Pat Barker on Losing Her Husband

The Guardian has published an interview with novelist Pat Barker. She discusses her historical novels, the most famous being the Regeneration trilogy, which looks at the lives of soldiers who fought in the trenches of World War I. With her latest trilogy, she's shifted her focus to World War II. In the interview, Barker talks about losing her husband and how her grief affected both her life and work:
There were five years between the publication of Life Class and Toby’s Room, primarily because Barker spent two years caring for her husband before his death in 2009. It has been, she says, with characteristic understatedness, “a very much bombarded trilogy”. Given the relationship between Toby and Elinor (the title Toby’s Room, as Hermione Lee pointed out when she reviewed it, echoes Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, also a memorial to a dead brother), the trilogy would always have been suffused with grief; but Barker agrees that her own bereavement gave it an extra dimension.
“You use the experiences you have. It wasn’t the first grief in my life; it was the deepest so far – let’s hope nothing else awaits,” she says. “I find the whole stages of grief thing quite interesting, because nobody talks about stages of falling in love, for example, or things like that, and I think it’s a way of people distancing themselves, taming the experience, which is actually an experience that can’t be tamed. It’s one of these things that strips the flesh off your bones, and that is the truth about it. There aren’t any neat stages, and there is nothing that can be identified as recovery, either, although obviously you learn to live with it, and through it, and differently because of it. But certainly, as soon as people talk about recovery, I just think, ‘Ah, it hasn’t happened to you yet.’”
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Finding My Way Back To Books

The week after my father died, I could not read. I was sixteen years old and had been consuming books for most of my life but, when death came, I lost not just my will to read but my ability. I looked at words and they made no sense. Words no longer created worlds, they were illegible markings on a page, signs and symbols that confounded me. I was in a state of grieving that's never really stopped.

That week was scary, not just because I couldn't read. In that week, we planned his funeral and buried him. It was the first week without my father. The first week of a new life that I could neither recognize nor bear. Perhaps it makes sense that when I lost my father, I lost the language I had relied on up to that point, lost my passion for books, lost my writing voice.

T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" broke the aphasic spell. I held a book of poems in my hands and found Prufrock and started reading it aloud to myself and that's how I found my way back to words. It seems fitting that Modernism broke the spell, with its fragmented poetry, its ambiguity, its break from tradition to find new forms of expressing life and consciousness. I read Prufrock and I felt like I was breathing again. I believed in words again. I've never stopped believing in them. What else do I have? I am godless and fatherless, but I have language. I have books.

I'm sharing this story because Dylan Landis writes of a similar loss of the desire to read before and after her parents died. At The New York Times, she writes: "Words on paper had been reduced by grief to what painters call marks. As such, they had lost their power to resonate. So I found myself grieving, too, what I took to be an understandable loss of concentration." Eventually, she's able to read again but the genre she chooses is interesting and, at the same time, perfect for the situation she finds herself in:
Finally, nine months after my mother’s death, the ability to read slowly began to return. I found I could read for about 15 minutes at a time — a fraction of the two-hour plunges I once took. On rare occasions, I would fall into a state of grace and once again a book consumed me. Yet my subject matter seemed curiously circumscribed. Long ago, biologists used to say “ontogeny repeats phylogeny,” meaning fetal growth reiterates the stages of evolution. (It only looks that way.) My newly recovered ability to dwell on words may have reiterated the stages of my life. All I could relish, at that stage, were novels with young female protagonists, 14-, 15-year-olds, troubled, like the girls I write about and once identified with. “My Brilliant Friend,” by Elena Ferrante. “Sister Golden Hair,” by Darcey Steinke. “The Scamp,” by Jennifer Pashley.
I’ve heard it said that we don’t mature fully till we lose both parents. Perhaps I had to relive, in these novels, my early adolescence before I could start to find that new adulthood — and lose myself in reading again.

