Tissues at the ready… (four grief memoirs)

My Nonfiction November reading has been dominated by grief memoirs. A lot of crying has been done (and a lot of learning).

I began with Paul Kalanithi’s widely-praised When Breath Becomes Air. Paul, on the verge of completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Paul reflects on the meaning of life and death, and explores how philosophy, literature and religion have informed his thoughts.

The word hope first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire. But what I desired – life – was not what I was confident about – death.

What sets this book apart is the fact that Paul describes his experience and expectations from the perspective of both patient and doctor. He states that his experience as a patient would have made him a better doctor – I hope medical practitioners read this book and appreciate that many different things inform our feelings about living and death (not simply the success rates of treatments, side-effects of medicines and other clinical concerns).

While being trained as a physician and scientist had helped me process the data and accept the limits of what the data could reveal about my prognosis, it didn’t help me as a patient.

Paul’s writing is clear and straight-forward and it might seem as if When Breath Becomes Air is ‘easy’ reading, however, the epilogue, written by Paul’s wife Lucy, left me in tatters.

In The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy reveals her experience of a very particular kind of grief – grieving for a lost future. Ariel, a journalist with the New Yorker, miscarried a baby at twenty weeks. She felt like a mother. She was (and still is) a mother. But she had no baby.

Until recently, I lived in a world where lost things could always be replaced.

The grief associated with miscarriage is very specific, and those around someone who has lost a baby, generally feel whatever they say or do will be inadequate or wrong. Ariel writes about this, as well as the collapse of her relationship, with raw honesty.

I find myself gripping the kitchen counter, a subway pole, a friend’s body, so I won’t fall over. I don’t mean that figuratively. My sorrow is so intense it often feels like it will flatten me. It’s all so over-the-top. Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy? Or is this just a weirdly grim sitcom? A few weeks ago, my neighbours came by my house on Shelter Island; they wanted to meet the baby. He’s dead, I had to tell them. I felt bad, because what are they supposed to say to that?

At it’s core, The Rules Do Not Apply is a feminist memoir – Ariel considers the agency of women of her generation; the meaning of becoming a mother; and the challenge inherent in choosing how to live your life and accepting the consequences that come with that. And it is in this that the themes of feminism and grief collide – what happens when the life that you’ve carefully authored for yourself, does not comply and the story takes a wild, painful turn?

I wanted what she wanted, what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

And the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is nothing I would trade for them. There is no place I would rather have seen.

The Girls by Chloe Higgins begins by examining the role of memory in grief – how our recollections of events vary, and how our memories fade or distil over time. Chloe’s devastating story – her father and her two younger sisters were involved in a car crash that killed the girls – explores the impact of grief on the family dynamic (her father felt guilt; Chloe bore the burden of being the only child alive, and having to be ‘everything’ to her parents; and her mother seemingly remained the ‘dependable’ one).

Grief is never as private as it feels.

Experiencing complicated grief and trauma, Chloe developed a drug dependency in her late teens, in addition to a number of other self-destructive behaviours. She is clear about her need for a concrete, tangible expression of what she was feeling, noting that what grief looks like is “…an inability to speak.”

I’m surprised at myself for being such a good actress, for knowing how to perform what I think grief might look like. It isn’t a real sadness – that would be too painful. It’s a performed sadness, one I absorbed from TV and movies. It’s easier this way.

I do not enjoy the pain or feel the release self-harmers write about but I don’t know how else to say ‘Please, I need help.”

I found The Girls to be an extremely brave book – Chloe discloses some very difficult truths and regardless of how well you write, putting your family on the page can be ugly for everyone. Her personal debate over what to disclose is included toward the end of the memoir, and it provides more insight into the challenges authors have in telling ‘their’ story. I was reminded of Catherine Deveny’s comment about versions of family events in memoir – “…it doesn’t have to be accurate, but it does have to be authentic.” Chloe’s memoir is evidence of that, and of the fact that every individuals’ version of the story is different.

My favourite of the four memoirs was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. This exquisitely written book tracks Nina’s diagnosis of terminal breast cancer. Her focus on motherhood, marriage and friendship in the face of death is generous and devastating.

Of her diagnosis, she writes –

At the same time as I have watched the terror build in John’s eyes, I have felt somehow relieved. It has happened, I keep thinking. The terrible thing. This is what the terrible thing feels like. Somehow, a lovely space has opened up inside my chest, a little, deep pool in the thickest woods.

Her articulation of our very worst fears is simple and poetic. I was reminded of a passage about the death of a child in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – that passage truly haunts me, and I suspect that many parts of The Bright Hour will sit alongside it, simply because it hits on my own fears and experiences of death.

