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Learning to Grieve

 


Learning to Grieve

A poet and a psychologist consider the necessity of mourning our dead.

Uzo Egonu Estate/Tate Modern, London

Uzo Egonu: Woman in Grief, 1968

“Maybe I didn’t die properly,” says Jamie (played by Alan Rickman) in Anthony Minghella’s early film Truly, Madly, Deeply. “Maybe that’s why I can come back.” His partner, Nina (Juliet Stevenson), has been driven mad with grief, following his sudden death while undergoing minor surgery. He wasn’t dangerously ill, and she hadn’t said good-bye. It is some years since his death, but she has made no progress at all in overcoming her grief; her despair has simply grown more acute. She cannot face her life without him. And she is so desperate for Jamie to return that he does—a little grayer than before, rather colder than before, but otherwise much the same. It turns out he’s been hanging around since he died—invisibly watching over her, but also just spending time lazing in the park, learning Spanish, and looking at the living.

Nina’s love, or perhaps her need for him, allows him to rematerialize and he joins her, moving into her apartment and hiding whenever the doorbell rings. Or maybe she joins him. At one point in the film she reluctantly drags herself away from him to go back to the office. She thinks she’s just late for work, but she has been missing for days. The two of them are caught in a kind of limbo. He didn’t die properly, and she can’t grieve properly. As the plot unfolds we realize that he has come back in order to break the connection. He behaves so impossibly—crowding her out of the apartment into which he invites scores of his ghostly, blokey friends—that she learns to accept that a life with the dead is a dead end. Nor is it much fun for the ghosts, caught forever in the moment of their deaths, permanent spectators of life’s unfolding drama. The message of the film is, Let them go.

As deaths from Covid-19 multiply across the globe, so do numbers of the bewildered bereaved. The trouble with the film’s well-meaning advice is that it presumes that the living occupy a position securely on one side of the border between life and death. But accounts of bereavement suggest that isn’t exactly the case. In 2008 the poet and philosopher Denise Riley’s grown son Jacob died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. In the weeks and months following his unexpected death, she kept a diary recording its impact on her and especially on her experience of everyday being-in-the-world. Time stalled for her, or was “arrested,” like her son’s heart.

It wasn’t simply that the concept of a personal future was now hard to grasp, or to bear, with the role of “mother” that she had been inhabiting now wounded and under attack. But the experience of sequence itself—one event or one word following another—was no longer available to her. Words came out of her mouth askew; basic inductions, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow, no longer seemed to hold true; language as a whole, with its grammatical past, present, and future, was fatally compromised. Riley diagnoses this condition as one of sharing the time of the dead. Even though we may be able to narrate the story of a death with temporal markers such as “and then” and “after that,” when we think of our dead they are gone from us now, not then.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow, written as a series of diary entries, was first published in 2012, and it has now been brought out again alongside Riley’s 2016 volume of poems, Say Something Back. Both prose and poetry chronicle the experience of living inside a kind of secondhand death, and of finding yourself yearning for the real thing. Six months after her son’s death she haunts meetings of bereaved parents, online and in person, and discovers that the habit of hoping “for their own rapid death” is so common as to be unremarkable:

Yet I can’t allow myself this comforting prospect, as I won’t abandon my surviving children. Any more than I’ll abandon the dead one. I never abandoned him in his life, and I’ve no intention of starting now, “just because he’s dead.” What kind of a reason would that be? I tried always to be there for him, solidly. And I shall continue to be. (The logic of this conviction: in order to “be there,” I too have died.)

A vicarious death. If a sheet of blackness fell on him, it has fallen on me too. As if I also know that blankness after his loss of consciousness.

Riley finds herself afflicted by a “deep tiredness, as if sharing his grave.” And the particular cruelty of this situation is that, although you “too have died,” you’ve still lost the person you loved. You have one foot in the underworld, you become “fused with the dead, as if to animate them.” But “as if” isn’t good enough. It patently isn’t going to work. Nothing will animate them. Talking, writing, dreaming of the dead—it’s all compensation, and the disturbing thing about reading Riley is that she knows it, and knows there’s no way out of it, but is compelled to keep trying.


