My Reading Life After a Death
This is a guest post from Leslie Pietrzyk. Leslie is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. This Angel on My Chest, her collection of linked short stories, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, River Styx, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, and the Washington Post Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @lesliepwriter.
Several years ago my husband died suddenly when he was 37 and I was 35. Lost, bereft, desperate for guidance…naturally I turned to books. I needed to know I was not alone in the world, though that’s exactly how I felt with him now gone. Psychologists say the stages of grieving are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and while neither my reading nor my grieving precisely followed that pathway, those steps are a helpful framework when I think back on how books helped pull me through that terrible time.
Before the funeral, a friend handed me a copy of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, the classic book about loss in which Lewis offers a diary-like glimpse of his life following his wife’s death and his meditations on his struggle to understand this pain. It’s a heartbreaking book, but I felt a sense of numb distance as I read. This poor guy, I thought, he’s so sad. There’s no quick and jolly conclusion, no “and then I lived happily ever after,” which should have signaled something to me. But I was in denial, and this book let me rest there a little longer.
I feel lucky to have escaped much of the ravages of anger. But one Friday night shortly after the funeral, after all the friends and relatives had returned to their own lives, I was determined to get back to my life, too. I planned to read a book, a novel, just an ordinary novel like the kind everyone else read. I simply wanted to feel normal again. I crawled under the comforter on the bed, flipped on the lamp, read the first sentence of that ordinary novel, and started to bawl, realizing that nothing was normal, and it wouldn’t be normal for a long, long time. My husband had died and I was alone. I heaved that poor novel across the room and never finished it. Sorry, innocent book! (I don’t even remember your title.)
Okay, I got it: my life was upside-down and inside-out, and my heart had been wrung dry. But what if I read up on what was happening? What if I educated myself on loss and grieving? If I worked hard enough, couldn’t I get a grip? I would study the problem. That would give me control over the situation. So I drove to the library and plunked myself in front of the psychology self-help books, an area I usually avoided. Dewey decimal number 155, give or take. Sitting on the floor amidst the stacks, I grabbed every book that even half-applied and sampled chapters and perused tables of contents until jargon swirled through my head. I headed home with a giant armload that I renewed as many times as the library let me. My favorite book out of this pile, one I tracked down and bought later, was a memoir published in 1974. Widow was written by Lynn Caine, a young widow who spoke frankly of her feelings and pain during a buttoned-up time when loss was publically dismissed as little more than an inconvenience. She offered concrete advice and solace and made me nod my head in agreement a thousand times. Though reading all these books didn’t magically make me feel in control of my life or my emotions, it was a relief to gain a greater intellectual understanding of the grieving process.
When wallowing in gloom, only poetry will do. Thanks to what I had learned from the library books, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of wallowing. Yes, anyone would feel wretched after a major loss. Yes, it’s okay to admit to those feelings of sadness and loneliness. No, there’s no quick fix or magic word to make you feel instantly better. Instead, settle in and…well…feel your feelings, as hard as that may be. Two poetry collections in particular resonated with me: Without by Donald Hall is a series of poems written about his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died from leukemia. Later, I read her poems as well which I also recommend, but during this time, I read Hall’s book straight through, and then turned back to page one to read it all again. I was also moved by Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do, with many poems about her brother who died of AIDS. Poets feel deeply so we don’t have to and find for us the words we’re afraid to speak.
Anyone who has worked through a loss has undoubtedly wrestled with “acceptance,” discovering that it’s not a single clarion moment but an ongoing journey. My reading life shifted into revisiting beloved books of my childhood: Little Women, Charlotte’s Web, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, Stuart Little, and Harriet the Spy. Beth dies; Charlotte dies; Christopher Robin outgrows the Hundred Acre Wood; Stuart heads north, yearning for Margalo the bird; and Harriet’s adored nanny forsakes her for marriage. Loss, loss, and more loss. We learn of loss early and its inevitable presence in our lives. Without loss, could we cherish what we have had, however briefly? We learn, too, that we are able to continue on, finding strength to turn to the next page, trusting that the stories we hold most precious will endure.