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 Sense, So 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.