Nina approached her illness in a ‘moment-by-moment’ way – it’s not about the ‘big picture’ but instead, focusing on the small details. The minutiae of her treatment is followed by vignettes written for her sons to read in the future. On the importance of saying please, she says –

Because the bathroom faucet sticks, and please makes the strongest hand less weary.
Because at night you are thirsty.
Because some day your children, on the other side of your wall, will cackle into the darkness long past their bedtime.
Because you are human, and it is your nature to ask for more.
Because want, need – those unlit cul-de-sacs – are too perilous unadorned.

I frequently had to stop reading – this book made me bawl and by the end, I was a complete wreck. But Nina also made me laugh – because in reality, we do laugh at the strangest times, and in the world of palliative care, there exists a particular style of gallows humour that might seem appalling to outsiders but is vital to those ‘in it’. For example, Nina’s friend, Gina, also had cancer, and the pair dreamt of creating cancer-patient thank-you cards with lines such as ‘Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners’ and ‘Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do’.

What is striking about Nina’s memoir is the selflessness of her grief (that’s not to say she did not rage about her situation) –

Everywhere I look, everyone is headed somewhere – and seems to know how to get there… No one else seems to be wandering in the street with a time bomb strapped to her body, thinking of saying to those she loves the most: I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry for what I am about to do to you.

It was these bits – about her boys, about her husband, about her family – that broke my heart and put it back together all within the space of a page.

I highly recommend all four books although, if you only read one grief memoir this year (or this decade), make it The Bright Hour. It should be noted that all four books come with trigger warnings, particularly The Girls and The Rules Do Not Apply (substance abuse, self-harm).

21 responses

  1. I live in a cocoon of no grief, no death. I can’t imagine it lasting much longer. In fact it might only be lasting now because the person in my family who had a still born baby doesn’t talk about stuff. I like it that Higgins is aware that is often easier to act a part to the outside world than to let the world in. The important thing is to know you’re acting.

    • Sometimes the unspoken grief in a family is the hardest (not always though) – interestingly, unspoken grief is often the most difficult for the next generation down rather than those of the same generation, who can ‘understand’ why someone may not talk about their grief.

      The Higgins memoir was interesting – probably lacked a little structure in some respects but did show the ripple effect of traumatic events. Very much reminded me of the work of Kate Holden.

  2. Brilliantly reviewed, thank you! I find these sorts of books so fascinating, once I’ve steeled myself for them. The only one I’ve read here is Kalanthi’s, but will look out for the others.

    Have you read Let Not The Waves of The Sea by Simon Stephenson? He lost his brother in the 2005 tsunami, and the book is extraordinary.

  3. I don’t think I had the Levy pegged as a bereavement memoir, but now that I know it has that element I’m even more keen to read it (I have it on my Kindle from NetGalley from ages back). My thoughts on the Kalanithi and Riggs are very similar to yours. I still remember how she compared her lost pubic hair to a muskrat at the shower drain! I don’t know if you heard, but John Duberstein, Riggs’ widower, and Lucy Kalanithi dated for a while. Their relationship didn’t last, but it sure was a sweet story. (Re: the tsunami, you must read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala — she lost her parents, husband and sons. Unbelievable.)

    • The Levy is very much a bereavement memoir, and includes the loss of her relationship and her idea of the role she would play as a woman, and as an adult (I won’t say more because I don’t want to give elements of her story away). There were elements of this book that will really stay with me, I think because of her writing style.

      My heart is still broken over the Riggs. I did know the story about the widow and widower (which I think is how I came to having both books??) – I didn’t know their relationship had ended until I looked online when I’d finished the books.

      Will check out Wave.

  4. I just bought When Breath Becomes Air this afternoon, then came home and read your post – it was clearly meant to be. I’m not a big memoir reader but this seems universally adored (and related to my work) so I have to give it go!

    • Brace yourself, particularly for the afterword.

      I suspect that at some point I will reach a tipping point – hearing peoples’ stories all day and then reading memoirs at night will be too much, and I’ll switch to fiction of the Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper variety. That hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t doubt it for my future 😀

  5. I read When Breath Becomes Air earlier this year and was so impressed by his writing. Such a sad and powerful memoir. I read Levy’s essay about miscarriage a few years ago and I’d be interested in reading more from her but I’m not sure I can handle an entire book. How much does she delve into other topics or is pretty focused on miscarriage?

  6. I’m waiting for the audio version of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir to become available. Looks like many people in my district want this book. It was recommended to me during non fiction November because I’d read 2 other medical memoirs this year….

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