And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded? (Ted Hughes, “Crow’s Theology”)
If love is ineffable because it is “too much,” what then of grief, which acts as a vacuum? Where does language go with the intake of breath that accompanies the notification of “this person is no more?” And when the writer begins to recover their voice, why write down the blank?
Grief blunts the senses, changes human perceptions of the world. “Night turned to dawn though I didn’t notice the change until it had already passed, as if I had been a sleepwalker awakened by the sunlight,” Sara Nović writes in Girl at War, her novel set in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Ana somnambulates in response to grief.
Maggie Nelson writes in The Red Parts, a memoir about attending the trial of the man who murdered her aunt, that she wrote words down in a rush to escape the rapid encroachment of “the dull speechlessness that makes remembering and formulating impossible.”
In my own experiences, the stages of grief were like that of a mockingbird’s song: “I’m a Cardinal! A Chipping Sparrow! A Carolina Warbler! Numb! Angry! Hysterical! Shrike! Shrike! Shrike!” It took a while to get my sea legs underneath me when mourning would swamp me with multiple emotions in any five-minute span.
It is a mistake to believe that the stages of grief follow a linear sequence. Feeling emptied and anesthetized complements the jolt of the loss.
In Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, numbness envelops the young widower just before the arrival on his doorstep of the physical manifestation of his grief: Ted Hughes’ Crow “shock-severed eyes watched blood”.
Before Crow arrives, the widower sweeps the scene of his wife’s death, alone “in the flat that had no meaning.”
“I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organisational fakery of my days. I felt hung-empty.”
In that “hung-empty” period of grief, writers not only describe a period where the motions become stuck in that infinite instant between the stubbed toe and the brain’s registering of sharp pain, they also refer to a period of time when the learned structure of Western thought deserts them. In the face of grief, writers discover that they are not who they thought themselves to be.
When her son asks if she can check to make sure that her drowned partner (the boy’s father) has come back to life, Decca Aitkenhead writes in All at Sea:
“This sounds like a perfectly sensible suggestion to me … My self-image of a rational, logical empiricist is proving to be wildly inaccurate, for it is becoming evident that I am scarcely any more rational than a witch doctor.”
In Porter’s novel, the best response to this deadened world of loss of thought is a “primal corvid vulgarity.” (“I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him.”)
“Gormin’ere, worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cutout? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap, in my apse, in separate stocks for boiling, Enunciate it, rolling and turning it, sadget lips and burning it. Ooh, pressure! Must rehearse, must cuss less. The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha, better not.”
Those noises with no connection to meaning Crow’s attempt to make eloquent the primordial ooze where loss dumps us.
Perhaps these feelings of numbness don us with enough armour to examine the thing that has happened. Investigation can’t occur when we are right up against it—when we are there, at that moment, the pain is unavoidable; it demands all of our attention. But when we are numb it is like being aware of the fact from a distance, as when Nelson writes:
“At the trial, I learn that when detectives arrive at the scene of a homicide, they start far away from the body, and move slowly in toward it, so as not to miss or disturb anything, taking photographs, collecting evidence in sweeping, concentric circles.”
Numbness allows us to be detectives investigating our own experiences. If we feel brave on a particular day, we can venture in close to the loss, perhaps letting us sit again at the bedside listening to the death rattle and thinking in that moment that it was up to us to end the old man’s misery, that it would be just a matter of … Or telescoping out to events months before the loss, in which we interrogate ourselves to determine whether we should have known that the complaints of indigestion were harbingers of a fatal disease process.
The internal conflict for the grief-stricken is the simultaneous sense that everyone can see your pain and that no one can acknowledge how much you are hurting in any way that is meaningful. As their words come at you through the numbness, you’re not even sure that you trust the sincerity of the expressions on the faces of the orbiting grievers, whether you can rely on the integrity of the structure of their speech. You can’t rely on language to express your own pain; you can’t trust language to contain comfort.
And the anger that you can’t allow language to express: that the mourners are alive while the person you’re grieving is gone. “Every stinking ugly vacuous cunt-faced last one of them,” Porter writes.
