Grief: On the printed page and, suddenly, in your life

Books describe the journey along the edge of the abyss

January 21, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

Standing in line,waiting to check in for jury duty, I wondered which of the three people behind the counter I would rather handle this. The announcement had said they would confirm my address, employment and marital status.

I got the middle-aged man. We went through the form on the computer screen. The address was correct. So was the employer. Marital status? "My wife has died," I said. The cursor moved. The M was changed to W. It moved again to the name of spouse. "Nancy" disappeared. Then to spouse's profession. "Professor" disappeared.

It was that quick. And easy. And hard.

They are slim volumes, overlooked by most. But now they jump out on the shelves as if illuminated by some internal lighting. They are journals of loss and grief and mourning. Maybe you could say that they are not meant for everybody, just for those of us in this unlucky fraternity. But, of course, they are, because at some point, almost all of us will be members. It's just that we don't know it yet.

But why do we read them then? Is it because we should, as my doctor advised me, "wallow in it"? That is, not pretend to put on some facade of strength and dignity, but to dive headlong into this storm of agony, knowing that you are going to face it sometime or another, better now than later?

Is it because we want to know that we are not alone, that we are not some sort of wounded freaks, that others have felt this way and, perhaps, expressed the feelings better than we ever could?

Or is it because suddenly there is this subject that months, days, weeks or hours ago held little interest for you, but now is the most important piece in your life?

Something about grief does become clear in these books: It is at once a completely universal and a very specific phenomenon. Even as you notice the shared feelings, you cannot help but point out the subtle - and not so subtle - differences.

Take the two most recent of these volumes, members of the subset that attracted my attention, dealing with the death of a spouse - The Goldfish Went on Vacation by Patty Dann and About Alice by Calvin Trillin. Both are brief and insightful and well worth your attention.

Dann tells of the death of her husband, Willem, and its effect on her and their young son Jake, who went from 3 to 4 years old during the year it took a form of brain cancer to rob his father of his knowledge, his personality and, finally, his life. Subtitled A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It), this book is clearly aimed at those who have faced this grief with young children. But it is much more than that and, indeed, teaches little about how children react beyond the fact that in some ways they seem better equipped than we are.

The Goldfish Went on Vacation is written much like the assignments Dann gives her writing students, many of them older women, at the West Side YMCA in New York. The chapters are each brief meditations on a specific subject or incident. Some seem frivolous. Others off the point. But very often, they strike at the heart with a subtle but searing intensity.

There is her remembrance of the time that a young doctor tried to seduce Dann when she was still in high school. It turned out his wife had recently died. She was cold in his apartment. He still had his wife's clothes.

"I put on one of her sweaters, a gray wool cardigan, and we got into bed with all of our clothes on and hugged," she writes. "The doctor cried, I stroked his hair, then he drove me back to where I was staying. It was not the thought of sleeping with a stranger, an older man, that shocked me as much as the dead wife's clothes in the closet. I had no idea that 30 years later, I would have my dead husband's clothes in my closet or that, by that time, it would not shock me at all."

Or the time, two weeks after her husband died, a woman on a playground said to her, "Don't you hate it when your husband is home for lunch?"

Her response: "I, without the usual, `Well, I have a different situation. ... ' just blurted out, `Actually, my husband's dead and I'd give anything to have a sandwich with him right now.' "

You don't say things like that to make someone feel bad - just the opposite, to make them feel good, to realize how lucky they are, even if it is irritating for your husband to come home for lunch.

In the days following my wife's death, I found myself telling people that those little things your spouse does that irritate you, treasure them because that's what you are going to miss the most. I'm not sure why I said that, I just know that it's true.

In About Alice, the gifted Trillin tries to make up for what he describes as the "sitcom" version of his wife that came through in his previous books. Those focused on those slight irritations as the prim Alice tried to keep her bad-boy husband in line, in part to keep him from leading their daughters astray.

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