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Mourning in America

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING By Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, 227 pp., $23.95)

THE BEST DAY THE WORST DAY: LIFE WITH JANE KENYON By Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin, 258 pp., $23)

It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices. It is not only that the bereaved must find their way as if no one before them had ever lost a husband or a wife; those who would comfort them are equally at a loss as to what to say or do. Priests still perform last rites, religious services continue to be conducted at funerals, and even non-observant Jews are loath to give up the custom of "sitting shivah"; but what remains of the old rituals and words of consolation has come to feel increasingly hollow.

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that those who lived in societies with well-established rituals of mourning somehow had an easier time reconciling themselves to their shattered lives. Personal letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally include the shocking news that a grieving husband or wife could not properly recover and has died. Nor does it appear that religious faith necessarily makes that reconciliation any less torturous. Consider the case of C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity's greatest modern defenders, who kept a journal of his spiritual collapse after his wife, Helen Joy Gresham, died following a long and excruciating ordeal with bone cancer.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961, and it has been in print ever since. As one might expect from such a rigorous intellect, Lewis's account of his pain is a sobering one. "Don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion," Lewis declares, "or I shall suspect that you don't understand." His wife's death so completely unhinges him that when he tries to pray for her, he finds, to his "bewilderment and amazement," that he must halt, for he feels "a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity." That he cannot locate her in either time or space raises the crushing possibility that his faith was strong only so long as it was not tested: "Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. Apparently the faith--I thought it faith--which enables me to pray for the other dead has seemed strong only because I have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not. Yet I thought I did."

With his faith thus tried, the Christian question of life after death torments Lewis in ways for which he was unprepared. What in his believing state would have been a comforting thought--that their earthly lives together were "the basis for, or prelude to, or earthly appearance of, two unimaginable, super-cosmic, eternal somethings"--in his broken state serves only to provoke him, since what he is "mourning for, homesick for, famished for" is precisely "the old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace." And this, he realizes, is impossible. "I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get."

The rest of his beautiful little volume provides an unflinching record of Lewis's effort to reconcile himself with his loss. It is, above all, an exemplary story of the experience of personal suffering, and the humbling of the will that comes with it. The story moves toward a close with Lewis struggling to put into words a sublime yet terrible paradox: "Lord … can I meet H. again only if I learn to love you so much that I don't care whether I meet her or not?" Lewis's capacity to formulate this paradox signals a renewal of his faith. And while it gives him the hope of redemption and a future reunion with his wife, it also makes clear why religion does not offer any consolations, for Lewis must accept precisely what he found most unbearable when he was in the throes of grief: that he will never again meet the particular woman he loved with all his being. Indeed, their eternal reunion is possible only if he gives up all such earthly illusions.

Personal accounts like Lewis's that make us experience what grief feels like from the inside--as opposed to scholarly studies that treat it from a distance as a psychological, sociological, or historical phenomenon--are surprisingly rare. (The only exception that comes to my mind, all editorial awkwardness notwithstanding, is Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, which is broadly erudite and generally philosophical at the same time that it is a powerful reflection on the death of his own father.) The scarcity of memoirs of grief raises the possibility that even in our society of manic self-exposure, there still remains a taboo surrounding deaths that are not caused by natural disasters or human violence, the kinds of hideous things we routinely see in photographs in the media. The more commonplace death--a husband dying suddenly of a heart attack as he sits down to dinner, a wife dying slowly and painfully from leukemia after months of grueling treatment--is not a subject that much fascinates us. Or so it seemed until the recent publication of Joan Didion's book about her mourning for her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack as he sat down to dinner, and Donald Hall's lesser-known book about the loss of his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died slowly and painfully from leukemia after fifteen months of grueling treatment. Suddenly we have two personal accounts of grief in America to ponder.

No doubt the death of a spouse is among the most crushing of experiences. But Didion and Hall each lost more than a spouse, because of the unusual closeness of their respective marriages. We learn from Didion that she and Dunne were almost never apart during their forty years of marriage. As successful writers working at home, their lives revolved seamlessly around each other. They fell into the same daily writing routines, acted as each other's most trusted editor and critic, and at night enjoyed the glamorous social life whose traces found their way into the couple's writings. And the same unusually intimate relationship characterized the marriage of Hall and Kenyon, both acclaimed poets. Reading Hall's memoir, we learn that he (twenty years her senior) was her writing teacher at the University of Michigan, and that during their twenty-three years of marriage, most of which were lived at his old family farm in a remote part of New Hampshire, they lovingly devoted themselves to their poetry, to each other, and to their shared passion for nature, gardens, and their menagerie of pets.

