Good Grief, Bad Grief

by Bill Brenner on March 21, 2011

TIME Magazine book reviewer Mary Pols wrote an excellent review of two books about grief in the February 2011 issue. The points she makes are exactly in keeping with how I try to conduct myself in this blog.

Mood music:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkRYWZ_lhqE&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0]

She reviews two books about grief — “History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life” by Jill Bialosky, and Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story.” She finds a lot more value from the former than the latter for the simple reason that Bialosky does something useful with her grief and gives the reader a map for moving on. Oates, on the other hand, wallows in her grief throughout her book without taking it to the next, necessary level.

Of “History of Suicide,” Pols writes:

At what point does an individual’s grief move from the chaos of misery to a vessel of wisdom worth passing along? In 1990, Jill Bialosky’s half sister Kim committed suicide, asphyxiating herself in the garage of the Cleveland house where they’d grown up. She was 21, beautiful and tenderhearted, and Bialosky was left heartbroken and haunted by the riddle of Kim’s inexplicable decision. A book editor, novelist and poet, Bialosky took nearly 20 years to process this history into something she felt ready to publish. The result is her searing memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. In it, Bialosky serves as detective, analyzing police and autopsy reports, reading Kim’s journals and developing a psychological profile of her. Pursued by the survivor’s “fear of disgrace,” Bialosky struggles to answer the unbearable question — Could I have stopped her? — and to illuminate the brief life of her sister, a girl cherished by her mother and siblings but broken by her father’s absence.

With Kim’s story at its heart, History of a Suicide probes larger issues, like the possibility of a genetic susceptibility to suicide, and examines the question of how any young person can really know he or she wants to die. In an age when youth suicide is spoken of as an epidemic, Bialosky’s memoir feels extraordinarily useful. Her language is plain (“Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. This is the reason I am writing this book”) but enveloping. There is a remarkable lack of self-pity in these pages, even as the author recounts more tragedy on the heels of Kim’s death: her loss of two infants at birth.

She contrasts that to “A Widow’s Story” this way:

The careful, mature craft of Bialosky’s memoir stands in stark contrast to Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, which arrives three years to the month after the death of her beloved husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, at 77. Reeling from the loss, Joyce Smith — that is how she sees herself, not as the well-known author but as Ray’s wife — falls apart, even contemplating suicide. The book reflects that: it is shockingly raw and messy, filled with weirdly exclamatory, heavily italicized writing and teeming with such fresh hysteria that one feels the urge to slip it a sedative. “I haven’t been able to comprehend my experiences in any coherent way,” Oates writes in early March, a month after Ray’s death. In August, when the book ends, we still feel that incoherence. By then she had met a new man, to whom she is now married. The depth or length of someone’s grief should never be judged — and few could begrudge Oates the joy of finding fresh love after 70 — but for the reader, still caught in her depression, such a quick turnaround is jarring.

If only Oates had waited, if not on the writing then at least on the editing. Both memoirs are filled with truths of human suffering, but while Bialosky’s offers a source of solace and understanding for the bereaved, Oates piles her grief onto the page and walks away — a reminder that sharing does not always mean giving.

Sharing does not always mean giving.

That is so true.

When I write about the bad stuff I’ve been through, I always try to frame it around some core lessons I’ve learned and how life today is so much better than it was during the darker periods I write about. I always try to share for the sake of suggesting a better way forward.

Do I ever fail to do that? I’m sure I do, especially when writing about  another suicide that’s haunted me for 14-plus years. It can be easy to spend just a little too much time wallowing in that one. But in recent months I’ve had plenty of reason to take joy in my memories of him — and in the other friends I have thanks to him. If there was no hope to give, writing this blog would be pointless. 

There are plenty of people out there who will wail about their lot in life and never move beyond it. Facebook gives them a pretty big microphone to do it with.

Why be part of that endless, mournful sound if you can avoid it? At the same time, you can’t bury the feelings that come with adversity and pretend it’s not there.

There’s a balance to be had, and Bialosky finds it in her book.

It inspires me to follow her example.

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