Over a period of two weeks in July 2013, NPR host Scott Simon tweeted out the last days of his mother’s life. He began with her emergency surgery and kept it up as her condition worsened, inviting the world to the side of her deathbed. One tweet on July 27th read, “Nights are the hardest. But that’s why I’m here. I wish I could lift my mother’s pain & fears from her bones into mine.”
Typically, when we see people share such devastating personal news in social media feeds, we refer to it as “over-sharing,” which means the content transgresses the boundaries of good taste. However, in a surprising moment for the Internet — which is not known to be a reliable venue for empathetic voices — Simon’s tweets received overwhelmingly positive public support. His name became a trending topic. There were hundreds of retweets and favorites for each posted message. And then, when the popularity of his pain peaked, his mother died.
To people who would never know her, Simon’s mother served as a reminder to reach out to our own families before it’s too late. But for Simon, was it enough? Did these 140-character missives help him get through this difficult time? Or were they just a heart-rending prelude for the darker, less Twitter-friendly thoughts to come?
The real chore of grieving begins after the burial, after the last hugs from lingering guests. Everyone assures you that you won’t be alone, and all you have to do is let them know what you need. Starting at the moment of death, there’s an imprecise ticking clock against which you are expected to “get better,” although you don’t know what you need to get better. No one is ever prepared for serious grief. You hope that the impossible weight will gradually lift over time, and it does, but between that future and right now, how does one endure or make sense of the constant stream of thoughts and memories death dredges up?
In the secular Western world, we have no widely accepted grieving rituals (as compared to Jews who sit shiva, for example), but we do have some general conventions. There will often be a reception at a funeral home, where solemn guests won’t know what to do with themselves. A family member may struggle to recite a few words without submitting to paroxysms of weeping. A coffin or urn of cremated remains will be lowered into the ground, or else entombed in a marble wall. There will be food. Sometimes there will be alcohol.
We should bravely accept each task, so goes the expectation, and find comfort in doing so. Not only because this is what death demands of us, but also because productive problem-solving alleviates the confusion of grief. That is, as long as we don’t engage with the “wrong” kind of productivity — that which covers up emotion with work for work’s sake.
Grievers who continue on with their regular professional lives, regardless of how much better it feels to stay distracted, are quietly frowned upon. Just as we’re supposed to feel the acute seriousness of death, we’re also supposed to look like we’re earnestly embodying the role of the griever. Strong, brave, miserable. And then, with time, we let the majority of our sorrow go and master its stubborn remainders.
This transition from broken to healed is a necessarily private one, and what works for one person may not help another. One of the more common strategies to get through a significant loss is journal therapy, where you write what you feel and stop when you’ve finally said it all. There’s no expectation that you’ll create a great work of literature — the purpose of this exercise is to engage meaningfully with your inner self. It’s in the writing that you heal, because you can express yourself without judgment from others, specifically the dead.
People in crisis may instead turn to social media to offload their pain, posting photos of their deceased loved ones or nakedly expressing what they’re feeling in a despairing blurb of text. One reaches out in a way, and hopefully others reach back. But there are limits to how much we’re willing or permitted to share with the public. Those limits aren’t applicable in a private journal, though, unless you have an agenda to publish it. You are free and encouraged to unburden yourself.
It’s no easy task to articulate everything you’re feeling into comprehensible writing, despite the deceptive fluidity of books centered on grief like the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Dedicated writers are so often engaged with translating their inner voices into a series of connected thoughts that it’s a natural reaction to do so when it comes time to digest a powerful emotion like grief.
However, the challenge of memorializing doesn’t favor professionals. Someone who’s never before written a paragraph in a single sitting will engage with the same process as a writer whose work is published often. The only difference is in the level of polish on what comes out, where one reads like a therapeutic personal document and the other a project that’s potentially worthy of market distribution.
Knausgaard became an international literary cover boy after the first volume of his epic autobiographical novel My Struggle was released in English. In the latter half of these 400-some pages, he recounts with excruciating detail the days that follow his father’s death, excavating the many pivotal — and hideously mundane — moments of his life leading up until then. Everything has meaning in equal measure, or else lacks it equally. His grief imbues the book with a hard-to-put-down quality.
Memory after memory, Knausgaard confesses all: his bewilderment at how we abhor dead bodies but accept death as a natural part of life; his father’s inexhaustible talent for remaining emotionally withdrawn; his grandmother’s absentminded incontinence; and the big family secret — that Knausgaard’s father drank himself to death. The author doesn’t let himself off the hook either, especially when it comes to the distractions of raising his children or his perspective on women in his younger years. No one gets a pass.