Lewis chose to present his reactions to his wife's death as casual jottings in a notebook, recording what he is feeling and thinking as he is feeling and thinking. There is an immediacy to this, even though he explains that he is writing to "get a little outside it." Didion began writing her memoir of grief ten months after her husband died, and it is written primarily in the past tense. The first part, which reports on her husband's sudden death and on her daughter's equally sudden life-threatening illness, is the strongest, for it captures both the seeming randomness of life and death and the alienated feel of medicalized mortality. In her account of Dunne's heart attack, Didion's trademark boiled-down style, with its spare use of adjectives and adverbs, its love of facticity, serves her well, as she presents what have become the familiar rituals of death in present-day America--the realization that one's beloved is in serious danger, the call to 911, the emergency workers' attempt to revive the stricken person in one's own living room, the ambulance ride to the hospital, the impersonal conversation with the doctor who happens to be on duty, the awkward ministrations of the social worker, the return of the deceased's belongings.

The static quality of Didion's matter-of-fact style also serves her well in capturing the tedium of the hospital routine as she attends her daughter, who is being treated for a massive brain hemorrhage at UCLA, just months after Dunne died. Didion is especially good about the way educated people nowadays become medical experts in whatever disease afflicts their loved one, and their "absolute belief" that their "management skills" can control just about anything. Didion, too, looks up her daughter's condition on the Internet, studies the highly technical medical literature, challenges the nurses about her daughter's care--all the while ruthlessly observing her every move from the outside. And so when she describes her behavior in her daughter's hospital room, she cannot resist adding, "So profound was the isolation in which I was then operating that it did not immediately occur to me that for the mother of a patient to show up at the hospital wearing blue cotton scrubs could only be viewed as a suspicious violation of boundaries." This same spectatorial habit of mind is at work when Didion reports that the night her husband died she appeared so completely self-possessed that a social worker described her to the attending doctor as "a pretty cool customer." That Didion repeatedly shows herself as others see her is characteristic of her powers of self-distancing. It is both her strength and her weakness. For there is a difference between the distance that provides understanding and the distance that yields irony and an effect of superiority.

Didion's minimal style runs into difficulty when it approaches anything having to do with the interior dimensions of things. Her book is oddly lacking in inwardness. This is especially evident when she tries to represent her state of mind after losing her husband. Like most sophisticated people, Didion did not know what to do. At first she resorted to what she derisively calls "magical thinking," which involved half-conscious omnipotent fantasies that would bring her husband back from the dead, such as not giving away his shoes or refusing to donate his organs because "he would need them if he was to return." She also had more rational strategies of psychic survival: "In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control." And so Didion reports that she read various poems, novels, Freud and Melanie Klein, A Grief Observed, and Philippe Ariès's history of death, all of which were apparently of some use to her, though her tendency is to stick to the surface, a habit that comes from years of writing with the eye of a reporter and screenwriter. Too often Didion is content to quote a line or to name a famous work (and in other contexts, a glamorous place or brand name), letting the shorthand create its own atmosphere for those in the know, instead of reflecting on the meaning of the work or its personal associations.

Didion tells us that she also read the "professional literature" of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers after Freud, but it had little to say to her. She exposes its vacuity by cleverly juxtaposing a jargon-filled excerpt from a professor of psychiatry on "re-grief therapy" with an extended passage from Emily Post on the etiquette of funerals, from 1922. When she turns to the pre-therapeutic old-fashioned arbiter of manners and morals, Didion at last leaves all irony behind: she discovers that Post's "tone of unfailing specificity" and "matter-of-fact wisdom … spoke to me directly." Indeed, she devotes more space to Post's instructions on how to dress, where to sit, and what to eat before, during, and after the funeral than to any other single writer. Here Didion captures, perhaps even better than Lewis, the extreme helplessness that is characteristic of modern grief. That she is reading Emily Post on the Internet only intensifies this impression, as it is hard to imagine an image more emblematic of our resourceless times than that of a desolate widow poring over the words of an outdated etiquette manual on the flat, glowing screen of a computer monitor.