Riley is writing here about a profoundly inaccessible experience, and she is candid about the difficulty of sharing it. Her prose becomes tangled and recursive, mimetic of what it’s like to suddenly become stuck, or, rather, unstuck from the belief that life “lean[s] forward” into the future. Time passes, but she’s still in the same place. This condition may be partly physiological. Nearly twenty-five years ago I hemorrhaged in childbirth and my baby died, despite the best efforts of everybody to try to save him. For months after his death, whenever I closed my eyes to sleep I experienced a series of sudden jolts, like whiplash, throughout my whole body, which it took me some time to interpret. Eventually, I realized that I was reliving the hectic dash from delivery room to operating theater, with the hospital gurney careering from side to side along the corridor and crashing into what appeared to be filing cabinets stored haphazardly along it. The whoosh of racing along…the metallic crash. The backing up, the whoosh…the crash. But “reliving” isn’t the right word. I wasn’t “back” there and then in the moment of dying. I was simply still in it.

But what happens when you are still still-in-it, perhaps years later, at a point when people judge you should be over it or have worked through it? Riley imagines her friends’ tutting over her becoming a “death bore”; she ventriloquizes their emotional tidying-up: “By now, she must have got over it.” Although she knows she’s demanding something that no one can provide—a radical sharing of her own experience—she’s not shy of articulating her resentment that she is left alone to bear it. Funeral rituals, the scattering of ashes, well-meaning gestures—none of it helps, and she rages against the idea that any of it would. Her insistent, defensive tone is a challenge to the reader, and I think deliberately so.

Say Something Back opens with a series of twenty short poems called “A Part Song,” in which Riley pleads with her son to respond to her “resurrection song”—even “ten seconds’ worth of a sighting” would do her. The poems are mostly highly stressed and insistently rhymed. There are resonances of Emily Dickinson’s hymn-like rhythms, and of Thomas Hardy’s poems in memory of his late wife (we can hear Hardy’s “The Voice” in Riley’s attempts “to catch/Your calling over the distances/Though your voice is echoey”). And there are stranger echoes. Riley introduces elements of nursery rhyme, formal Edwardian verse, and melodramatic apostrophizing into her series. Take this lyric—technically a jingle, except that it’s about the desire for oblivion—in which tone and subject feel wildly unsuited to each other:

The flaws in suicide are clear
Apart from causing bother
To those alive who hold us dear
We could miss one another
We might be trapped eternally
Oblivious to each other
One crying
Where are you, my
child
The other calling Mother.

Reading these poems is like encountering someone trying to fight their way out of a dead language with only a dead language to help them (including the language of “in sympathy” greeting cards, addressed to those “who hold us dear”). Regular, sprightly, hopeful rhymes and rhythms provide the initial structure for poems that repeatedly stutter and deflate, that insist on their own uncomfortably hobbled gait, or that end too soon, leaving us—yes—bereft. Here is the whole of part 7 of “A Part Song”:

Oh my dead son you daft bugger
This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you
And end this tasteless melodrama—quit
Playing dead at all, by now it’s well beyond
A joke, but your humour never got cruel
Like this. Give over, you indifferent lad,
Take pity on your two bruised sisters. For
Didn’t we love you? As we do. But by now
We’re bored with our unproductive love,
And infinitely more bored by your staying dead
Which can hardly interest you much, either.

One of the questions Riley asks in Time Lived, Without Its Flow is whether “we might reconsider the possibility of a literature of consolation, what that could be or what it might do.” In other words, is there an alternative to elegy? She is not interested in resurrecting the dead in language. She wants the real thing—an answer from the underworld. The trouble when someone dies is that we want to follow where they have gone, like Orpheus into the underworld, and bring them back. But for the living to truly come back to consciousness in this world—to keep on living—means leaving our dead behind in the other one. Orpheus loses Eurydice at the moment he turns and looks. As Riley points out, the force of the story may be that “we can only stay in the company of our dead for as long as we don’t notice them as really separate from us, caught in their different realm.”


Grieving would then be a process of acknowledging death, rather than, as it’s so often described, coming to terms with loss. The force of this devastating little book is that for Riley there can be no coming to terms, and no consolation. She quotes Freud’s letter to a friend after the death of his daughter Sophie in January 1920, at the very end of the flu pandemic, when it must have seemed as though the family was safe:

Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute, no matter what may fill the gap; even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be…it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.

