How the light gets in

by

When palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke looked back over her notes typed hastily pre-dawn in the midst of a global pandemic, she expected to find only darkness—an unrelenting stream of death and despair. To her surprise, her insomniac’s diary was “illuminated by pinpricks of light”. “People began to organise, street by street, village by village, to make sure that their most vulnerable neighbours…were safe and fed and kept from harm”, writes Clarke. Rainbows appeared in windows up and down the country in support of key workers, volunteers set to work sewing masks and manufacturing visors, and a retired British Army officer approaching his 100th birthday united a divided nation by walking laps of his garden to raise money for the National Health Service (NHS).

Clarke, who embarked on a career as a current affairs journalist before beginning medical training, has since punctuated her medical career with writing—from Your Life in My Hands, charting her experiences as a newly qualified doctor, to Dear Life, exploring death, grief, and the things that truly matter at the end of life. Her latest work, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic, spans the 4 months from New Year’s Day 2020 to the end of April that same year—a fleeting snapshot of a time during which life in the UK changed immeasurably.

“Pacing the kitchen and tapping a keyboard became a kind of nocturnal therapy”, she explains. These notes, typed “fast and furiously” while her family slept, open a window to life in the UK in its darkest hours. Turning the pages of Breathtaking, we relive the angst and uncertainty of those early months. The anguish about personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, death tolls rising too high to take in, and the sudden, unexplained obsessions with baking bread and accumulating toilet paper that swept the nation. But, for those of us who know COVID-19 in only an abstract sense, following the news from the safety of our homes, Clarke gifts us a unique glimpse of life in the eye of the storm. As the crisis evolved, day by day, week by week, we learn, in real time, what life was truly like for those on the frontlines—those who risked everything, not knowing that they would see the other side. “To us”, she explains, beyond statistics and modelling, “the pandemic is a matter of flesh and blood. It unfolds one human being at a time”. In these darkest of times, Breathtaking shows us that the greatest sources of light came from within the NHS.

Beyond the inestimable challenges of treating a new disease, acquiring knowledge on the run as patients lurched from one physiological crisis to the next, health-care workers fought—through the physical barriers of masks, gowns, and distance—to restore the humanity to their practice that COVID-19 so cruelly stripped. Overnight, hospitals cleared of visitors, carparks emptied. For Clarke, whose work in palliative care has made her all too aware of the power of human connection, seeing patients isolated from their loved ones feels like a psychological assault. “Covid even steals the patients’ names. So great are the risks of communication in PPE that it is safer for the nursing team to use bed numbers to refer to the human beings for whom they care”, she writes. Humanity is restored by any means possible: medical students volunteer to liaise with patients’ families, many of whom are self-isolating and alone; hearts knitted by volunteers are used to symbolise the connection between patients and their families; health-care workers add laminated photos of their faces to their plastic gowns. “Our tools are uncertain and improvised”, she writes. “We use whatever we can to draw people back together and we refuse to settle for despair.”

Clarke’s style is intimate and generous, opening up to us her own home and family life. We join her pacing in her kitchen—glued to her phone—as she watches events unfold, first in Wuhan, then Lombardy, and finally on her doorstep. We watch her conceal her anxiety from her husband, guilty at even an insignificant deception. We feel her exasperation as PPE at the hospice runs perilously low. We feel her overwhelming desire to help, which drives her to volunteer on the frontlines. Misty-eyed, we’re there as she attempts to quell the fears of her 9-year-old daughter, terrified of losing her mother. “How can I possibly tell her I have volunteered, that I want to be the one helping these patients?”, she asks.

Although not yet over, the opportunity to reflect on these early pandemic months is at once cathartic and deeply humbling. Powerful personal stories allow us to grieve the loss we have suffered as a nation, far beyond the statistics, as well as to appreciate the sacrifices made by NHS workers and volunteers who put helping others above all else. Although Clarke cannot conceal her blistering anger at the failings of those in charge, at its core Breathtaking brims with pride and positivity. “Every single day, the grit and devotion of colleagues astounded me”, she writes. “In the 11 years I have practised as a doctor, I have never been prouder of nor more humbled by the NHS and its people.”

