I could use a lot of jargon, but that's what it comes down to, my highly skilled, Monty Python loving therapist told me after my partner died in August 2001. It's like the Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition, she said, you just don't expect it, when grief comes.
Was I going nuts?, I asked.
(I couldn't sleep, carried my purple teddy bear everywhere and found reruns of "The Odd Couple" too complex to follow.)
You're not going nuts, Mary said, you're grieving. It's nothing pathological, she kept saying, grief sucks.
Bit by slow, arduous bit, you rebuild your world. Heaven or no heaven, your dead live on in your memory and in your heart. Grief becomes integrated into your life, Mary said. Still, grief sucks.
Unfortunately, grief's not only nearly impossible to live with: it's more difficult than words can say to write about. No matter whether it's poetry, fiction or memoir. Making art out of grief is like lassoing a moonbeam.
I know. I've tried.
You idealize the dead person (or character) to such a degree that his or her humanity disappears.
You use hoary imagery that hasn't been taken off the shelf since the Victorian era.
You ignore the pain of grieving
or you forget that funny things happen even in the midst of mourning.
The list of authorial sins against grief is nearly endless.
But, every so often, as unexpected as death itself, a great work is written about grief.
Recently, I've read two books that knocked my socks off: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
If you tried you couldn't think of more dissimilar genres, writing styles or authors. Yet, both volumes, though filled with sadness, fill us with the exhilaration that great writing and storytelling bring. The seventh volume of Rowling's epic and Didion's memoir, despite their differences of style, are each spectacular (and much needed) additions to our scant literature of mourning.
My friend Letty died at age 77 on July 12, just before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published.
Like many adults, Letty, her partner Shannon and I enjoyed the HP books as much as the children we knew did. We scarfed up each installment of Rowling's tale as soon as it came out in book or CD form.
At her memorial service, we joked about snagging a nanosecond of free time with Letty (especially, a moment when she wasn't involved with "anything to do with Harry Potter").
Why did Letty, a busy feminist theologian and professor emeritus of Yale University Divinity School like Harry Potter so much?
For the same reasons that many of us are fans of the Potter saga.
Though the writing is sometimes pedestrian and overlong, the story is riveting. We find "good guys," "bad guys," magic wands, animals that do useful things (who wouldn't want their mail to be delivered by owl instead of the post office?), and delightfully gross candies (you gotta admit there's a certain guilty pleasure in reading about, if not tasting booger-flavored jelly beans).
But, I think what Letty may have liked best about the Harry Potter books, is the way in which Rowling deals with grief. Though ostensibly a children's story crammed with tricks, action, jokes, and fun, the Potter epic doesn't ignore dying or grieving.
Unless you've been living on Mars, you know about the Harry Potter story: the Chosen One for both Wizards and Muggles (humans) battles villainous Lord Voldemort.
Rowling's epic touches on many themes, including racism, difference, loyalty and bravery.
Yet, from the beginning, Harry encounters grief and death. He grieves because his parents were killed just after his birth. His godfather Sirius is killed by Voldemort's forces. Dumbledore, the beloved Hogwarts headmaster and Harry's mentor dies. Along with coping with normal teenage woes (like dating and annoying teachers), Harry struggles with his losses. He would give anything if he could bring his folks, Sirius or Dumbledore back to life. Like many of us, Harry comes to see that the dead remain a part of our lives, even if they aren't literally restored to the living.
I do not want to be a Harry Potter spoiler. So I won't give any of the plot of The Deathly Hallows away.
Except to say that the final installment of Rowling's epic is very much about death: how we'd like to master death, but find we can't. At times, Harry is so grief-stricken that he wonders if he can go on. In the end, he learns that the dead are (on some level) forever with us. "Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still," says a quote from William Penn at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, "For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent."
Whether or not they believe in an afterlife, great artists make the dead present in their work.
This is the case in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
On December 30, 2003, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion's husband, died of a heart attack, just as they were sitting down to eat dinner in their New York City apartment. Didion thought Dunne was joking, before she realized that he was in desperate shape. At the same time, their daughter Quintana was in an intensive care unit in a Manhattan hospital.
(She'd fallen into septic shock, from what had at first seemed to be the flu. Quintana died at age 39 on August 26, 2005 after The Year of Magical Thinking was published.)
The Year of Magical Thinking is a luminous memoir of her grief, her marriage to Dunne and her caring for Quintana. The writing is letter-perfect: understated, precise, detailed, memorable and moving. If Didion played baseball, she'd pitched no-hitters. If she sang, she'd have perfect pitch.
Didion, who will receive the National Book Foundation's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at a ceremony in New York next month, is one of our greatest writers. The Foundation rightly cites "her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence."
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes "I....know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead."
This is true.
Yet, we grieve to keep the dead present as much as to let them go.
As artists, we strive to make art out of our grief.
If we succeed, our art and our dead are with us.