Riley’s experiments with in-your-face rhyme are part of that drive to perpetuate love. Rhyme is substitution: something returns that is not quite the same, but that inhabits and holds open the place of the same. We could think of rhyme itself as a kind of compensation for loss: language rebounding, and saying something back, if not quite what we wanted or expected to hear. The concluding series of poems in Say Something Back was commissioned as part of the centenary commemorations of World War I. Here the attempt to struggle through to something on the other side of convention is explicit, as Riley takes euphemisms (such as that the dead are “tucked in where they fell,” or that “their name liveth for evermore”) and unravels them.

Denise Riley

Denise Riley

Denise Riley at her son’s funeral, 2008

The series title, “A gramophone on the subject,” echoes a comment made by Arthur Conan Doyle on his belief in the reality of contact with the war dead. (“All that I can do is to be a gramophone on the subject”—you can listen to him saying it in a short film from 1927 on YouTube.) Conan Doyle’s son Kingsley was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, survived, but died two years later during the flu epidemic, along with Conan Doyle’s brother. Conan Doyle had long been a convinced spiritualist, but—like many—following the war and the pandemic he became an obsessive, and repetitive, advocate of clairvoyance as a source of consolation for the living who “have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand.”

The attraction of spiritualism in Edwardian and interwar England surely derived not only from the thought that you could contact a person in the afterlife, but that there was an afterlife at all. Riley’s convinced secularist outlook means she can’t look for that kind of comfort, and doesn’t want to. Instead, her son’s afterlife is hard-won through the anguished labor of repetition. In the absence of hearing anything back, we create our own echoes by saying, I love you and Don’t leave me, again and again, like the needle wearing out the groove on the gramophone’s broken record.

Many people will recognize themselves in Riley’s description of the psychic aftermath of her son’s death. Part of her purpose in writing was, she says, to try to find words for a state of suspension that is “lived daily” by so many people, and hung onto by so many, too. Why would you willingly give up a relationship in which “the time of the dead is…freshly contained within your own”? If not exactly against mourning, this is a book against the therapy of mourning, in that Riley insists on her right not to “move on” from what Dorothy Holinger would call “complicated grief.” Holinger is a psychologist (trained in neuroanatomy and at home with reading MRI scans) as well as a practicing psychotherapist. Like Riley, she is interested in the “changes that happen to the human self of the bereaved,” and her book The Anatomy of Grief sets out to examine the nexus of connections between the physiology and psychology of grief.

There are sections here on the brain, the heart (the real one that pumps, not the metaphorical one), and the body; on forms and languages of grief; and on the types of psychological difficulty that may be experienced by different members of a bereaved family. She is fond of taxonomies, and there is at least clarity to her alphabetized dissection of the different types of crisis into which we may be plunged following a death. “Ambiguous grief follows news that a loved one is missing, or is presumed dead”; “anticipatory grief…is felt when a loved one is ‘under the threat of death’”; “disenfranchised grief is grief that isn’t recognized by those in the griever’s world”—here Holinger points to a sibling’s grief, which can be marginalized or ignored in comparison to that of the parents whose child has died. “Normal, resilient grief” is defined as “uncomplicated. Though still wrenching and painful, gradually—only gradually—the bereaved comes to accept the loss, and adjust to life without the loved one.”

And at the other end of the spectrum lies “complicated grief,” in which “the bereaved continues to yearn for the deceased, and is unable to accept his or her death. Thoughts of the deceased keep intruding, leading to an intense preoccupation with the lost loved one.” There are numbers attached: “It occurs in about 7 to 10 percent of the bereaved in the United States, and 2 to 3 percent worldwide of those grieving.” Holinger chooses not to speculate on why the occurrence is so much higher in the United States, or on how those percentages are derived.

Holinger’s separation of noncomplicated from complicated grief has its roots in Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia: “In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.” (As Riley notes, wryly, Freud’s 1917 essay often gets recommended by sympathetic friends after a death or other catastrophic loss. God knows I’ve done it myself, just as I’ve also turned to it for self-diagnosis; is this state of despair I’m feeling pathological, or am I working through my grief in a “normal” way? Am I in danger of losing my hold on myself, as well as the person I loved? Will this ever end?) But Holinger also looks for supporting evidence in the work of evolutionary biologists, neuropsychiatrists, and “bereavement scientists” such as George Bonanno, a psychologist who argues for “resilience” as the most common and natural reaction to loss and trauma.