Knausgaard recalls growing up with a speech impediment, the son of an aloof man who had no talent for raising a sensitive boy. He takes us into different time periods, allowing childhood embarrassments of trying to get laid, trying to get drunk, and trying to look cool to emotionally ground the humiliation of clearing out an incredible number of empty liquor bottles from his father’s home. The sad accounting of how much the man drank seems like an unending task. “Empty bottles were strewn halfway up the staircase, five, six, maybe, but the closer we got to the second floor landing the more there were.” We read about the practical task of cleaning his father’s grime-coated home as much as the emotions animating the author’s fits of crying.
Someone new to writing about their personal life might be tempted to focus on divulging only the memories that carry the deepest emotion — the abuse, the repressed desires, the shame — and then drop the experiment altogether. But pursuing the challenge beyond that initial burst, as demonstrated in My Struggle, is critical for reaping the benefits of writing through grief. The freedom to express oneself doesn’t immediately result in a free and full expression. It takes sustained effort of pulling things out, paragraph by paragraph, until the truth emerges and the value of reflection becomes clear.
Knausgaard illustrates this concept through short bursts of recorded consciousness throughout the first volume of My Struggle, such as this one:
All I could think about was that I couldn’t think about what I should be thinking about. That I didn’t feel what I should be feeling. Dad’s dead, I thought, this is a big, big event, it should overwhelm me, but it isn’t doing that, for here I am, staring at the kettle, feeling annoyed that it hasn’t boiled yet.
This leave-no-detail-behind approach is engrossing because of how familiar his thinking feels. But a big question remains: did writing this volume of My Struggle help him mourn the loss of his father? By letting the reading public into the most private corners of his life, did he make things better for himself or worse? Only Knausgaard could answer that, but we can at least witness his father’s memorialization on the page. Warts and all, the man will be remembered, and that should give the author some solace.
In a much slimmer book, The Invention of Solitude, Auster also wrote about losing his father in a piece titled “Portrait of an Invisible Man.” The similar circumstances between the two deaths and the way these writers interpreted them are hard to overlook, specifically the emotional distance of their fathers and the authors’ concomitant desire for paternal approval. Both Auster and Knausgaard had resigned themselves to a nagging absence in their lives, but then death forced them to take on all the maudlin chores of organizing funerals and cleaning out personal belongings, each object haunted by their fathers’ ghosts. All of the unresolved issues stewing below the surface for so many years come out through the act of writing about them.
Auster recounts the moment he ran out to the Good Will truck with an armload of his father’s old ties: “It was then, at the precise instant I tossed them into the truck, that I came closest to tears. More than seeing the coffin itself being lowered into the ground, the act of throwing away these ties seemed to embody for me the idea of burial. I finally understood that my father was dead.”
It’s possible that someone else would have tweeted out a specific moment like this, as Scott Simon might have, but would the observation be captured the same way — or at all — without first actively reflecting in a written journal? Can we think as deeply about ourselves in the time it takes to draft a tweet?
Instead of confessing family secrets like Knausgaard did (something he paid for after publication), Auster takes the opportunity to shed light on his father’s remoteness by investigating the mysterious disappearance of the author’s grandfather — attempting to understand one absence by revealing the truth behind another. As a boy, Auster was told three different stories of his grandfather’s death: there was a hunting accident; he fell off a ladder; he was shot down in WWI. In reality, though, his grandmother shot his grandfather. There’s no direct the leap between his family’s conscious forgetting of this murder and his father’s cold reticence, but the springboard is perfectly positioned for the reader.
This memoir — any memoir — is not about finding specific answers to the big questions in life (or death, as the case may be). It’s about preserving the memory of the dead, and that privilege comes with some thorny issues: What do you choose to remember, and how much do you unknowingly forget? Which wrongs can you forgive?
Just as time heals wounds, it ossifies the life stories of our lost ones, so it’s incredibly important to get these storytelling choices right. Our memories are freshest in the moments after death. Months and years later, they will be unconsciously summed up and archived into a larger bracket of knowledge. The mind naturally compresses all of our inactive files of information, which means some stories get truncated and others fall out of rotation entirely. In the moments after his father died, while driving his car to see the body and begin putting things in order, Auster knew he would have to write about this event. “I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.”
