My memory of the phrase dates back to college anthropology, and I can’t quite remember what tribe/culture to attribute the idiom to, but I remember it making rather a lasting impression, even for a teenaged boy who had not yet seen much loss. The phrase, used to describe the grieving process of the living after a loved one had died, was “meeting with the absence of a person.” Instead of framing it around loss (a term that still confuses me, as if to insinuate that someone had not died but just been misplaced) the idiom was framed around the idea that absence was a form and force that needed to be met and ultimately reckoned with, not repressed or summarily dealt with. Western culture, particularly American culture, has long had a somewhat ham-fisted approach to grief and mourning, with little to no acceptable public means or ritual for processing grief.
Over the last decade or so, there have been published a number of first-person accounts contending with the death of a loved one. I attribute this as much to the vision of a select few and awakening of a public conversation on death, as I do to a post 9/11 mentality where the action of grieving immediately after the tragedy was very raw, very sincere, and very public. Most notably was Joan Didion’s 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, where she tenderly recounts the days/months after her husband’s death, along with the loss of her daughter. But more recently there has been a collection of books delving deeper into a very personal grieving process (all of which were written by talented women writers). There was A Widow’s Story (2011) authored by Joyce Carol Oates in which she writes also of the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, and Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (2011) where she reflects on the mourning of her mother who died after battling cancer. Both of these books are less straightforward accounts of personal suffering, and more than anything meditations on the complexity of grief and absence. In an interview, conducted earlier this year with The New York Times, on the subject of grief and her book, O’Rourke talked openly about the enduring impact of grief, ” I’m changed by it, the way a tree is changed by having to grow around an obstacle.”
Another very notable contribution to this particular genre is Ann Faison’s Dancing With The Midwives: A Memoir of Art and Grief. Faison takes a far less linear approach to the memoir and loosely brackets her experiences, both as a teenager whose mother succumbed to cancer, and then as a mother herself, some two decades on, contending with the death of her unborn child in utero. Faison’s journey (full disclosure requires me to reveal that Faison is a longtime friend of mine – but don’t hold that against her) is one largely guided by poetry and artwork, and informed by her dealings with the natural world, as well as navigating a more immediate social world, which holds little ability to gracefully address the complexities of grief and death. Faison writes, “This is a story of transformation, brought about by birth and death being bound up together and leaving in their wake no vessel for the stream of love both had created.”
The same decade that has brought us such profound meditations on death and grieving, has also brought forth revealing research on the subject of grieving patterns. For instance, some social scientists have found that most older people whose spouses die from natural causes recover much more quickly than we have come to expect. In fact, for many, acute grief tends to lift well within six months after the loss. The six month marker has become a somewhat widely accepted designate, among those studying the grieving process, but not so much among those who do the actual grieving. A recent informal analysis on the subject, which ran on Slate.com, reveals a lot more about the experience of grief and the many subtleties and nuances of lasting grief.
But grief, unlike cancer and terrorism, is not something to be conquered and vanquished but decidedly something to move through and make sense of, if possible. For those of you who have experienced, or are experiencing, grief in relation to the death of a loved one, how are you meeting with this particular absence? Have you found the process to be utterly unbearable, or were you able to derive some comfort and perspective from the bereavement?