Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl

I recently did a Grief 101 session for colleagues, mostly to explain the types of grief other than that associated with bereavement. At the end, someone asked about further reading and without hesitation, I recommended Natasha Sholl’s memoir, Found, Wanting. The ‘without hesitation’ bit is noteworthy because I’m usually reluctant to hold up a memoir as a means of understanding grief in a text-booky-way, but Sholl’s writing is succinct and beautiful, compelling and devastatingly real and it would be hard not to identify with what she says in a helpful way.

At age 22, Sholl was in a committed relationship with Rob. One night, Sholl woke to find Rob dead beside her, and everything that she had assumed was taken away in an instant. She shut down, paralyzed by the incomprehensible tragedy. Her memoir tracks her very visceral experience of grief, and the things that happened after Rob’s death (including being diagnosed with PTSD and complicated grief, a battle with disordered eating, further losses, and finding the things that soothed – therapy, yoga, medication and falling in love again).

In terms of understanding grief, this is why Found, Wanting is exceptional:

The unknown: Loss is different every time we experience it. How we can we possibly know? How can we possibly prepare? We can not. Sholl said that initially, much of the time she was ‘…acting out what I thought grieving looked like.’

None of us really knew what we were doing. The grief turned us insane. There is an assumption that the grieving process is a natural one. It’s not. People would look to me for advice, to follow my lead, to follow orders, ready to serve. I was not a dependable captain of this grief ship. I was taking us all down.

The physicality of grief: At the Melbourne Writers Festival, Sholl said that writing helped her ‘metabolise’ the grief, and what is striking is how she gives grief form – ‘…my body knew before my brain did.’

My senses diluted. I waited. For a sign. For a feeling. For a message. For anything. His absence had a physical weight to it. It filled up the room.

Ambiguous loss: Rob’s family was Jewish and sat shiva after his death. As Sholl and Rob were not married, she was not included in the process. She writes –

Another reminder of what I had lost: the future. The purpose of shiva is to allow mourners to express their sorrow before they re-enter society. There was a timeline already.

And writes of another wave of loss in the months after Rob’s death, when her friendship group ‘dwindled’ because ‘…people…asked if there was anything they could do to help and then bailed when they realised there was nothing they could do to help’. And more than a decade after his death –

There is a second death: the loss of constant pain. When not every second of every day is consumed with thoughts of what happened. It’s a comfort, of sorts, when the missing itself becomes so painful that it becomes its own kind of relationship. Keeps you linked to the person you love. The grief itself becomes something to nurture, something spiky and heavy and hot. The paradox that the very thing that feels so intolerable it may kill you is also the very thing that sustains you… When the grief melds and moulds and becomes malleable. No longer requires your constant attention. It’s another loss.

Time:  Grief warps time – moments stretching for an eternity, days passing unnoticed. Sholl describes lapses of memory and the feeling of living parallel lives, with time being divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ – My present exists only by reference to what precedes it.

I had lost the memories of Rob and the words needed to describe them. I was left only with broccoli and olive bread and a love of cats and the feel of his biceps and the smell of his shoulder… A kind of grief dementia leaving off, unmatching objects behind for me to make sense of. And I wonder if the lack of words and a lack of memory means I loved him too much or not enough.

The banality: One of the the most difficult elements of bereavement is that the rest of life keeps going. On starting a new job some time after Rob’s death, Sholl says –

I was asked where I went to school. Where I went to uni. If I had a boyfriend. There was no question that accounted for Rob. No one asked if I had had a major life trauma. If I ever missed someone so much that my muscles ached from the exhaustion of it.

Other people: The friends, relatives and strangers who say and do the ‘wrong’ things. (I frequently tell my bereavement clients that they are not responsible for other peoples’ grieving. This news is nearly always surprise, and it also provides immense relief.)

“I can’t even imagine,” they said. Although they could…. They said they couldn’t imagine, but what they meant was stop making me imagine.

That grief is not a linear or staged process: It’s chaos.

Play the part, I heard, but don’t let it ruin dinner. Observe the rituals. Don’t make a scene. The tricky balance of public grief and private pain. It was hard to get the balance right, between what I needed to survive, to pass the time, and participation.