Transgression is implicit here, as the dead aren’t around to defend themselves. Yet, their presence lingers, and Auster felt an eye on him in his father’s bedroom while cleaning out the house: “Each time I opened a drawer or poked my head into a closet,” he writes, “I felt like an intruder, a burglar ransacking the secret places of a man’s mind. I kept expecting my father to walk in, to stare at me in disbelief, and ask me what the hell I thought I was doing.”
This sensation that you shouldn’t be where you are, shouldn’t say what you are about to, this is the exact target to aim for when writing through grief. And it must be done quickly — waiting can prevent the truth from being revealed at all.
Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking by no means rounds out a full spectrum of grieving literature, but rather spans across it with one of the most humane and insightful books in the genre. She has a unique ability to convey the power of a moment while also locating it within the full picture. Her loss isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a symptom of a larger human phenomenon.
Unlike Auster and Knausgaard’s books, Didion’s appeared long after she had become a highly respected writer. As a result, Didion’s writing on grief is composed and sharply intellectual, a sign of how polished her process had become. Over 200-some pages, she weathers the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, with whom she shared an incredibly intimate and productive life. There is no great emotional distance for her to address, no secret betrayals or long-held recriminations to air out publicly. They were a good team, sharing a creative trade and even collaborating together on a number of projects. Didion and her husband accomplished that rare conjugal feat of being alone together. And then, after dinner one night, his heart suddenly gave out and he died.
There are no ready answers to explain why her husband had to suddenly die in their living room, but the author still attempts to make sense of it all. And her attempts appear to at least give her some sense of control. Didion vacillates between unsatisfying scientific facts and self-chiding hope — first throwing herself into medical research to explain away her pain with reports and studies, then permitting flights of irrationality: “How could he come back if they took his organs, how could come back if he had no shoes?” Didion writes that while she doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the body, she still thought that “given the right circumstances he would come back.”
That she can recognize such thoughts as absurd highlights her readiness to move beyond her grief, even if that’s not how her imagination chooses to function. More importantly, that she can honestly express this absurdity without judgment is a small triumph for her personal growth. The transparency in her process is fascinating, specifically to readers who might be engaged in a similar undertaking.
Magical Thinking begins with Didion recounting the first words she wrote after her husband died: “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.” These words echo the first page of Auster’s Solitude: “And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.” And Knausgaard’s Struggle: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”
The suddenness of death provides ample inspiration for each writer to launch into their heaviest thoughts. Didion compares the swift and irrevocable change to her life with events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — there is life and potential for everything in one second, and then there is nothing in the next. That immensity is not easily reduced into words, even for a writer of her caliber. She struggles with the purpose of what she’s doing: “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”
That penetrability won’t reveal itself, though. Despite everything Didion learns about the mechanics of her husband’s death and how he might’ve experienced the exact moment when it happened, it’s not enough to free her from grief. The best compromise she can manage is to shape what Dunne meant to her, something she initially dismissed because of her fear that dwelling on memories — allowing herself the pleasure of nostalgia — would result in self-destruction. “The way you got sideswiped was by going back,” she writes.
Maybe if these three writers were younger, web-savvy, and open to immediately sharing their personal reflections, they’d have turned to social media. Knausgaard could have Instagrammed his father’s empties. Auster could have run a Tumblr of old newspaper clippings about his murderous grandmother. Didion could have live-tweeted her late-night ambulance ride to the hospital. But would it be enough?
Nearly two years after his mother died, Scott Simon published a memoir titled Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime. The fact that he lived and shared so intimately “in the moment” during his mother’s passing hadn’t dismissed his need to reflect further on what she meant to him. Regardless of the outpouring of support he received from strangers, there was more that had to be said — and could only be said by writing through the grief.
The details of who-lost-whom in these works are important only in that they ground the reader in the authors’ specific journeys. It’s irrelevant to compare pain between one person who loses a father and another who loses a husband. We inherit grief the same sudden way and react with equal powerlessness. It’s in actively choosing what to do with our individual burdens that’s important.
As readers, we experience these works as a kind of dress rehearsal for our own unavoidable future losses. We see these informal rites in motion and rubberneck our way through them, wondering how things will be when we are faced with the same challenges, or maybe recalling a time when we experienced them last. Or maybe, we see the grieving process as something others will endure after we ourselves die.
Our memoirs, our personal journals, they impose meaning onto meaninglessness. They point to our pain and express it honestly in words that we might not otherwise say to anyone. Until we have to.
Sean Minogue’s produced plays include Prodigals (2011) and Us & Everything We Own (2013). He lives in Toronto and is at work on his first novel.