• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"Do you think that this grief undoes widowers as fully as it undoes widows?"

"Well, if you think about C.S. Lewis, I think that seems to happen very powerfully, or if you think about Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters: Poems. It's very moving. In all those years when Hughes was being vilified by feminists, he was keeping silence and suffering but was also angry at the way he was being treated. He was also raising children and having another disastrous relationship with a woman who also took her own life and took the life of their child. All that time he was writing these poems to his first wife, who clearly was the ear that heard him, the eye that saw, and he was that for her. So she was, in some sense, in some strange ghostly way, still his first reader."

"And," I said, "although Hughes called them 'the birthday letters,' they're also 'death day letters.'"

"Oh, they're death day letters, and they're also what I call 'e-mail to the dead letters,' to whatever the other side might be. They're letters to an imagined listener who seems so close and yet is so far away. Absolutely. The other person who, of course, also has done that is Donald Hall in his book about his late wife Jane Kenyon. There he's writing letters, he literally imagines them again as letters to the dead."

"In the fashion press," I said, "they speak nowadays of pink being the new black. I was thinking the other day how, in terms of subjects about which people are writing, that death is the new sex."

"Oh, that's true. Death was the old sex for a long time; in the middle of the 20th Century, death replaced sex as a subject that was regarded as nearly pornographic. C.S. Lewis talked about embarrassment, his sense that he is an embarrassment to people because people don't know what to say to or about death, they don't know how to comfort a mourner. I think that what's been happening now is that more and more people, perhaps people the baby boomers' age, are suffering losses, that more of these people who are suffering losses refuse to be silent and insist on testifying in specific detail to what they have witnessed or what they have felt.

"We see that with Hughes, who talked about looking at his dead wife's body. We see it with Hall, who talks about the details of Jane Kenyon's dying. We see it again of course in the new Joan Didion book. So, there's a sense in which death has come out of the closet.

"We live in a culture that keeps trying to slam the door on death, that keeps trying to tell us that we should seek for closure, but we can't, we can't close the door without talking about what we saw when it opened."

Among aspects of Ms. Gilbert's book I find valuable is what I think of as her jolly contempt for pop psychology.

She laughed. "I try to understand what it is that's going on in the minds of people, of people who insist on closure, for example, who insist instead of a funeral 'a celebration of the life.'"

"With tea sandwiches."

"Yes, that's right. Those are all ways of denying death, of trying to close a door that is uncloseable. And what happens when people are told that they can't mourn?"

"Or that mourning is embarrassing to non-mourners?"

"They're probably not told that, but they have the feeling that they can't mourn. What happens is that people get sick in a lot of ways and feel a kind of ache that's still intractable. It's better, as Toni Morrison says in Sula , to scream. Even though screaming doesn't necessarily bring anything to an end either."

"The expectation of late 20th-century psychology is that there's closure for everything," I said.

"That's right, and if you haven't achieved closure, you're not managing things right. Somebody asked me at a reading the other day, 'When did the word "closure" start getting used?' I didn't know, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it's a business term. 'Can we have closure on this deal?' It's a very American, commercial, late 20th-century business term that then gets carried over into pop psychology. And so we might have closure on the deal, we may have sold the house or whatever, but do we have closure on the mourning? We're supposed to have closure. Closure on childhood, closure on pain, closure on suffering. This is all another reason that we're embarrassed when somebody is suffering, whether because they're dying or they're mourning, is because we feel that they should have managed things better.

"We think that death is a kind of personal flaw, and if you're dying, for example, if you have an illness, well we all know that you shouldn't have it because you should have exercised more or you should have eaten a better diet. And if your husband has died, and this is what happened to me, you feel it must be your fault because you didn't take him to the right doctor, or you didn't see to it that he exercised more, or you didn't prepare the right diet for him.

"Of course, as long as it's your fault, as long as you feel that either your mourning or your illness are your fault, then on the one hand you want to achieve closure, and on the other hand, you're embarrassed. Your friends are embarrassed because they probably secretly agree with you that it's somehow your fault.

"Another reason why it's easier to agree is that we believe in causality. We think if somebody is sick, or somebody is mourning, or somebody has had a terrible loss, there must be a reason for it. And the reason must have something to do with that person. This goes back to one of my favorite lines from Robert Browning, from 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.' This was a line that was one of my husband's favorite lines. A child well into his journeying en route to the dark tower, over a devastated landscape and in a field sees a sick, skinny, bony, awful-looking horse, and he says, 'He must be wicked to deserve such pain.'

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!