Complete Article HERE!

In grieving for her father, a novelist discovers the failure of words

Review of ‘Notes on Grief’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By Carlos Lozada

Not all deaths in the time of covid are covid deaths. Even as we tally the fatalities resulting from the coronavirus — indicators of personal grief as well as national competence — we continue about the business of succumbing to non-pandemic maladies, deaths no less painful for their familiarity, grief no less wrenching for its disconnect from this plague upon us.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie experienced such a death last year, when her father, James Nwoye Adichie, a distinguished Nigerian academic, passed away because of complications from long-term kidney disease. In “Notes on Grief,” a slim, poignant reflection originating from a New Yorker essay of the same title, the author recounts her efforts to cope with her loss, to accept condolences, to carry out the inevitable rituals of death. “I want there to be a point,” she writes, but even looking for the point is so painful that she cannot fathom “the catastrophe of a direct, unswerving stare.” Grief is always hard to observe.

She writes of her father and his life and the void he leaves, only to find words wanting. With death, she explains, “you learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” All the expressions of sympathy that come from her friends, well-intentioned interruptions of her pain, are inadequate, counterproductive, or they simply annoy. He is resting grates on Adichie in particular. “He could very well be resting in his room in our house in Abba,” the author complains. He is in a better place is not just cliched but presumptuous. “How would you know?” she demands. And when people emphasize that her father lived a long life (he died at 88), she takes little consolation. “Age is irrelevant in grief; at issue is not how old he was but how loved

Her own words have been little better, Adichie chastises herself, recalling her past condolences to grieving friends. Find peace in your memories, she would tell them, only now realizing that memories, rather than relief, produce “eloquent stabs of pain.” And when a friend reminds Adichie of the sentiment she expressed in one of her own novels — “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved” — the author finds that the words, meant to console, felt “exquisitely painful.” The line is from “Half of a Yellow Sun,” published 15 years ago, back when it seemed she had all the time in the world.

Any one of us who has lost loved ones — even that euphemism feels deficient, for we have not lost anyone; we know too well what happened to them — can relate to Adichie’s anger and her compulsion to reshape it into guilt. She ponders ways she could have anticipated her father’s illness, steps she could have taken to fend off his deterioration, “to make it un-happen.” A brief respite in which she forgets his departure feels like a betrayal, Adichie admits, not only to him but to her relatives in Nigeria who were with him when he died, while she lives across the ocean in the United States. “Do I forget because I am not there?” she wonders. “I think so.” So Adichie seeks other ways to reaffirm their closeness: scouring her belongings for a family tree he once sketched for her, digging up his old letters. “There is an intense pathos to looking at his handwriting,” she realizes. It is as though in seeing his written words, she can again communicate with her father.

The pandemic’s unavoidable form of communication — the Zoom call — is ever present in “Notes on Grief,” as are other covid impositions. The book begins on a weekly family Zoom, with siblings dialing in and cracking jokes from England, the United States and Lagos, and the parents connecting from their home in Abba in southeastern Nigeria. (“Move your phone a bit, Daddy,” they have to tell him when only his forehead appears on the screen.) Her father had been feeling a little sick and sleeping poorly, she recalls, but he urged them not to worry. Three days later, he was gone. Their next Zoom call “is beyond surreal,” Adichie writes, “all of us weeping and weeping and weeping, in different parts of the world, looking in disbelief at the father we adore now lying still on a hospital bed.” And there are yet more Zooms in which they must discuss arrangements for the funeral and religious services. The logistics of death in a pandemic can feel overwhelming. Will Nigeria’s airports be open and stay open? How to ensure a covid-compliant Mass? “I come to dread the Zoom calls,” Adichie writes. “The family shape is changed forever, and nothing makes it more poignant than to slide on my phone screen and no longer see the square with the word ‘Dad.’ ”

That missing Dad emerges as a wise, kind, thoughtful and understanding presence throughout “Notes on Grief” — a devoted teacher, proud father and supportive husband, a man who instilled in the author the confidence to admit she did not know something, who taught her never to fear the disapproval of strangers. “He infused meaning into the simplest of descriptions: a good man, a good father.” I have no reason to imagine he was anything less than this father of which one might dream, yet even she realizes that grief can reshape perceptions. “No, I am not imagining it,” she writes in almost defiant affirmation. “Yes, my father truly was lovely

The loveliest writing in this reflection, however, is not about James Nwoye Adichie, but about the anguish and longing his death produces in those who suffer his absence most acutely. “Is this what shock means, that the air turns to glue?” Adichie asks, capturing her physical response to the news. “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?” With death, we expect the world to mourn with us, and when it doesn’t, it can feel like an insult.