In the years since my father's death, I've found myself reading more Young Adult books. It's ironic that, when I was a precocious teenager, I preferred to read adult books. I liked Woolf and Plath, Fitzgerald and Conrad (I still love them), but, in many ways, I didn't really have a childhood. My father became sick just as I hit thirteen and then died three years later. My innocence was gone. I grew up very fast, or maybe I was always grown up. Losing him when I was sixteen seemed to freeze me at that age. I'm both an old soul and an immature adolescent even now that I'm in my twenties. Young Adult novels have been a way for me to re-live my childhood, to be an actual kid and think about the feelings and experiences of being young. Young Adult literature has given me permission to go through adolescence and it's been quite a comfort.

I believe strongly in the power of books to help us survive trauma but, at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that confronting the loss of a loved once shakes one's very foundation. You think you will react in a certain way when you might have the opposite reaction. I never thought I'd lose my ability to read. I never thought I'd stop being entranced by language. I never thought that words would not save me but, at the darkest moment of my life, nothing could save me. I had to experience that darkness and do my best to find my way back to life and back to literature.

"Let's go see the horror, death:" On Marguerite Duras's No More

Note: This review is a combination of fragments written while reading the text and actual passages from the text. All italicized sections are direct quotes from No More by Marguerite Duras (translated by Richard Howard). 

Duras, in her last days, writing writing writing. We can't come out of the womb writing (though screaming is a kind of language) but maybe we can write our way into death, or until death takes us.

In the middle of the night--fears of death.

My father's death brought death to me.

Find something more to write.

I am the wild and unexpected

But don't you see, I have no voice except my writing?

Writing assuages my fear of death.

That is what I am, pursuit of the 

As a child, the wind entranced me. I'd find any opportunity to feel it. It was one of the few things that touched me.

I would love you until my death.

We loved each other until death. I will love him until I die. I wonder if he thought of me in his last moments, or was there only room for the terror of death?

I don't know where I'm going.
I'm afraid.

Let's go see the horror, death.

He was as real as me. Now what is he? I can't recover. We hold within us the ability to no longer be real. Then what do we become? What language can hold death?

This review is a duet

These are death meditations

The word love exists.

That you love me is the most important thing.
The rest doesn't matter to me. The hell
with it.

What does love become after death? I can't give my love to him. I have no body to love. Yet I love. I must love the memory, the residue, of the dead even though my love does them no good now.

I can't make it any longer.
I don't think this fear can be
given a name. Not yet.

A life of fear started with his death.

I feel crushed by existence.
It makes me want to write.

My hand is what writes.

I can't write the things that destroy me.

Death is the end of writing, the end of language. We can't write death, not true death. We can only write death as it's imagined in life.

The great fear: never writing the truth. Dying and never being known.

It's over.
All over.
It is the horror.

We can't go with Duras, with anyone, to the last moment, the last breath. It's the unknowable territory, the one depth that writing cannot reach.

Your kisses--I'll believe in them to
the end of my life.

We Are Love

I didn't know it until my mother told me, but today marks eight years since my maternal grandmother died. She passed away on August 12, 2007, a little over a year after my father died. How could I not remember? I felt nothing. My mother didn't talk about it much, but I know she carries the grief inside her body like I do. Perhaps we are only vessels for grief.

How have we made it here? The answer: each other. Grief deepened my love for her. I'm not sure I truly understood love until my father died, until I lost and and found love all at once. I discovered the muscle of love, how it keeps you living and breathing when you don't think you can go on. We are skin and bone and dust, but we are also love.


Today, on the evening news, was the story of an animal shelter director who is being investigated for animal cruelty, nepotism, and creating a toxic work environment. "Nepotism" triggered a memory of me and my father watching a television show one night many years ago. The word came up during a show and we didn't know what it meant so I got my little blue dictionary out and looked it up for us. Interesting how one word can bring back an entire life. The memory made me cry, and I said to myself This is why grief never ends.

