofold. Shortly before Christmas in 2003, she and her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, had to watch their only daughter be placed on life support in an induced coma. Then, the night before New Year's Eve, Dunne died of a massive heart attack. As Didion confides, “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty”. Though slender, it’s a book filled with such truths, another of which may ring extra true for you as a twin: “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all”.

Books have always been central to my life but what can a book really do in the wake of devastation? A book can't bring back the dead or piece your life back together. I think grief showed me the limits of books, but grief showed me the limits of everything. For me, what matters is the experience of being in the text itself. It's not about before or after, only right there inside the words, walking along with the writer, entering her world, feeling her emotions. That experience is what keeps me reading and also keeps me living because it means connection and contact with something beyond you is possible. As Anderson writes:
In hours of darkness, books are invaluable companions. As Shakespeare noted, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break”. As well as giving your sorrow words, a good book will take you out of yourself for a few hours, even as the plights of its characters might remind you that others have gone through similar ordeals. Just knowing that, and feeling less alone, will make you stronger.
Read the full article 

Claudia Rankine on Mourning Black Lives

In The New York Times, Claudia Rankine writes an important essay about the role of grief and mourning in the lives of black Americans.
I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. “The condition of black life is one of mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living. Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.
***
In 1955, when Emmett Till’s mutilated and bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and placed for burial in a nailed-shut pine box, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded his body be transported from Mississippi, where Till had been visiting relatives, to his home in Chicago. Once the Chicago funeral home received the body, she made a decision that would create a new pathway for how to think about a lynched body. She requested an open coffin and allowed photographs to be taken and published of her dead son’s disfigured body.
Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence. By placing both herself and her son’s corpse in positions of refusal relative to the etiquette of grief, she “disidentified” with the tradition of the lynched figure left out in public view as a warning to the black community, thereby using the lynching tradition against itself. The spectacle of the black body, in her hands, publicized the injustice mapped onto her son’s corpse. “Let the people see what I see,” she said, adding, “I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me.”
 It’s very unlikely that her belief in a national mourning was fully realized, but her desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic. In refusing to look away from the flesh of our domestic murders, by insisting we look with her upon the dead, she reframed mourning as a method of acknowledgment that helped energize the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
 ***
The Black Lives Matter movement can be read as an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness. Mourning then bears both the vulnerability inherent in black lives and the instability regarding a future for those lives. Unlike earlier black-power movements that tried to fight or segregate for self-preservation, Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning and refuses the forgetting in front of all of us. If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement made demands that altered the course of American lives and backed up those demands with the willingness to give up your life in service of your civil rights, with Black Lives Matter, a more internalized change is being asked for: recognition.
***
A sustained state of national mourning for black lives is called for in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation. The hope is that recognition will break a momentum that laws haven’t altered. Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Middleton-Doctor; Ethel Lee Lance; the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr.; the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Tywanza Sanders and Myra Thompson were murdered because they were black. It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be — has to be — so much more careful. Our mourning, this mourning, is in time with our lives. There is no life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children? This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.
Read the full essay

Michael Brown Sr.'s Moving Father's Day Letter

At The Grio, Michael Brown Sr. writes about the grief of losing his son to police brutality and encourages fathers to connect with their children. The letter is more than a personal expression of pain, it shows the consequences of systemic racism in the United States. Michael Brown Sr. lost his child to unimaginable violence at the hands of the state. He was forced to watch as his child lay on the ground under a tarp for hours after he was killed, to endure media reports that questioned his fitness as a parent, and to read attacks against the character of his son. Brown Sr.'s letter reveals the aftermath of tragedy, what a parent must live with after the cameras leave and the story fades from the headlines. Michael Brown's death sparked massive political protests that have affected the public discourse surrounding race and the police, but Brown is more than a symbol or news story, he was a real person who had parents who loved him and who now grieve him.
As Father’s Day approaches, my emotions are like hot bubbles in a pot of boiling water—the disbelief, the rage, the grief crashing to the surface again and again. I miss my son. I’m still grieving.
I feel like those soldiers, I’ve read about, with PTSD who can’t stop the traumatic memories from invading their dreams or hijacking their every waking moment. Like some returning from war, I have no peace. I feel betrayed and angry. The character assassination didn’t just apply to Mike. There were many nasty, evil stories about Mike’s mom and me. According to the media, it was our fault that Mike was killed by a cop. On top of my grief, I had to deal with accusations that I was an “absentee father.”
How do you defend something that’s so far from the truth? I was always in Mike’s life. He lived with his mother or me throughout his years. Mike was the best man at my wedding. We stayed in constant contact and talked about everything and anything.
***
My biggest regret is that we hadn’t talked the day he was killed. I wish so bad that I had called him before he was stopped by the Ferguson cop who took his life. In my dream rewrite, I was there; I stopped things from getting out of control. My son walked away from that encounter, still joking, still rapping, still dreaming . . . still breathing.
I’m often asked; “How are you doing?” People mean well, but that question just raises more questions for me: Am I really supposed to be better? Should I have moved on since Mike’s death? How do I do that?
***
Because of my son’s death and the justice we’re still seeking, hurting people, grieving people who’ve lost their children to gun violence or police brutality, reach out to me. They invite me to speak at gatherings. There is a small level of comfort in being in the company of the wounded, the lost, the other parents who understand that we can’t possibly “move on.”
Read the full article

A Grieving Nation

On June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine people to death. The massacre is currently being investigated as a hate crime. Roof is a 21-year-old white male. All the victims of the shooting were black.