Toward the end of the book, Sholl refers to Kübler-Ross and Kessler’s famous work that describes the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). To Sholl’s consternation, she discovers that another stage, meaning, had been added to the original five –

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross died. Kessler released another book and he added a sixth stage. A goddamn sixth stage. No, you do not get to be the poster boy for how-to-grieve and then change your mind. The New York Times called the original work a ‘definitive account of how we grieve’. It’s definitive. You had your chance. … End of story, grief guy. If the definitive account was not definitive, what hope do any of us have? Proof of fallibility.

The language: Sholl examines the etymology of words used to describe death, focusing on ‘sorry for your loss’, ‘…as if the dead have been misplaced.’ Our modern understanding of loss is ‘…failure to hold, keep or preserve what was in one’s possession’ but in its Old English form, the word meant ‘ruin or destruction’ – a much more accurate reflection of Sholl’s experience. 

The narrative of grief and loss is that surely there has to be an upside. Resilience! Superpowers! Eternal gratefulness! Extreme compassion! An appreciation of what really matters. But what if there’s not? What if something shit just happens and then you keep being the person you always were. Just sadder. Maybe even a less-good version of yourself.

Happiness: Because we can feel two things at once – sadness and joy.

No one warned me about the very particular grief of happiness after a loss. Not just the monumental joys like falling in love or having children or celebrating a birthday, but the quiet moments of turning the pages of the best kind of book or the way wind sometimes has a particular smell… No one tells you how to experience these things without it taking away from the love you feel for someone who no longer exists in this world.

Where is the reverse palliative-care for those of us who return to the land of the living? Where are the nurses to tell us how to respond when, in the muck of grief, we feel an ache of lightness, of enjoyment, of connection to a life we did not agree to live?

Sholl’s honesty and vulnerability sets this book apart. She does not shield the reader from the unspeakable, but instead, in her unflinching dissection of the pain, she normalises it. And in the normalising, the reader is reassured that in grief, something shifts, and we do go on, and we don’t forget, but we adjust.

I have breakthroughs. As if the feeling of grief is some riddle to be solved. I am a detective, forever looking for clues.

At the Melbourne Writers Festival, Sholl said she wrote the book that she wished had been available to her when her partner died. I am quite certain that anyone experiencing grief will find relief and comfort in her words. In Found, Wanting Sholl has also inadvertently tackled the ‘sixth stage of grief’ – meaning.

5/5 If you were to read only one grief memoir, this should be it.

I bought her an Italian cookbook as an engagement present to show that I was happy for her even though I was absolutely not. That I thought about her and Jez fucking to celebrate their engagement as I performed CPR. That I wished it was Jez who had died even though this was not something I was allowed to think about… I hoped that every time she made Bucatini all’Amatriciana on page 257 she would know that Rob loved me more than Jez loved her and that the world was a place of unbridled horror.

5 responses

  1. Oh dear. I just made a comment on your post about having an unmanageable TBR and I was going to exert Discipline and not buy any more but I just HAD to buy this as it is exactly what I need right now. Well, it isn’t 2023 for a few days yet……

  2. For whatever reason, very few people in my life have died, no one very close, and not that many who were close to people I know – a friend who is a widow, who “gets on with her life” but is still angry that her husband left her 10 or 12 years ago (he died of cancer); my mother who accepts that my father died when he needed to, but of course is still lonely; my brother who lost a daughter; Milly who lost her mother, but at more or less the right time; and so on.
    What I see though is so many people say “sorry for your loss” and think that absolves them of any further words or actions. Yes, I struggle with empathy, but I try and say something less banal than that.

  3. High praise from such a dedicated bereavement memoir reader! I will definitely have to get hold of it. I recently reread two short reflections, Adichie’s Notes on Grief and Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and I have Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking lined up to reread next.

    • Yes, it’s exceptional (and I quite deliberately did not reveal all elements of her story but it is quite remarkable). I have A Grief Observed but haven’t read it (IKR?!) – might save it for #NovNov.

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