I’m not a fan of grief memoirs as it turns out. Which is ironic as I flirt so often with the idea of writing one myself.
I recently heard an interview with Cheryl Strayed. I liked the sound of her no-nonsense Midwestern approach to life and writing so I looked up her book ‘Wild’.
The blurb told me that in 1995 she’d walked along the west coast of America single-handedly as a way of dealing with the grief of losing her mother and the break up of her marriage.
‘Urgh’ I thought, ‘of course you did’ and clicked off the page in disgust, with no further wish to read her writing.
Last month I read ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald. I read the book to the end but quaked with irritation through the sections devoted to Macdonald’s experience of grief, preferring those parts about the life of TH White or the progress of Mabel the hawk.
I don’t know what it is about grief memoirs that makes me so uncharitable.
When I was sixteen my best friend’s mum died. I went round to ‘pay my respects’ as soon as I heard the news with my mum and dad. Whilst they burbled their condolences to her dad in the other room I remember standing in front of my friend.
“I’m so fucking sick of everyone telling me they’re sorry,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
She was standing in the corner of the room. The late evening summer sun behind her reflected off the garden wall and in through the window.
I nodded, as though I understood, but all I really got was a sense that grief was personal, that you couldn’t touch it or get close to it, not even if you really loved the person who had died too.
Spirit of friendship
When my own mum died, almost sixteen years later, another friend gave me a copy of Joan Didion’s ‘The year of magical thinking’, a grief memoir that Didion had written during the year immediately after husband died.
“I think you’ll find this helpful,” said my friend with confidence.
I hated that book. I threw it across the room a couple of times whilst reading it, only to retrieve it later feeling guilty, as though I had betrayed the kindness and spirit of friendship in which the book had been given to me.
But here’s the thing.
What these memoirs have in common is that they are written in the context of someone stepping out of their every day life for a year to deal with their grief by taking a major hike or training a goshawk for a year.
I’ve known a lot of people who’ve lost people they loved.
And in all cases, life demanded to be carried on.
And so their grief is lived in the getting up and the going to work even when nothing makes any sense. The insomnia they suffer means another day of numbed reactions, mistakes, slowness and a sense of disjointed, unbelonging. Their grief is a weight carried around that shifts and kicks likes an inverse, never ending pregnancy, varied only in the frequency and potency of attack.
I have, it turns out, read grief memoirs, however unknowingly, looking for these heroes, the people I have had the good fortune to know in my life. Inevitably, then, the selection that I have read so far can do no other than fall short.
That does not, of course, in any way undermine the pain that the authors felt or the routes they took to manage and self-medicate their loss. It does however point the way to the kind of thing I would most like to write, if I were to pursue the theme…