Death is in fashion these days, at least in the publishing industry. The success of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture has spawned a number of erudite meditations on how to face our mortality, the latest being Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers.
Death is indeed a tragedy, perhaps less so for the dead than those left behind. We may choose to die well or not, but there is never any good way to grieve. Not that it’s stopped countless self-help books from trying to help us do just that, be it the now classic On Death and Dying or recent, more hokey-sounding titles such as First Tears Over the Loss of Your Child.
The guru: Didion in New York. Shawn Baldwin / Bloomberg
Despite their enormous popularity in the West, books on grieving are harder to find in Indian bookstores. Where Americans seek the wisdom of experts, we perhaps rely more often on that ultimate self-help manual, religion. “Read the scriptures,” relatives urged my mother, to no avail, when my brother and father died within three months of one another. Death may indeed have freed their eternal souls, but she remained wilfully uninterested in ceding her attachment to their mortal bodies.
Safe from such familial nostrums in the US, I was left to find my own way out of the abyss. At first, I could barely handle anything to do with death, not until I stumbled upon Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a year when her husband died of a heart attack even as their only child lay in a coma.
Didion gave me what neither self-help gurus nor religion could offer: a detailed, meticulous, unflinching anatomy of grief. She didn’t tender wisdom or attempt to console. She had no advice for the bereaved, nor did she pretend to understand my pain. In the place of prescription, Didion offered description.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it,” she writes. “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” There’s anger and guilt, waves of anguish, but also helpless bewilderment at the experience of grief itself.
Bereavement rarely follows the neat little script we’ve been taught to expect: shock and denial, followed by the initial days/weeks of unbearable sorrow, leading inevitably to acceptance and recovery. Grief in the real world is messier and far more complicated. In the months after my brother died, I felt a shameful nostalgia for the week I spent in Los Angeles making arrangements for his cremation. Funerals offer, as Didion describes it, “a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion”, a brief respite from “the unending absence that follows”.
Didion didn’t help me deal with my emotions; she helped me name them. The mental chaos of grief is such that it’s a huge relief just to know what you’re feeling. She also gave me permission to simply grieve in a world intent on hurrying the bereaved towards healing when they’ve barely apprehended the shape of their loss. The grieving receive a lot of advice, from counsellors, priests, friends and family, even total strangers. Talk about it, don’t dwell on it, cry it out, be strong, see a shrink, rediscover God. The self-help books are just one more voice in this societal choir insisting upon our recovery.
In charting the terrain of her loss, Didion helped me instead map my own topography of grief. Our geographies were similar but not identical. We were both “cool customers”, seemingly in control on the outside and entirely deluded within.
Where she secretly believed that she could somehow bring her dead husband back by saving his shoes and clothes, I was convinced that having a baby would heal my parents and keep them safe, a belief that died with my father amid my desperate attempts to get pregnant.
There’s one other difference. Didion’s daughter died in August 2005, just as her book was due for publication. Mine was born in March 2008, few weeks shy of my father’s first death anniversary.
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