Didion's memoir of her year of mourning is largely a story of her growing self-awareness of the futility of attempting to control events that are beyond any mortal's control. Although there are moments when she tries to reckon with her feelings of powerlessness, eventually realizing there was nothing she could have done to save her husband, her constant need to detect, and to expunge, all signs of self-pity--for her, the ultimate vice--means that even her book's occasional inward moments have an emotionally detached feel. In this respect, Donald Hall's memoir, published ten years after his wife's death, could not be more different.

It is, like Didion's, written largely in the past tense, but it is anything but detached. It is not so much a memoir of grief as a blow-by-shattering-blow account of Kenyon's fifteen-month struggle with leukemia, interspersed with chapters describing their life together before she fell ill. That Hall decided to write this book is puzzling, since he published an extraordinary volume of poetry, Without, in 1998 that covers much the same ground and achieved, with far greater precision and artistry, whatever he could have been hoping to achieve with this prose account. Where the poems were written in the throes of the couple's ordeal, in the memoir time has blunted some (but not all) of Hall's anguish. This is a relief, actually: it would have been too terrible if Hall were still feeling Kenyon's death as intensely as when he poured out his grief a decade earlier.

For that is what he did in those harrowing poems, plunging his whole being deeper and deeper into it. In the first part of the book, Hall makes the reader experience first-hand various episodes of Kenyon's long illness, in all their grim detail; in the second part, he makes the reader feel his desolation through letters he writes to his dead wife about the everyday details of his life without her. Throughout, every detail is heartbreakingly immediate and particular. Indeed, it is the specificity of Hall's writing that makes the best of his poems so devastating to read. And this is just what is missing in Didion's memoir. We get so little about her husband--she provides more about what was in his silver money clip at the time of his death than about what kind of man, husband, or writer he was--that it is hard to feel the dimensions of her loss. In consequence, her account, while admirably unsentimental, is strangely unmoving.

The particularity of Hall's poems, which is the source of their emotional power, presents problems of its own: such writing all too easily becomes overly familiar, even intrusive. Grief, because it requires revealing precisely those details of domestic and intimate life that were never seen nor meant to be seen by others, raises vexing questions about which kinds of things can be disclosed in public and which should remain unsaid. In his prose memoir, Hall is intent on providing the truest and fullest account of his life with Kenyon. In the chapters where he describes their life when she was well, his judgment seems to fail him. The ins and outs of their courtship, the purchase of his family homestead, the pets that lived with them, their afternoon naps--to name only a few of the personal matters that he records--seem mainly banal to strangers, even to sympathetic strangers, just as the details of their erotic life (we have here Hall's account of getting a penile device after his diabetes leaves him impotent) tend to make readers feel like voyeurs.

The question of what can appear in public is even more pressing when it comes to descriptions of physical suffering and death. In both his prose memoir and his poetry, Hall reports much about Kenyon's medical treatments. In the memoir, the grim details that fill chapter after chapter often seem gratuitous, because Hall recites them in a rather flat, matter-of-fact, Didion-like manner, devoid of moral or aesthetic significance. In contrast, the best of the poems, which speak of the same medical procedures, employing the same unbeautiful technical terms but with a concentrated intensity and focus, move the reader profoundly. While Jane Kenyon is a particular woman, she is also every suffering person:

As they killed her bone marrow again, she lay on a gurney alone in a leaden room between machines that resembled pot-bellied stoves which spewed out Total Body Irradiation for eleven half-hour sessions measured over four days. It was as if she capped the Chernobyl pile with her body.

Hall writes in a disciplined and mindful way; the tautness of his language, self-consciously stripped of all artifice, saves him from lapsing into the habits of poetry and thus keeps him close to the visceral quality of the experience.

