The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence next to me.
Trumpet, Jackie Kay.
Hamlet (1599 – 1602?), William Shakespeare
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
In Memoriam (1849), Alfred Lord Tennyson
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
A Grief Observed (1961), C.S. Lewis
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
Heaven’s Coast (1996), Mark Doty
For your lover to die is not to be guided by fire but immolated by it; to lose what you love, as Job loses his children, is to be entirely plunged into darkness, vulnerable, unprotected by any hedge. And we’re forced to the ultimate question of self-pity: why me? Why did I suffer? Why did I live to lose? Does this have any meaning at all, or is it merely the grinding down of ourselves, the grand arbitrary motions the spheres enact?
Trumpet (2000), Jackie Kay
When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.
Looking For Alaska (2006), John Green
Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there’. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), Alison Bechdel
I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.
Men We Reaped (2013), Jesmyn Ward
After I left New York, I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief. We are never free from the feeling that we have failed. We are never free from self-loathing. We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.
H Is For Hawk (2014), Helen McDonald
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
Woman Much Missed (2015), Thomas Hardy
I thought her behind my back,
Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,
Though how do you get into this old track?’
And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf
As a sad response; and to keep down grief
I would not turn my head to discover
That there was nothing in my belief.
4 thoughts on “Reading List: Death, Grief, and Mourning”
Heaven’s Coast is one of my “favourite books I will never re-read.” No book has ever been able to make me cry but this is one of the only ones that made me come close. It took me ages to finish because it got so unbearably heartbreaking towards the end I had to put it down every couple of pages. I don’t think I could bear to read it a second time.
An additional recommendation (if that’s allowed): Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, which is a collection of the notes he started making on slip pieces of paper after his mother died. It’s devastating.
“My universe: flat. Nothing echoes here—nothing crystallizes either.”
“My overcoat is so dreary that I know maman would never have tolerated the black or gray scarf I always wear with it, and I keep hearing her voice telling me to wear a little color.
For the first time, then, I decide to wear a colored scarf (Scotch plaid).”
I agree – “Heaven’s Coast” is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, but it hurt to finish it and I really had to push myself to keep reading at certain points. I first read it for a class on HIV/AIDS in literature, so the semester had been full of heartbreaking stories and by the end of it, the whole group was feeling more than a little vulnerable and shaken.
As for Roland Barthes, I keep meaning to read more of his work and this definitely sounds interesting. Thank you for your recommendation!
Great list. I remember reading The Year of Magical Thinking with A Grief Observed and really liking it. They were very good companion books. Ooh, list idea: Books that are better when read together.
That is an excellent idea, I like it! I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the future, it could be an interesting project.