“I felt it would be years before the knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe for my dead wife would thin enough for me to see any black space again…”
The griever can seek connection only to find that the numbness disrupts the signal in such a way that all that comes through is the angry static of insincerity—as with Porter—or a softer, but no less disturbing sense of cottony suffocation.
Olivia Laing, in The Lonely City, speaks of looking for contact during a period of loss, but not finding what she sought.
“I thought it would be cheering to stand in a crowd, but it wasn’t, not really. Looking at my photos from that night I think that what I was in search of was a sense of smear, of the collapsing boundaries that come with festivity or intoxication.”
At the moment when we could use the balm of a companionship that nurtures us while demanding nothing, grief serves to remind us of our separation from others. It’s Laing’s “exhausting sense of being too visible,” but it’s also hyper-vigilance, especially if the loss being mourned involved a traumatic or premature death. Then the feeling is that the griever has been cast out of society because of something they’ve done. Aitkenhead begins to believe that the sympathetic expressions from loved ones are looks of blame for failing to save her boyfriend from drowning, and she believes that everyone who looks at her knows her story and knows that she is guilty. This, too, is part of the “hallway tilting” shift in perception of the world during grief.
Even within her own family, Nelson is concerned that they don’t know how to express themselves in the right way over the violent loss of her aunt. She admits that she first started writing about her Aunt Jane’s murder in order to talk about her family’s “faulty” grieving, a piece of hubris she recognizes as part of the mourning process itself. The hubris being that such a correct way of grieving and communicating exists, and that her family would be special enough to not get it right, that Nelson had unlocked the key to grieving “successfully” and that she could have ever taught them how they were supposed to do it.
In these works, writers wrestle with the “point” of telling the stories of pain. It is a plot point in Girl at War whether Ana, the young protagonist, will reveal her story to anyone other than her adoptive family. Her reasons for why she hides her trauma drives the book’s narrative.
Aitkenhead begins to believe that telling the story of Tony’s drowning is the price she pays for the companionship of those who wish to comfort her. She convinces herself that the only reason she is deserving of all of the attention that she is getting is because of some “contractual bargain” that she is under: her story for the acts of kindness of friends, but especially strangers, who Aitkenhead feels an obligation to offer the story to by way of introduction.
It’s not that writers are better than anyone else at the experience of loss. What may be specific to writers, however, or at least specific to these writers, is their acknowledged magical belief that being able to form the symbols that represent reality—that is, the act of writing an experience down—can somehow catapult the writer to that moment in time prior to the loss, and that the physical act of writing can affect the outcome of events.
Even though we understand the physics of time, writers betray the fact that in those moments when language begins to come back, it comes back before our rational framework does. For a brief moment, we halfway believe that we can work magic. Aitkenhead longs to be able to tell her story in such a way as to save Tony, her boyfriend, from drowning on a Jamaica beach.
Nelson, who reveals that her mother was a fiction teacher, actively resists creating a narrative out of her aunt’s murder. She writes:
“[S]tories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration. As soon as a writer starts talking about the ‘human need for narrative’ or the ‘archaic power of storytelling,’ … my blood creeps up to my face and begins to boil.”
Ultimately, Nelson does write a narrative, even though she knows what she wants from language, and she knows she can never have it. Aitkenhead admits the same thing. While the writer wants the lost person back, the overwhelming desire is that writing will take away the writer’s own pain of loss. Aitkenhead says she wants to “detach myself from my own story, and escape.”
Nelson is more poetic, and more adamant, but longs for a similar outcome.
“I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.”
Unable to defeat the physical limits of the body, writers wish for something even more magical: to write the hurting self right out of the story, even if the body remains behind. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine writes of the ways in which racism leaves, among other emotions, grief in its wake. But even for Rankine there is no way to separate the hurting self from the story:
“Words work as release—well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing. What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid—what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there, altered to hide or disguise—words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains.”
What is reflected in the literature of grief is the conflicting desire of the writer. Grief brings with it a desire to tell. But if grief can be turned into a narrative, then it has a beginning, a “time before” where the loss has not yet occurred. Despite the heroic efforts of the writer, that ability to manipulate language neither can restore the loved one to life nor erase the hurt that perpetually returns.