In the traditions of Nigeria’s Igbo people, Adichie explains, death involves a settling of accounts. This “clearance” requires that any outstanding dues to the village, the clan or other local associations be paid in full, otherwise the funeral will be boycotted. The custom shows how “forcefully communitarian” the culture remains, she writes. The author does not want to care about such things, but she must, because such things mattered to her father.

And it is in community that solace is possible. Sometimes, upon the death of a loved one, friends we had never met tell us stories we had never known. In death, those we love become more than we understood, more than we can ever remember alone. Adichie appreciates this power. She had always meant to interview her father at length, to record him as he retold and recounted the tales of his childhood, his parents and his grandparents. “I kept planning to, thinking we had time,” she laments. But others can help fill in those spots. “Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most,” Adichie writes. This is another way to settle accounts, one in which the community repays you many times over.

“Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of remembering the things that matter,” the author writes, and I wonder if, in a deadly pandemic, such theft is even more prevalent. Yes, not all deaths in the time of covid are covid deaths, but not all covid deaths should be remembered solely for the crisis that brought them on, one more statistic in a global tragedy that we all just want to get past. They deserve more respect than that. Collective exhaustion should not rob them of individual grief.

Complete Article HERE!

A Daughter Grieves Her Mom, And Finds Herself, In ‘Crying In H Mart’

By Kristen Martin

By the time I came to know Michelle Zauner as a writer, when The New Yorker published her personal essay “Crying in H Mart” in August 2018, I had been following her as a musician for five years.

I first saw her perform in Philadelphia as the frontwoman of emo band Little Big League in 2013; when she emerged with her poppy shoegaze solo project Japanese Breakfast in 2016, I recognized Zauner only in her soaring, searching voice.

Psychopomp, the first record Zauner released as Japanese Breakfast, hinted at where she had been in between: escorting her mother from the world of the living to that of the dead. The first track “In Heaven” tells some of the story of the aftermath of her mother’s death of cancer in 2014: “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / sniffing at your empty room / I’m trying to believe / When I sleep it’s really you / Visiting my dreams / like they say that angels do.” Those lyrics break me a little each time I hear them, reminding me of my own grief, of my own sweet childhood dog who looked for my mother and father after they both died of cancer when I was a teenager.

But where Psychopomp and her 2017 record Soft Sounds from Another Planet explore death and grief in sparse lyrics over upbeat synths, in “Crying in H Mart” Zauner digs much deeper. The essay meditates on how shopping at the Korean American supermarket H Mart brought her mother back to her but still made her loss sting. At H Mart, Zauner writes, “you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs.”

“Crying in H Mart,” stood out to me as a representation of grief that I could relate to — one that doesn’t reach for silver linings, but illuminates the unending nature of loss: “Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding into a wall that won’t give…a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.”

That essay became the first chapter of Zauner’s new memoir, also titled Crying in H Mart, which powerfully maps a complicated mother-daughter relationship cut much too short. Stories of Korean food serve as the backbone of the book, as Zauner plumbs the connections between food and identity. That search takes on new urgency after her mother’s death — in losing her mother, she also lost her strongest tether to Korean culture.

Zauner was born in Seoul, the daughter of Chongmi, a native of the city, and Joel, a white American. When she was a year old, the family relocated to Eugene, Oregon, where her mother ruled with an exacting nature. Chongmi was a woman in pursuit of perfection in everything, and of course this prodding extended to her only child. At a young age, Zauner realized that one way she could get her mother’s approval was demonstrating an adventurous appetite. On trips to Seoul, they bonded over midnight snacks on jet-lagged nights, when they “ate ganjang gejang…sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell.”