This is especially true of the group of poems that tells of Kenyon's last eleven days--from the moment the doctor informs them that the leukemia has returned and nothing can be done, to their conversations about which poems to include in her posthumous volume, and what to do about the funeral arrangements and the obituary, to the final leave-takings of her dearest friends and his gentle care of her at home when she is finally completely helpless. There can be no doubt that these poems testify to the depth and the tenderness of the couple's love for each other; but their very delicacy raises the question of whether anyone should be privy to such intimate moments. How, one wonders, can such intimate moments maintain their character if outsiders are looking over their shoulders?

Leaving his place beside her, where her eyes stared, he told her, "I'll put these letters in the box." She had not spoken for three hours, and now Jane said her last words: "O.K." At eight that night, her eyes open as they stayed until she died, brain-stem breathing started, he bent to kiss her pale cool lips again, and felt them one last time gather and purse and peck to kiss him back.

I suspect that even the heartbreaking beauty of Hall's rendering of the moment of his wife's death--"A sharp, almost sweet/smell began to rise from her open mouth./He watched her chest go still./With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes"--does not in the end save it from the charge of invading Jane Kenyon's privacy and his own.

Many of these poems are, I think, art of considerable magnitude. Still, as I was reading them, I could not escape feeling that Hall was going too far, that there was something wrong in reading such poems and something wrong in publishing them. Especially with the ones that moved me most, I could not help wondering if their intensely personal subject was finally more powerful than their art. Being reduced to tears does not constitute an aesthetic experience. But perhaps that is Hall's achievement: he makes the reader feel the irreconcilable relations between life, death, and art. Poems representing the deathbed should not work; but somehow, miraculously, Hall's do.

It is probably not surprising that Lewis, unlike Hall, never dared to speak of his wife's final moments; he published A Grief Observed under a pseudonym. Didion, because of her devotion to facts, chose to begin her memoir with her husband's fatal heart attack. She brings the reader into the intimacy of the couple's comfortable Manhattan apartment, quietly setting the scene for the anguished event that is about to happen. Dunne is drinking a Scotch and reading book galleys by the fire as Didion prepares dinner.

I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad. John was talking, then he wasn't…. I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking. I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable. I remember saying Don't do that. When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far enough from the back of the chair to give him the Heimlich. I remember the sense of his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to the floor.

Didion's description of her husband's death has nothing sensational or overwrought about it. Indeed, her stringency gives the impression that she is not compromising her husband's dignity in giving the world his final, most vulnerable moments. But is this really so? Most of us have become so used to hearing and reading personal confessions by total strangers that we have lost the capacity to recognize when anyone's privacy, living or dead, is being violated. The distinction between honesty and exhibitionism is increasingly unknown to us.

The genre of the grief memoir thus entails unusual risks. Hall's greatest poem is "Without," the title poem, which directly follows the one about his wife's last breath. That it is also the most impersonal, the most general, and the most indirect poem of the volume says much about the need for distance, for this poem, more than any of the intimate ones (and more than Didion's pared-down prose), reverberates with a universal aesthetic and moral significance. From the very first line, the reader sees a shift from Kenyon as a person in pain, a person dying, to Hall's own power to create beauty out of loss. In eight stanzas of seven lines each, this sublime lamentation, like no poem I know, presents a deranging vision of what the world looks like bereft of the one who gave it its emotional depth and its aesthetic resonance. Here are the opening three stanzas:

we lived in a small island stone nation without color under gray clouds and wind distant the unlimited ocean acute lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls or palm trees without vegetation or animal life only barnacles and lead colored moss that darkened when months did hours days weeks months weeks days hours the year endured without punctuation february without ice winter sleet snow melted recovered but nothing without thaw although cold streams hurtled no snowdrop or crocus rose no yellow no red leaves of maple without october no spring no summer no autumn no winter no rain no peony thunder no woodthrush the book was a thousand pages without commas without mice oak leaves windstorms no castles no plazas no flags no parrots without carnival or the procession of relics intolerable without brackets or colons

The second part of Hall's book consists of letter-poems to Kenyon, and in interviews Hall has explained that writing them was his "only reason for being alive" after Kenyon's death. In these elegiac letters, Hall emerges as a great poet of nature, of transience, of mutability. They show how the timeless natural dimension of existence (the elemental rhythms of seasons and weather) and the temporal human dimension (the everyday rhythms of their two decades surrounded by mountains and ponds and flowers and trees), which once were in harmony, are now, with the death of Kenyon, hopelessly out of sync:

Always the weather, writing its book of the world, returns you to me. Ordinary days were best, when we worked over poems in our separate rooms. I remember watching you gaze out the January window into the garden of snow and ice, your face rapt as you imagined burgundy lilies. Your presence in this house is almost as enormous and painful as your absence.