Exploring Grief and Poetry Through a Video Game

At The Guardian, Victoria Bennett and Adam Clarke discuss their collaborative Minecraft video game, "My Mother's House," which combines poetry and virtual reality in order to explore the difficult emotions of grief. In the video game, the player enters rooms and listens as Bennett recites a poem about her dying mother. Bennett's words are brought to vivid life and one feels immersed in the world they create. I think this is a fascinating and innovative way to approach grief because it opens up new possibilities for the use of technology in the grieving process

My Mother’s House is the most moving poem I’ve ever played. It’s the work of poet Victoria Bennett, inspired by her experience caring for her terminally-ill mother, and reliving some of the shared memories in her home.
As I explored it, the poem brought back my recent memories of helping my own mother clear out my late grandfather’s house, remembering and sometimes learning for the first time about different aspects of his life.

“For me as a poet, the idea was that somebody could explore a poem from a different angle other than just reading or hearing it: where it becomes something that can be played and experienced in different ways,” says Bennett. “Turning the poem into a physical build so that people were exploring the space.”

Bennett hopes that My Mother’s House shows the potential of games as another tool that could help parents and children open up to one another about death and grief.
“Although Minecraft is most popular for children, it’s not limited to them. And, similarly, neither is grief limited to adults: children experience trauma, they experience difficult stuff,” says Bennett.
“Something like Minecraft could allow people – children and adults, but maybe particularly children – to explore and talk about and take ownership of their own stories, and work with those narratives in a very non-threatening, accessible way.”
Bennett adds that the most emotional part of the project was showing the finished poem-world to her mother.
“It was a very moving experience to share it with my mum once it was done. Although the poem elaborates on the idea of somebody dying, she’s still alive – but we know that this is coming. It was very unusual and unique to share the experience of what it was feeling like for me and for her, in a realm that was completely alien to her,” she says.
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Elizabeth Alexander on Gifts Given to Her by Strangers

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Alexander released her grief memoir The Light of the World, which chronicles life with and without her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. At NPR, Alexander talks about gifts people have given to her since the publication of the book. I think the stories of people sharing things with Alexander show just how powerfully grief can connect us to one another.
One thing that was just lovely — one of my favorite readings was sponsored by The California Endowment with a writing group called InsideOUT Writing. And these folks work with juveniles who are incarcerated.
And so I worked beforehand with some of those young people, and then they shared the stage with me. The theme was healing through writing. And so afterwards, a young man came up to me with a beautiful origami paper card. And inside, he said, "I have a message in a bottle. I hope my poems reach you." And inside, a bag filled with paper and confetti and tinsel, I reached inside and found a little teeny, tiny glass bottle that I'm holding right now. And it has a cork, and inside is a sparkly ribbon and a crystal heart. And then when you open up the cork, it's a drive that goes into the computer and shazam — up comes this gorgeous poetry manuscript that is definitely written through fire, written from the soul, written from the heart.
I carry it with me now because it's a beautiful, tiny object. I think it has talismanic powers and because this is someone's — this is a self in small form. This book that I wrote is myself and my family self and all I could put of Ficre, all I could encapsulate in this small book, and someone chose to do that for me.
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"A Deeply Personal Work of Grief Before Loss:" Josh Honn's A Slow Archive

I've had the pleasure of getting to know Josh Honn over the past year. He's been a supportive and generous friend. I'm honored to announce that Honn has a chapbook coming out that documents the painful experience of watching his wife, Pam, cope with breast cancer. The poems in A Slow Archive are raw, personal, and exquisite. They are written in the depths of grief for a loved one who is alive but who is slipping away.

All proceeds from the sell of the chapbook will go to helping uninsured and under-insured cancer patients.

