Popular fiction and non-fiction that helps to shed light on a dark time
November 7th, 2006 by

After my entry into widowhood, one of the most vexing problems that I faced was the complete and total dearth of quality literary resources for younger widows and widowers. To help remedy this situation, I’d like to share a list of books that have proven to be immensely comforting through this time. None are books specifically meant to serve as a guide for widows, but each employs its own method of reassuring and gently guiding those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

An autobiography encompassing the period of time immediately following her husband’s death, Didion’s book is at once an immediate, brutal, and crystal-clear portrait of a grief so deep that it suspends the normal thought process.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way home from work — happy, successful, healthy — and then, gone,” I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,” people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.”

“And then — gone.” In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside. Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner time, all those who picked up the plates and froze the leftovers and ran the dishwasher and filled our (I could not yet think my) otherwise empty house even after I had gone into the bedroom (our bedroom, the one in which there still lay on a sofa a faded terrycloth XL robe bought in the 1970s at Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills) and shut the door. Those moments when I was abruptly overtaken by exhaustion are what I remember most clearly about the first days and weeks. I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them. At one point I considered the possibility that they had picked up the details of the story from one another, but immediately rejected it: the story they had was in each instance too accurate to have been passed from hand to hand. It had come from me.

Paint It Black, Janet Fitch’s recently released follow-up to White Oleander, tells the story of young Josie Tyrell, punk princess of the 80s-era Los Angeles underground. After receiving a call from the County Coroner’s office to identify the body of her longtime boyfriend, Paint It Black follows Josie’s journey through grief and her toxic relationship with her boyfriend’s mother.

It felt strange to be alone in the little house, in the tranquillity of the afternoon. This was the first time she ‘d ever lived alone. She straightened the pillows on the couch, looked through the mail, put on the Clash, Sandinista!, sat down and got up. She couldn’t settle anywhere. The house seemed so empty, her presence didn’t alter its emptiness. At home in Bakersfield, she ‘d shared a room with Luanne and Corrine, and on Carondelet, she ‘d lived with Pen and Shirley and Paul. Later in the Fuckhouse, it was half of punk Hollywood. Now she was alone, her only company the paintings and drawings he’d done, furniture they’d salvaged, collections they’d accumulated, toys and hats and flatirons. Without him, it took on the quality of a stage set where the actors hadn’t yet come on. She sat on the blue couch and leafed through an art magazine. A man making paintings using smashed plates. They’d seen his show at the county art museum. She’d liked the big, heavy-textured works better than Michael had, their confidence, their bold beauty. “Shtick,” he ‘d said. “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” Always so critical, he hated everything artists were doing now. He only liked Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, who painted like bloodhounds on the scent of human imperfection. And his beloved Schiele.

…She sat in his chair by the window, overlooking the hills, Echo Park, Silverlake, and beyond: the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park. The observatory’s green copper domes stood out perfectly clear against the pale blue winter sky. She loved to sit in this chair with him, her arms around his neck, drinking his smell. She pressed her face to the waffled coarseness of the chair back, trying to smell it, her eyelashes fluttering against the skin of her cheek. Catching then losing it. Still stoned from the Spider, she shuffled back into the kitchen, drank a glass of milk standing up at the sink, peeled a finger-sized banana. She tried not to look at the wooden breakfast nook with its cutout hearts, where they ate their meals, and the painting that hung there, her at the old stove, light from the kitchen window pouring over her. When he was the one who did all the cooking. She couldn’t do more than heat soup from a can.

Finally, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold paints a haunting and oddly comforting picture of the afterlife. Secular in nature yet reverent in its portrayal of Heaven, the book follows fourteen year old Susie Salmon after her brutal murder. Sebold’s Heaven is a place where wishing is having, a place that is unique to one’s own visions and needs that sometimes intersects with other people’s Heavens.

(from the Wikipedia synopsis of the book)
She arrives in heaven at first to find it boring and taking the form of a high school with “orange and turquoise blocks” that she never got to go to, saying “life here is a perpetual yesterday.” She and a fellow teen girl, Holly, are finally approached by a friendly older woman named Franny, who, after giving the two girls some lime Kool-Aid, describes herself as their intake counselor. She explains that anything they desire can be theirs if they follow the paths that wind and twist through the woods and wish for it. Following this advice, Susie and Holly find their way to a duplex where they live, a gazebo from which they often follow events on Earth, and an ice cream stand where they can get peppermint-stick ice cream all year long. At the high school, there are no teachers and they only have to attend one class each, art class for Susie and jazz band for Holly. “The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.”

They also meet other inhabitants of what they realize is “their” heaven; one of which is an older woman, a past neighbor of the Salmons who was the only dead body Susie had ever seen during her life. At night Holly and the woman play duets on violin and saxophone which attract many dogs, consoling Susie, who misses her own dog Holiday.

Do you have any books on grieving or loss that you would recommend? Please share in the comments.

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