She gathers an impressive amount of very varied information—about crow funerals (thousands of noisy crows converging on the body of a dead compatriot), desolate swans, the Taj Mahal, Broca’s area (“the specific place in the brain responsible for the production and expression of speech,” which can be damaged by trauma), Paleolithic burials, primate mother–child bonds, the death of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s daughter Marigold, the chemistry of tears, the function of the nucleus accumbens (part of the brain’s “reward circuitry,” which fMRI scans have shown to be more highly activated among women with “complicated grief” than those with the noncomplicated form, suggesting that complicated grief is a form of addiction); writings by Julian Barnes, Louise Glück, Max Porter, and Meghan O’Rourke (among many others)—all are brought to bear alongside Holinger’s stories from the consulting room and her own family’s experience of bereavement.

None of this scientific and historical information could be called out as “wrong”—though we might want to question the basis of the clinical diagnosis dividing resilient goats from complicated sheep—and much of it is interesting, but it is recounted at such a level of generality that it is only intermittently helpful. It stays at the level of information. This is unfortunate because it is a well-meaning study intended to help people who are suffering. Holinger means it as “a testament of knowledge and hope for anyone who has been affected, at some time in their life, by the pain and emptiness of loss.”

It is axiomatic for Holinger that knowledge leads to hope, and she is particularly optimistic about the clinical possibilities of empirical research in neuropsychiatry. If we can isolate the neurological and chemical responses to bereavement, we can trace their effects in the physical and psychological symptoms experienced by the bereaved. Freud, like Holinger, began his career as a neurologist studying the anatomy of the nervous system, and although he was resistant to the idea that mental processes were localized in particular parts of the brain (the unconscious doesn’t sit in a particular bit of the anatomy), he didn’t deny the importance of biology. “All our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably some day be based on an organic substructure,” he wrote in 1914 (in “On Narcissism”), and, a century later, scientists are keen to prove him right.

Holinger isn’t content with the idea that psychological and physiological processes might be understood in parallel with each other. She presents a version of psychoanalysis in seamless and extraordinarily straightforward conversation with contemporary research on the anatomy of the brain. She describes Freud’s “talking cure” as a process of “naming and feeling what was hidden,” allowing it to be “brought up to consciousness, exposed, and defused.” In the same way, she argues, neuroimaging studies show “how naming negative feelings can change activity in two areas of the brain, making emotions less intense”:

Using fMRI, Matthew D. Lieberman and his colleagues showed that putting feelings into words, called “affect labeling,” led to a decrease in activity in the amygdala, and an increase in activity in part of the prefrontal cortex. When participants in the study viewed photos of faces that looked angry or fearful, activity in the amygdala increased, but when the participants used words to name the observed emotions, activity in the amygdala decreased and activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex increased. In other words, the subcortical region that responds to potential danger and is associated with negative feelings was calmed, while the cortical region that is association with thinking about emotions was engaged, all because of what makes us human—language.

I don’t doubt that this is, in all important respects, true, although the underlying causal relationship is left perhaps necessarily vague. What’s central for Holinger is that turning feeling into words, and giving voice to buried emotions, acts to release tension. She is a passionate advocate for language as healer:

If not allowed its natural emotional outlet, grief can seep into the body and present itself as an ailment, a physical symptom, or a facsimile illness. Grief is unpredictable, and it will go wherever it finds an outlet. If it can’t be expressed emotionally, it may find expression in the body.

The second half of her book provides testimony, principally from her own practice, of this process in action:

Marnie listened, and talked more, and gradually she described feeling angry, guilty, and profoundly sad. And she talked about how much she missed her mother.

She cried a little less….

As her sadness and sorrow became easier to identify and acknowledge, Marnie began to move on with her life.

Or, in a separate case: “She had learned how powerful words could be…in naming her feelings and talking about them. Her words had given her the ability to convert the trauma of her experience into grief.”

It would be churlish to cavil at a process that has so clearly been helpful to many people, enabling them to move through suffering, agitation, and despair to something approaching equilibrium, a process described by Holinger as grief “beginning to run its normal course.” But this theory of language seems hopelessly inadequate to the nature of self-expression. Getting feeling into words is as often about heightening as defusing emotions. Knowledge doesn’t straightforwardly lead to hope, or change. If only it did. And the glaring omission in Holinger’s account of the calming effect of talk is the role of the listener. The problem of giving voice to grief lies not only in who is speaking, or expressing their grief on the couch, but who is listening and who is saying something back. The talking cure is really a listening cure.

