In his essay “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow,”* Dr. Johnson identifies the dreadful uniqueness of grief among the human passions. Ordinary desires, virtuous or vicious, contain within them the theoretical possibility of their satisfaction:
The miser always imagines that there is a certain sum that will fill his heart to the brim; and every ambitious man, like King Pyrrhus, has an acquisition in his thoughts that is to terminate his labours, after which he shall pass the rest of his life in ease or gaity, in repose or devotion.
But grief, or “sorrow,” is different in kind. Even with painful passions—fear, jealousy, anger—nature always suggests to us a solution, and with it an end to that oppressive feeling:
But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.
Unless we have a religious belief that envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millenium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we—we in the secularizing West, at least—have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences. Of course, at one level we know that we shall all die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists—a matter for the professionals. But afterward we, the amateurs, the grief-struck, are left to deal with it—this unique, banal thing—as best we can. And there are now fewer social forms to surround and support the grief-bearer.
Very little is handed down from one generation to the next about what it is like. We are expected to suffer it in comparative silence; being “strong” is the template; wailing and weeping a sign of “giving in to grief,” which is held to be a bad way of “dealing with it.” Of course, there is the love of family and friends to fall back on, but they may know less than we do, and their concerned phrases—“It does get better”; “Two years is what they say”; “You are looking more yourself”—are often based on uncertain authority and general hopefulness. Death sorts people out: both the grief-bearers and those around them. As the survivor’s life is forcibly recalibrated, friendships are often tested; some pass, some fail. Co-grievers may indulge in the phenomenon of competitive mourning: I loved him/her more, and with these tears of mine I prove it. As for the sorrowing relicts—widow, widower, or unwed partner—they can become morbidly sensitive, easily moved to anger by both too much intrusiveness and too much distance-keeping. They may even experience a strange competitiveness of their own: an irrational need to prove (to whom?) that their grief is the larger, the heavier, the purer (than whose?).
A friend of mine, widowed in his sixties, told me, “This is a crappy age for it to happen.” Meaning, I think, that if the catastrophe had happened in his seventies, he could have settled in and waited for death; whereas if it had happened in his fifties, he might have been able to restart his life. But every age is a crappy age for it to happen, and there is no correct answer in that game of would-you-rather. How do you compare the grief of a young parent left with small children to that of an aged person amputated from his or her partner of fifty or sixty years? There is no hierarchy to grief, except in the matter of feeling. Another friend of mine, widowed in a moment after fifty years of marriage—the knot of people by a baggage carousel in the arrivals hall turned out to be surrounding her suddenly dead husband—wrote to me: “Nature is very exact in the matter. It hurts just as much as it is worth.”
Joan Didion had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years when he died in mid-sentence while on his second pre-dinner whisky in December 2003. Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith had been together for “forty-seven years and twenty-five days” when Smith, in hospital but apparently recovering well from pneumonia, was swept away by a secondary infection in February 2008. Both literary couples were intensely close yet noncompetitive, often working in the same space and rarely apart: in the case of Didion-Dunne, for a “week or two or three here and there when one of us was doing a piece”; in the case of Oates-Smith, no more than a day or two. Didion realized after Dunne’s death that “I had no letters from John, not one” (she does not say if he had any from her); while Oates and Smith “had no correspondence—not ever. Not once had we written to each other.”
The similarities continue: in each marriage the woman was the star; each of the dead husbands had been a lapsed Catholic; neither wife seems to have imagined in advance her transformation into widow; and each left her husband’s voice on the answering machine for some while after his death. Further, each survivor decided to chronicle her first year of widowhood, and each of their books was completed within those twelve months.