Written over the course of a year beginning in May 2014 when his wife Pam was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, A Slow Archive is a three-part poem-diary, an exploration and expression of the role of the lover and care worker in the dying process; an attempt to orient past, present, and future selves amidst encounters with sickness, grief, loneliness and death; and a conversation between, and confession by, two lovers approaching loss at an early age.
To purchase A Slow Archive and read a pdf version of the book, visit Josh Honn's website

Chantal Akerman Makes a Film About her Late Mother

Lately, all I think about is loss--who I've lost and who I will lose. I write my thoughts in journals and think them in my head, rarely sharing them with anyone around me. It's overwhelming, at times, to be haunted by loss, to mourn people before they are even gone, and to mourn the people who actually are gone.

Tonight, I sat on the couch with my mom, as we usually do, and watched television but as we watched our shows I started to cry. Great swells of tears came out of me, I shuddered and heaved and hid my face and my mother didn't understand. I kept saying "I love you so much. I love you so much" and she said she loved me too. I had no words to tell her that I love her so much that my chest feels like it's breaking, that I distance myself from her, at times, just to ease the pain. I can't tell her that I have dreams of losing her, that I had one just the other night.

The dream was vivid. I can't remember all the details. What I remember is someone telling me she was dead and my body feeling the grief of it. The horror was real in that moment. It doesn't matter that I woke up from it. I still felt it. I feel the aftershocks of it even now.

I say "I love you" to my mother when I really want to say "Don't ever leave me. I can't live without you. I can't comprehend life without you and I am consumed by fear of a life without you." She lets me cry. She says I need to get it out, and she's right but I don't think I will ever get this out of me, this fear and grief.

So in the wake of all that, I'm compelled by news about Chantal Akerman's new film "No Home Movie," which is about the filmmaker's late mother, Nelly. I understand what the legendary filmmaker means when she says that, now that her mother is dead, "there is ‘no home’ anymore," Akerman's film reminds me of Sophie Calle's art installation about her own mother's death, though Akerman prefers to focus on life. Her documentary captures her mother alive, not dead, her mother talking to her and existing. Akerman says that, while editing the film, "I was living, and not mourning."

I just keep wondering how we live without these precious people, how we wander without any home, how we lose their arms and their scent and their voice and their presence, how we survive such a catastrophe.

With “No Home Movie,” the themes of displacement that thread throughout her work finally come to a head. “Even if I have a home in Paris and sometimes in New York, whenever I was saying I have to go home, it was going to my mother,” Ms. Akerman said with the deep, lilting tones familiar from the voice-overs and monologues that define many of her films. “And there is ‘no home’ anymore, because she isn’t there, and when I came the last time, the home was empty.” 
“No Home Movie” is an especially moving testament because of the devastating history that lay buried in her mother’s past. During World War II, after fleeing to Belgium from Poland, Nelly Akerman was sent to Auschwitz; her husband was hidden in Brussels, but other relatives died. The trauma left anxious aftershocks throughout the filmmaker’s oeuvre, often expressed obliquely. In the newest film (whose title echoes the uprooting and devastation caused by the Holocaust) Chantal Akerman tries to address the subject head-on, but her mother’s reticence is deep-seated. 
“She never wanted to speak about Auschwitz,” Chantal Akerman said. “I asked her once to tell me more, and she said, ‘No, I will get crazy.’ So we could speak around, or after, or before, but the real moment, never. Not directly.” 
Instead, in the film Ms. Akerman and her mother range through a variety of topics big and small: family anecdotes, stories of a secret love affair, recollections from rowdy school days, the shifting place of Judaism in their lives, and whether the dinner meat tastes good. It’s a fond back-and-forth, with Chantal Akerman taking a playful swipe now and again; her mother only ever loses her poise to gush with compliments. 
“So much love is coming out of her, and I was not aware of that,” Ms. Akerman said. Referring to her mother’s unwillingness to let one long-distance chat come to a close, Ms. Akerman said, “I knew she loved me, but when I see that Skype moment, it’s really like a love affair between us.”
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