Holinger isn’t bothered by the fact that the listening she provides is part of a private exchange, but the high incidence of complicated grief in the United States may have something to do with the absence of public listening, and public rituals accompanying death and bereavement. There is a public discourse around grief in the West (though arguably not around death), and Holinger’s book is part of it. But the abiding assumption is that grief is a private affliction, and the cure will be private too. It is this assumption that Denise Riley targets in her despair over how her experience is so common, and yet so isolating. Why should grief be a lonely condition, given that almost no one will not experience it?

Part of the problem may lie in the way in which we structure family life in the West. Holinger’s case histories are organized by way of the bereaved’s familial relationship to the dead person. There are chapters on mothers, fathers, children, siblings, and life partners. This arrangement allows Holinger to consider the nature of particular familial roles and psychological relationships as part of the way grief manifests itself, but it is primarily a way of structuring her material, a filing system into which she can slot her different kinds of evidence. “Fathers” includes an account of the Oedipus complex, for example, alongside patient testimonies, and a discussion of Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H Is for Hawk.

I found myself balking at the implicit assumption that bereavement is properly a family affair. What about the grief of the lover, for example, or the friend? The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient and much unread text said to be the beginning of “literature,” is powered by Gilgamesh’s grief over the death of his friend (the man who was once his enemy), not his father, or his wife, or his child. And in this lineage come some of the greatest English elegies: “Lycidas,” Milton’s elegy for his friend Edward King, and “In Memoriam,” Tennyson’s for Arthur Hallam. Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond is one of the funniest and saddest products of grief for a lover (Gerald O’Donovan, who remained married to someone else throughout the twenty years of their relationship), but friend and secret-lover griefs are merely the tip of an iceberg of less socially sanctioned forms of bereavement.

How much would stretching the definition of the “legitimate” bereaved alter our understanding of grief? Think of the kinds of pain and grief that people feel watching cell phone footage of individuals being killed on the streets of cities in the United States or dying on beaches in Europe. There are social forms of attachment and loss that are experienced as deeply personal, and they are given no space at all in the self-help manuals. In order to approach that experience, we would need not only a science of the grieving brain but a politics and a morality of grief. We would need to consider grief work like the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, countering the invisibility of those who died during the AIDS pandemic, or Black Lives Matter protests, and perhaps even at some point public acknowledgment of all those who have died of Covid and who are still dying behind glass in hospitals and nursing homes.

In her chapter on the death of children Holinger refers to David Grossman’s 2011 novel, Falling Out of Time, written in the aftermath of his son’s death while serving in the Israeli army in Lebanon. It takes the form of a folk tale about a journey to the underworld, undertaken by a grief-stricken father. One day, at the dinner table, Holinger explains, the bereaved father tells his wife he has to go:

“Where?” she asks. “To him…there,” he replies. “What do you mean, there?” she asks him. “I don’t know,” he replies, but the very act of telling his wife that he wants to go “there” shifts his grief. He hears, through the voice of a boy, “There is/Breath/there is breath/inside the pain.” And he begins to recognize that words hold truth, and the truth is that “the boy is dead.” The man has found the words that belong to grief’s language. It is a language unto itself, and those words are ones that still break his heart. But now, after “five years on the gallows of death,” he has found the way to grief—he has faced the reality that his son has died.

This is a portrait of Orpheus noticing, as Riley puts it, that the dead are separate and caught in another realm. But it is not quite right to say that the language of grief breaks the heart. As Grossman puts it, the heart breaks at the possibility that language could encompass death. It breaks “to think/that I have—/that one could—/that I have found/the words.” If language is good enough, a substitute has been found, just where a substitute isn’t wanted. Moreover, the bereaved father doesn’t find this language on his own—his journey entails joining with a band of archetypal citizens.

The father gets up from the dinner table and leaves his wife at home; he refuses to accept the privatization of loss. Grossman’s novel is about articulating individual grief within a common and collective understanding of loss. Like Riley, he is calling for a place of public exchange and acknowledgment—a kind of death agora. Riley writes of her need to be heard, and responded to, but what she articulates is really our need to listen to those caught in limbo, to those currently sharing the time of their dead, and to acknowledge that death is certain.

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