Edited by DeWitt Henry
Beacon, 214 pp.
Speak to Me: Grief, Love and What Endures
By Marcie Hershman
Beacon, 104 pp.
For Those We Love but See No Longer
By the Reverend Lisa Belcher Hamilton
Paraclete, 188 pp.
Grief isn't one feeling but several: longing, anxiety, and sorrow, all often mixed with shame or guilt or rage. "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear," wrote C.S. Lewis in his masterpiece on the subject, "A Grief Observed." "I keep swallowing." Grief is love for another cast adrift; you call and no one answers. Nor can you figure out where the beloved has gone. You can't read or think or cook. In the end, a hole is left, and nothing comes along to fill it.
To make meaning out of one's own grief by writing about it requires a harrowing honesty, since writing about grief slides so easily into sentiment. The work can't be about grief alone but about something else--what the author made of his or her grief. In three new books about grief, one sees the power of grief to reduce writers' egos; to slams its victims so hard as to humble them.
In "Sorrow's Company," DeWitt Henry has collected essays by writers like Tess Gallagher, Jamaica Kincaid, Andre Dubus, and Jane Brox. Nearly every essay in this collection is worth reading--something few anthologies can boast, let alone one on so sensitive a subject.
Tess Gallagher's contribution, "Soul-Making," on the last days of her husband, the writer Raymond Carver, is a most beautiful work about love and the small details that make up a couple's life. But it's equally about how writers make meaning. In writers' lives, Gallagher says, writing and reading and living are all intertwined. It's no surprise that what gave Carver and Gallagher solace as Carver lay dying of lung cancer were words: They read Chekhov and Carver's most recent writings.
A sibling's death produces a different, very specific kind of grief than a spouse's, as Debra Spark's "Last Things" shows. Spark tells of her sister's death from cancer at age 26. She writes about how it feels to miss the person who shared a womb, and a childhood, and a point of view on the family. One's own relationship to life after watching one so young die so hard, Spark observes, is particularly ambivalent. "Our desires, our desires, our desires," Spark writes. "It's a reproach for me, an always unfulfilled wish for my family, and a sad song--it's a dirge--for Cindy." At the end she eats a shortbread cookie dipped in chocolate and finds it "so delicious I start to cry."
As proof, "Speak to Me" contains one of the most amazing, and amazingly detailed, descriptions of seeing an otherworldly creature I've read. Standing in the living room of Robert's house as Robert lay near death in the bedroom, Hershman's healthy brother Cliff saw a creature moving toward Robert's door. "Reddish brown hair. Beautiful skin, very pale ... Wings, or whatever, at the shoulders, flat ... She moved with a purpose. She wasn't looking at me. The hallway wasn't wide--two strides across--I don't know how long it took reaching Rob's door, it could have lasted ten lifetimes."
For those for whom grief is an occasion to pray, the Rev. Lisa Belcher Hamilton, an Episcopal priest whose husband succumbed to cancer at age 32, has assembled "For Those We Love but See No Longer." These carefully collected prayers, psalms, and short scripture readings provide four "offices," or sets of prayers, to say at various times throughout the day. Small enough to be carried in a purse or pocket, the book can give a structure to the early, empty days when grief leaves one so much at sea.
Brave and often eloquent, the three books are a testament to the power of human grief and our desire to give that grieving a voice.