Grief: Three Writers Who Humanize Loss

There is no shortage of books about grief. It’s not hard to understand why: every- one experiences loss. Everyone struggles with its aftermath. At the same time, grief is heartrendingly individual. Even the famous five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance don’t come on time or in any predictable relation to one another. To tell a story of loss is to humanize it, to bring it from the general to the specific, to make us see the ways in which our histories overlap, and the ways they diverge. Three new books take on the subject of grief from drastically different angles.

Heirlooms, by Rachel Hall (BkMk Press, $15.95), winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra prize for Short Fiction, begins in war-torn France at the bedside of a dying woman and ends at her grave some 40 years later, but this collection of linked short stories is not hers. Rather, it is her sister-in-law’s, and her daughter’s, as they move from town to town over the French countryside to outrun the Nazis, and then establish a new life in California. This beautiful book quietly and deftly weaves together the tales of neighbors, lovers, spouses, and children to add something remarkable to the ever-expanding shelf of Holocaust narratives: how life continues in its complexity even in times of extremity and distress, and how women’s desires—for love, children, dignity, and more—can spark actions whose repercussions will be felt down through generations. Hall’s short story “La Poussette,” included in this collection, won last year’s Lilith fiction prize. Hall can break a reader’s heart with her poised, insightful prose, as when she writes of the moment a woman who cannot have children takes charge of her motherless niece: “She has always wanted this baby, always thought she was hers, and now she is. How horrible she feels, how good.” 

The Dead Man by Nora Gold (Inanna Publications, $22.95) takes place in a far different time and place. Eve, a Canadian music therapist and composer, travels to Israel for an annual workshop. She has a week to wrestle with her ever-present urge to contact the old lover who ended their brief love affair five years earlier. More than compelled, Eve is obsessed. She cannot relinquish the idea of Jake, who is older, married, and possibly psychopathic (though non-violent). He inhabits her mind, overpowers and mutes other considerations, including her two sons and her art. It’s refreshing to read a story of romantic obsession about a 50-year-old woman, rather than the ingénues who typically inhabit such tales. Eve brings her own history with her, an entire set of emotional bag- gage along for the trip. Her story is not, as much of popular culture would have it, finished. She is not ready to settle into a rocking chair on the porch so that the street is clear for younger people to struggle with love, abandonment, and confusion. Jake, too, emerges as an unusual antagonist/ love interest. His appeal is never obvious, and that also breaks the mold. As in life, attraction is inexplicable, understood only by those caught in its grip. It’s a quirk of the writing style, however, that allows the reader to understand the source of Eve’s mental anguish, and why she would cling to Jake even as he seems unworthy of anyone’s devotion —long before the protagonist her- self can do so.

And what of early loss? What of grief that cannot be fully felt, or if not felt, then comprehended? When Lucy, protagonist of the novel Piece of Mind (W.W. Norton, $25.95), was just three years old, an accident left her brain damaged. She is smart, has made it through college, but has no executive functioning skills, and so cannot hold down a job or even care for herself. She, like her bedroom, is quite simply a mess, dependent upon her optimistic, unrealistic father to keep her safe and to structure her days. And after he dies, her life is overturned.

She finds herself living in her younger brother’s tiny New York apartment, at a loss for what to do or how to go about doing it. What she knows is that she loves coffee, drawing, and the polar bear at the Central Park Zoo. With these elements, first-time novelist Michelle Adelman builds a world that is both familiar and foreign. As Lucy tells her story, the read- er sees her confusion, despair, and the sorrow she can’t fully express. Lucy is revealed to us through her bewildered innocence. It is to the author’s credit that Lucy, who describes her own emotions as “guarded by a special coating, protected from reality,” can nonetheless evoke the depth of grief so powerfully, even as she seems unable to fully access it.

Michal Lemberger is the author of After Abel and Other Stories. She lives in Los Angeles.