This is yet another violent attack against black Americans who, in the past year, have led demonstrations on the streets of Cleveland, Ferguson, and other cities across the country to protest against the devaluation of their lives. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray--we know their names and their stories and black people continue to die. Families continue to grieve for the mothers, fathers, friends, and children they've lost. While the Charleston massacre differs from the killings of Garner, Rice, Brown, and Gray by the fact that it was not perpetrated by a police officer, Dylann Roof was motivated by the same racist and toxic belief that black people are not human beings worthy of respect and the right to exist.

So many families are grieving right now and many in this country grieve with them. Children have lost parents; parents have lost children. In the wake of a mass shooting, we all have hopes that things will change--gun laws will be improved, people will come together in solidarity. We think our world can't possibly go on like this, but it does and the next shooting happens and the cycle continues. 

Today, the Confederate flag still hangs in South Carolina's capital city of Columbia. This symbol of white supremacy and enslavement flutters in the wind for all to see. We are grieving, yes, but with our grief we should add shame. Shame that we watch these massacres happen and don't change anything. Shame that we pretend as though having a black president means racism is over. Shame that black people die on our streets and we do nothing to stop it.

As the days and weeks go on, I'm sure the media will focus on Roof and his motives and his childhood and what made him do it. They will give him notoriety and the victims will fade away, but we should do all we can to remember the lives he ended. We should remember their families and friends, give them compassion, offer them help as they grieve and mourn. We should tell their stories. We should let our grief awaken us, let it fuel us to change gun laws and talk about racism and discuss how we can achieve racial justice in this country.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41

Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49

Daniel Simmons Sr., 74

Susie Jackson, 87

Cynthia Hurd, 54

Tywanza Sanders, 26

 Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45

Myra Thompson, 59

Ethel Lance, 70


Sources:

A Widower Finds Comfort in Dante's "Divine Comedy"

At NPR, Joseph Luzzi talks about his memoir In A Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, And The Mysteries Of Love. He discusses the struggle to take care of his newborn daughter after the death of his wife and how Dante's "Divine Comedy" resonated with him as he experienced grief and mourning:
 The poem was written, the "Divine Comedy," after he was exiled from Florence in 1302. And Dante spent basically the last 20 years of his life wandering up and down Italy, looking for a home, feeling the pain of having lost Florence in a visceral way. And that image of exile from what had been my own life, Dante's words spoke to me. They captured better than anything else the way I felt about what had happened. It was as though I'd fallen through a trap door from the life that I had into one that, you know, I didn't want and was desperate to get that former life back. So the dark wood started out to mean something very personal, that moment of the great crisis in a way that defines your life as Dante wrote about it.
 ***
 I talk about that immediate feeling of grief in the kind of shock and fog that you go into to kind of help you survive something - a sudden death like that. And I realized by the end of that year with carrying that feeling, that it had somehow heightened everything around me, that my whole life was seen through this perspective of grief, that my suffering was so intense - almost as though it was like living in a charged atmosphere. And for me, it created this sort of inwardness that the grief became a kind of prison that became very hard to get out of. You know, at one point, I finally stepped out. And the air was no longer electric. And it felt, at that point, that grief had ended and that I could begin the work of mourning.
Read the full interview
 Click here to purchase Joseph Luzzi's In A Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing And The Mysteries Of Love


Birthday Wishes

Today (June 3), my father would have turned 55 years old. It's always been painful that his death date (May 29th) and his birthday fall so close together. One day, I'm mourning his death and a few days later I feel I should celebrate the miracle that he was born at all, that he was here, and that he lives on through my memories.

The truth is I have no rituals for this day. I don't do anything specific. I don't even know what I should do. So far, I've thought about him and cried. I think that's all I can manage right now.

I remember one birthday in particular when my mom and I decided to bake him a cake. We usually buy our birthday cakes from the grocery store bakery. So I'm not sure what possessed us to bake one ourselves. It came out terribly lopsided, but we frosted it with vanilla icing and covered it in sprinkles and stuck a candle in it. I have a photograph of daddy blowing out the candle. I'm standing beside him, beaming with joy. We're together and we're happy. I didn't know it would all end so abruptly, so completely.

I wish I could throw him a party, nothing extravagant, just have a cake, balloons, and some presents. I wish I could give him a card and a hug. I wish so many things.