In poem after beautiful poem, Hall moves deeper into the heart of the experience of mourning. At any given instant, he finds he must make a reckoning of the world by recalibrating his wife's absence to where she used to be present:

This first October of your death I sit in my blue chair looking out at late afternoon's western light suffusing its goldenrod yellow over the barn's unpainted boards-- here where I sat each fall watching you pull your summer's garden up.

Where the traditional elegy offered consolation in a vision of rebirth through the elemental cycles of nature, or of resurrection through religious faith, or of immortality through art, Hall's elegy is smaller, more tentative. In one poem, he quotes the words carved into his wife's black granite headstone—


--words that Kenyon herself had written for Hall when he had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, but then miraculously recovered. Like Lewis's epiphany that, even if he and his wife were to be reunited in some unimaginable eternal realm, the loss of the woman he loved was still irrevocable, Hall also learns that, whatever hope his poetry has for memorializing Kenyon, nothing will bring her back to him. And so his year of mourning closes with a highly ambivalent image of Hall looking at the full, heavy, snowy-white peonies that Kenyon had planted, evoking the traditional promise of rebirth that comes with spring even as the peonies evoke for Hall bittersweet memories of his wife, and thus ends, "Your peonies lean their vast heads westward/as if they might topple. Some topple."

Hall, like Lewis, had a rich tradition to draw upon in his blackest hours of mourning. Religion gave Lewis the means to create a profound meditation, just as art gave Hall the means to create beautiful poems. Didion, by contrast, has few such resources to draw on. She apparently puts no hope in the transcendence of art; her book is finally only a journal. As for religion, she makes clear that she "did not believe in the resurrection of the body." She has a more idiosyncratic understanding of religion, in which she interprets the words in the Episcopal liturgy--"as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end"--as "a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away." Hall, even in his despair, is so entranced with his natural surroundings—

The hills collapse together in whiteness squared out by stone walls that contain wavery birches and boulders softened into breasts. White yards and acres of snowfield reflect the full moon, and at noontime the sky turns its deepest blue of the year

--that he cannot resist their familiar beauty or repress his consciousness of wonder. Indeed, he internalizes nature and reproduces his experience of it without resorting to mimetic contrivances:

I puff as Gussie and I walk over packed snow at zero, my heart quick with joy in the visible world.

Didion's idea of nature could not be more different. She thinks of it in the scientific terms of geology; and geology, in her words, is "vastly indifferent" to "the works of man," her favorite example being California's earthquakes. In her grief, Didion takes special pleasure in fantasizing how the personal realm of her domestic routines might have converged with the inexorable shifts of the geological realm if she and her husband had drowned together while swimming in a favorite cave in the Palos Verdes Peninsula at the moment a landslide occurred years after they had lived there. There is a kind of apocalyptic power to such an ending, as opposed to the more prosaic one that Didion labels "cardiac arrest at dinner," and she returns to their swimming in the clear waters of the cave at Portuguese Bend in the final paragraph of the book:

We could have only done this a half dozen times at most during the two years we lived there but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that.

So Didion's year of mourning, although it did not bring about a spiritual crisis, does produce at least a therapeutic illumination. Throughout the book, her italicized refrain is

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Accepting her husband's death is the terrible change that Didion has understandably been resisting, and in her suffering she realizes that she has never been very amenable to change and finally surrenders her illusion of control. Her husband's words keep repeating to her:

Why do you always have to be right. Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go.

Didion's story, then, has reverberations with Lewis's, in that hers, too, reveals how the will is humbled through the experience of suffering. And so by the end of her story she is prepared to accept her husband's words: "You had to go with the change." Given Didion's resourcelessness, which is endemic to this pragmatic and therapeutic age, she has no choice but to find comfort in this rather paltry common wisdom. But, then, without Lewis's spiritual reach or Hall's aesthetic amplitude, is it any wonder that the contemporary experience of grief rarely gets beyond varieties of psychological adjustment?

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.