Grief memoirs are often positioned as books for the grieving, as though no one reads them unless they are contending with loss. This aligns with the common idea that we write and read memoirs for catharsis, but it puts a lot of pressure on the books themselves. In a sense, we’re asking the writer to teach us something about grieving, to comfort us in the darkest times, and to assure us that there is light after loss.
When we talk about grief writing as for grievers, it changes the way we read it: We may set up expectations around how grieving readers will consume a piece of writing, or we may form certain ideas about the resolution. Grief might be universal, but it’s complex and particular as well. We cannot ask for another’s grief to show us how to get past our own (though if that happens, great), nor can we ask a writer to follow an expected narrative arc in recounting loss.
Too often we want honesty from the writer only as long as it sort of fits with the way we understand grief. But grief memoirs, reflecting a range of experiences and perspectives, push back against the idea that there is a “normal” way to grieve. Through these books, we can learn more about living — by understanding the individual effects of loss.
New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply is a challenging account of a well-crafted life falling apart. At its core, Levy’s memoir is about the loss of all the things that would ostensibly dictate “success” or completeness: spouse, home, child. The loss of her unborn child – born early in a Mongolian hotel room and dying a few minutes later – is the dizzying and harrowing climax of her story, but it’s Levy’s careful construction of the details on the way that makes that loss such a force.
At five months pregnant, Levy accepted a writing assignment in Mongolia. “People were alarmed when I told them where I was going,” she says, “but I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant.” After her miscarriage, Levy agonizes over her decision to take the assignment, even after she learns that the miscarriage was unrelated to her travel. Still, she allows herself no compassion or excuses, and her relationship to loss is burdened by her role in everything leading up to it. “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” she writes. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” That accusation propels the narrative of the memoir. Yet it’s difficult to not pity her for her persistent self-deprecation.
But the book doesn’t end at the devastating scene in Mongolia. Instead, we are swept through the aftermath of the baby’s death, Levy's profound grief, her wife’s struggle with alcoholism and Levy’s decision, finally, to leave her. Past the threshold of the wreckage, Levy shows us sprigs of hope without being sentimental. That hope feels real and meaningful.
There’s nothing inherently enjoyable about witnessing the debris of someone’s life. Yet The Rules Do Not Apply is engaging and accessible. And in a very different way, so is Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye, a remarkable and peculiar memoir/meta-memoir about the death of Vanasco’s father and her subsequent descent into something that others call mental illness but she marks as grief. This book is notable both for its unique look at grief and its unique structure.
There are several strands that sustain the fabric of The Glass Eye: the narrator’s promise to write her dying father a book; her desire to make meaning out of signs, symbols, names, and sounds; and the connection between mental illness and grief. The structure of the book helps to envelop the reader in Vanasco’s loss and disorder. The story isn’t linear, though it propels the reader and the narrator forward. Sub-sections in each chapter jump from “Dad” to “Mom” to “Mental Illness” and sometimes, to “Jeanne,” as Vanasco meanders through thoughts and theories.
A sub-narrative establishes the narrator’s incessant need to write this book for a man who would never read it. The book becomes an obsession, and her grief pushes against the limits of what we might understand. At times her love for her father seems unreasonable, and Vanasco tries to tap into that to control the depth of her grief, or at least to try to understand it. Yet again and again, she succumbs to the almost-holy love she holds for him.
Vanasco uses her preoccupation with metaphor and with deciphering meaning to bring her readers into a mind in chaos. She ruminates endlessly on the conception of the book and calls attention to her own obsession about the dead half-sister, Jeanne, who she was named for. By analyzing her quest to understand her obsession, she continually indulges in it.
Like Levy, Vanasco is relentless with herself, and like Levy's, her memoir raises larger issues, around health care, grief, family, and writing. And, like Levy, Vanasco's work is haunting and affecting.
Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped, released in 2013, is a memoir of grief, but also an important book on the deep scars and enduring poverty and racism in the American South, much like Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones and her most recent release, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The Men We Reaped is full of stunningly beautiful sentences that weave a disquieting picture of the deaths of five men – including Ward's brother – over a four-year period. Through her encompassing and palpable grief, she shows the reader the impact of poverty and her family’s relationship to place – a place that she loves yet is “ranked dead last in the United States on…a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living.”
Throughout her memoir, men and women move through that world differently. “Men’s bodies litter my family history,” she writes. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts.” Ward repeatedly points out the difficulty inherent in being a woman — yet she acknowledges “What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.” Of her experiences and the experiences of the men around her, Ward says, “This tradition of men leaving their families here seems systemic, fostered by endemic poverty”: leaving in the traditional sense and leaving through death. The men depart, leaving the women behind to raise children and care for whoever remains.
Ward uses grief to talk about the weight of racism and poverty, to shout out about the worth of the lives of her family and friends. But the book also speaks to the true nature of loss: that it isn’t tidy, and there is no predetermined end date to pain. Ward's grief doesn’t heal, as she’d believed it might. Instead, “It hurts in new ways.” But embracing her grief and exploring the ways race and poverty play into her experience of it, she turns to her mother’s strength, and to narrative: “Without my mother’s legacy, I would never have been able to look at this history of loss, this future where I will surely use more, and write the narrative that remembers, write the narrative that says: Hello. We are here. Listen.”
That imperative to write and break silence is common in grief memoirs. The Glass Eye is a story of a woman who promised to write her dying father a book. That promise eclipses everything. Levy’s story begins with the way writing has given her the life she has lived, and how it has changed her relationship to the world. But Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir highlights the silence surrounding grief.
With death from incurable cancer clearly in the narrator’s sights, Dying offers a glimpse into what it means to study dying itself. Taylor finds herself unprepared, frustrated by the modern tendency to ignore the subject of dying. She writes, “That is why I started writing this book. Things are not as they should be. For so many of us, death has become the unmentionable thing.” She argues that the dying are already lonely, and “monstrous silence” further isolates them.
The first part of the book feels particularly Montaignian, as Taylor circles what it means to die well. She ruminates on the way dying with dignity and dying without causing excess burden on her family has become an important part of her, even as she grapples with death. Dying jumps right into the narrator’s meditations about the ethics of suicide. This also ties into the experience of being terminally ill without having a religious faith: “For [those without religious affiliation] it seems that dying exposes the limits of secularism like nothing else.” Taylor’s work is an important contribution to the literature of dying: so often we discuss death in the context of a belief in something after life.
The bulk of Dying recounts Taylor’s life and reflects on the past; this book is not a memoir about cancer. But it is a memoir written by a woman facing death head-on. It is honest in the writer’s grief about dying, the grief she feels about how her family will have to deal with her death, and the regrets she has in life. It’s refreshing to have such a searing account of encountering mortality, of the ordinariness of life and why it matters — and that inspires a kind of grief in the reader.
There’s less catharsis in witnessing someone encountering their own death head on than there is in witnessing the survivors in the aftermath of death. Terminal illness and the end of life make us more uncomfortable than mourning the lives of others. Taylor seemed to understand that, and her ability to confront it makes her book significant as a study of grief and in the literary canon of death writing.
If we are drawn to memoir because of its cathartic effect, I seem to have an addiction to it. To me, the beauty of nonfiction, particularly memoir, is clearest when the writer is excavating something difficult. In writing about grief and dying, often the language seems to collapse into something poetic and feral, something particularly evident in Vanasco’s memoir both in her account of the loss of her father and in her memorabilia of writing from the time immediately following her father’s death.
Articulating the effects of loss and grief is difficult work; these memoirists write what hurts and write it well. If there is one common theme in these four books beyond grief it is relentlessness. To read any of these books is to submit to a writer who refuses to let her emotions and experience of loss rest until she has found the insight or wisdom at the heart of it.
Memoir offers a way to understand the world through experiences that speak to universal truths, and memoirs on grief show us as much about living as they do about dying. We owe much respect to the memoirists who pick at and circle their mourning to come to some conclusion about life and loss, and it’s worth our time to read them, even outside of our own grief.