Writing about loss

Writing about loss is diffi­cult. Few can success­fully describe the empti­ness one feels after the sudden death of a parent, child, friend.

And yet we try. When my mother passed away nearly twelve years ago, I started a web journal. Writing helped me process my thoughts and feelings into something concrete and more understandable.

Joan Didion described loss with quietly powerful language in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, her memoirs about the death, in shock­ingly short succes­sion, of her husband and daugh­ter. Despite the painful subject matter, I highly recom­mend reading them (in order), both to people who have experi­enced a sudden loss and to those who haven’t. Didion captures the empti­ness of life without her husband so well—the immediate eleva­tion of once-unimportant miscel­lany to artifacts, the new strange­ness of once-familiar daily routines.

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is a short, moving work about memory, family, and loss, set in a small town in Indiana. Like The Sense of an Ending, most of the action occurs in the distant past, as an elderly narrator looks back on his life. And, like SenseSo Long can be read in an evening, though I’d recom­mend allowing some time for the words to sit in your mind. Maxwell uses decep­tively simple language throughout the book; it took me some time to realize how carefully he chooses his words, and their cumula­tive effect is powerful.

I’m not sure how long a quote is too long, but I found this passage near the begin­ning of the book exceptional:

My father was all but undone by my mother’s death. In the evening after supper he walked the floor and I walked with him, with my arm around his waist. I was ten years old… Because he didn’t say anything, I didn’t either… His eyes were focused on things not in those rooms, and his face was the color of ashes…

I had to guess what my older brother was think­ing. It was not something he cared to share with me… At night we undressed and got into bed and fell asleep without taking advan­tage of the dark to unburden our hearts to each other. It strikes me as strange now. It didn’t then… What I didn’t say, across the few feet that separated our two beds, was that I could­n’t under­stand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake… I had to find an expla­na­tion other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfor­tune than anybody else, and the idea that kept recur­ring to me, perhaps because of that pacing the floor with my father, was that I had inadver­tently walked through a door that I should­n’t have gone through and could­n’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave. Actually, it was the other way round: I hadn’t gone anywhere and nothing was changed, so far as the roof over our heads was concerned, it was just that she was in the cemetery.

It’s not fair to describe So Long, See You Tomorrow as a book strictly about loss; the plot revolves around a murder, the details of which are revealed slowly. But all of the charac­ters feel loss of some form or anoth­er—death, betrayal, separation, regret.

It’s a beautiful book. You can probably find it in your local used-book store, and on Amazon.

Great Reads: The Sense of an Ending

…when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleak­nesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire—and desir­abil­i­ty… What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discov­er­ing, for example, that as the witnesses to your life dimin­ish, there is less corrob­o­ra­tion, and there­fore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assid­u­ously kept record­s—in words, sound, pictures—you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.

Sense of an Ending is a short and wonderful book, a slim 180 pages readable in a single sitting. There’s much to savor, though, and like Marilynne Robinson or Alice Munro, Barnes chooses every word carefully and precisely. Highly recommended. Amazon

Alice Munro

Funny how quickly six weeks can pass without an update; I’ve been meaning to finish my series on e-mail deliv­ery, and maybe write more about some of the music and books I’ve been appreciating lately.

This passage from The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro caught me today:

She still says this every once in awhile.

“What I remember most is that I could­n’t touch you and wondering if you understood.”

Karin says yes. She under­stood. What she doesn’t bother to say is that back then she thought Rosemary’s sorrow was absurd. It was as if she was complaining about not being able to reach across a conti­nent. For that was what Karin had felt she had become—­some­thing immense and shimmering and suffi­cient, ridged up in pain in some places and flattened out, other­wise, into long dull distances. Away off at the edge of this was Rosemary, and Karin could reduce her, any time she liked, into a config­u­ra­tion of noisy black dots. And she herself—Kar­in—­could be stretched out like this and at the same time shrunk into the middle of her terri­tory, as tidy as a bead or a ladybug.

I find myself returning to Munro’s stories even though I’m in the middle of reading a couple of other books right now, both for their emotional immediacy and how well their length and struc­ture lends itself to my current schedule.


In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deraci­na­tion, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and porten­tous philoso­phies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspen­sion of doubt that afflicts the highly educa­ble. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negli­gence permit­ted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anony­mously through an imper­sonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happi­ness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

Passages like this make me think that Marilynne Robinson may be my new favorite author. Home is a wonderful book, beautiful and moving and written with such evoca­tive, precise language. I can’t recom­mend it enough. But if my recommen­da­tion hasn’t convinced you, please read James Wood’s excellent piece in the New Yorker about Robinson and her work.