Yet Oates’s A Widow’s Story and Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking could not be more different. Though Didion’s opening lines (the fourth of which is “The question of self-pity”) were jotted down a day or two after Dunne’s death, she waited eight months before beginning to write. Oates’s book is largely based on diary entries, most from the earliest part of her year: so in a 415-page book, we find that by page 125 we have covered just a week of her widowhood, and by page 325 are still only at week eight. While both books are autobiographies, Didion is essayistic and concise, seeking external points of comparison, trying to set her case in some wider context. Oates is novelistic and expansive, switching between first and third persons, seeking (not with unfailing success) to objectify herself as “the widow”; and though she occasionally reaches for the handholds of Pascal, Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Richard Crashaw, and William Carlos Williams, she is mainly focused on the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief. Each writer, in other words, is playing to her strengths.
That both Didion and Oates limit their books to the first year of their widowhoods is logical. Long-married couples develop a certain rhythm, gravity, and coloration to the annual cycle, and so those first twelve months of widowhood propose at every turn a terrible choice: between doing the same as last year, only this time by yourself, or deliberately not doing the same as last year, and thereby perhaps feeling even more by yourself. That first year contains many stations of the cross. For instance, learning to return to a silent, empty house. Learning to avoid what Oates calls “sinkholes”—those “places fraught with visceral memory.” Learning how to balance necessary solitude and necessary gregariousness. Learning how to react to friends who mystifyingly decline to mention the name of the lost partner; or colleagues who fail to find the right words, like the “Princeton acquaintance” who greeted Oates “with an air of hearty reproach” and the line, “Writing up a storm, eh, Joyce?” Or like the woman friend who offers her the consolation that grief “is neurological. Eventually the neurons are ‘re-circuited.’ I would think that, if this is so, you could speed up the process by just knowing.”
The intention is kindly; the effect, patronizing. Oh, so it’s just a question of waiting for those neurons to settle? Then there are practical problems: for instance, the garden your husband lovingly tended, but in which you are less interested; you may enjoy the results, but rarely joined him in visits to the garden center. So do you faithfully replicate the same work, or do you unfaithfully let the garden look after itself? Here, Oates finds a wise third way: where Smith planted only annuals, she replants with nothing but perennials, asking the nurseryman for “anything that requires a minimum of work and is guaranteed to survive.”
Which is the problem confronting the widow: how to survive that first year, how to turn into a perennial. This involves surmounting fears and anxieties for which there is no training. Previously, Oates rated as “the most exquisite of intimacies” the ability to occupy the same space as Ray for hours, without the need to speak; now, there is a quite different order of silence. “What I am,” Oates writes, “begins to be revealed now that I am alone. In such revelation is terror.”
At one point she thinks “half-seriously of sending an email to friends” asking if she might hire one of them “if you could overcome the scruples of friendship and allow me to pay you in some actual way—to keep me alive for a year, at least?” She wants to be a “good widow” and asserts that “I will do what Ray would want me to do,” while also—classically—blaming Ray for having put her in this state; she is sleepless and irritable; she envisages her grief and insomnia lasting for a decade, while also doubting that her mourning is “real.” She muses on suicide, though more in a theoretical than practical way—while also knowing that “thinking seriously of suicide is a deterrent to suicide.” She finds that work comes much harder, noting of a new short story that it “will require literally weeks” (a complaint that will make most other writers chuckle). And, like many of the grief-struck, she fears for her own mental state: “Half the time, I think I must be totally out of my mind.”
Oates excellently conveys the disconnect between the inwardly chaotic self and the outwardly functioning person (and she is functioning again with remarkable rapidity—correcting proofs and working on a story within a week of Smith’s death, back on the literary road within three). She is certainly less in control than she seems to outsiders, but probably more in control than she feels to herself. The grief-struck frequently act in ways that could be seen as either half-sane or half-mad, but rarely give themselves the benefit of the doubt. For instance, the day after Ray’s death, Oates goes to their bedroom closet and throws out not her husband’s clothes, but half of her own clothes. She does it as punishment for her own vanity, and because these garments speak of a time when she wore them happily with Ray—so now they have no meaning or merit. It is in such moments of rational irrationality that the nature of grief is made plain to us.
* The Rambler, No. 47, August 28, 1750. ↩
The Rambler, No. 47, August 28, 1750. ↩