Zauner’s food descriptions transport us to the table alongside her. On a college break, when her mother prepares galbi ssam, the relief of being cared for with a meal attuned to one’s tastes radiates off the page: “Blissfully I laid my palm flat, blanketed it with a piece of lettuce, and dressed it just the way I liked — a piece of glistening short rib, a spoonful of warm rice, a dredge of ssamjang, and a thin slice of raw garlic…I closed my eyes and savored the first few chews, my taste buds and stomach having been deprived of a home-cooked meal.”

It is this kind of care that Zauner attempts to repay for her mother when she is diagnosed with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach at age 56. After her mother’s diagnosis in May 2014, Zauner, then 25, moves home, ready to bolster Chongmi through chemotherapy with Korean cooking.

But chemo wrecks the appetite — I recall my mother being plagued with everything tasting as though it were laced with metal. During the first round of chemo, her mother can’t keep food down; during the second round, she develops mouth sores that make eating painful. When the chemo fails to shrink her tumor, Chongmi decides to forgo further treatment, having learned a lesson from her younger sister Eunmi, who died of colon cancer following 24 chemo treatments. In this, Crying in H Mart is a rare acknowledgement of the ravages of cancer in a culture obsessed with seeing it as an enemy that can be battled with hope and strength.

Zauner carries the same clear-eyed frankness to writing about her mother’s death five months after her diagnosis. One chapter recounts her mother’s last days, unconscious at home, her breathing “a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffeepot.” It is rare to read about a slow death in such detail, an odd gift in that it forces us to sit with mortality rather than turn away from it.

Also notable is that Chongmi’s death does not fall at the end of the book. It comes just past halfway through, allowing Zauner ample space to grapple with the immensity of her loss. One balm that emerges is reconnecting with her Korean identity through finally learning to cook the dishes she longed to make for her mother.

As a teen, Zauner drifted away from her Koreanness, effacing that side of her heritage for fear of being seen as other. In those same years, she shrunk from her mother’s need for control and constant wheedling. Just as they established their adult relationship — just as Zauner begun to embrace her mother’s culture — her mother died: “What would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.”

Cooking becomes the key. Her teacher is Maangchi, described by The New York Times as “YouTube’s Korean Julia Child.” In cooking, Zauner conjures ghosts: her aunt Eunmi munching on Korean fried chicken, her mother ordering more kimchi to go with knife-cut noodle soup in Seoul, her grandmother slurping black-bean noodles.

Near the end of the book, Zauner meditates on the process of fermenting kimchi, and how it allows cabbage to “enjoy a new life altogether.” She realizes that she needs to tend to her memories and heritage in the same way: “The culture that we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me…If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”

What Crying in H Mart reveals, though, is that in losing her mother and cooking to bring her back to life, Zauner became herself.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Death Is But a Dream’

— Partnering to tell stories about the end of life

UB professor Carine Mardorossian has worked with hospice doctor Christopher Kerr on projects that explore end-of-life experiences from the perspective of both patients and caregivers​

By Robert Salisbury

On April 15, the WORLD Channel, carried by public television stations across the U.S., will air “Death Is But A Dream,” a documentary based on a book co-authored by local hospice doctor Christopher Kerr and University at Buffalo Professor Carine Mardorossian.

The book, “Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End,” is the brainchild of Kerr, who over the course of his career noticed a pattern in patients who were near life’s end. He observed that in end-of-life stages, many people began to have dreams and visions of deceased loved ones visiting them at bedside. The dreams and visions often became more frequent as death drew near.

After researching and collecting data for over a decade, Kerr wanted to write a book which archived and told the experiences his patients were having.

The lengthy process of getting the book to where it is now, being published in 10 different languages and sold in 10 different countries, was rough at first. The timeline of how Kerr and Mardorossian came together in writing the book was “quite interesting,” says Kerr, MD, PhD, chief medical officer and CEO for Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo.

When Kerr and his literary agent began the process, they originally sought out a different author to assist in putting Kerr’s research into meaningful words. The partnership quickly collapsed because Kerr believed that to write about subject, you would have to witness the patients’ experiences in person, which at that time, the prospective writer was unable to do.

Mardorossian, on the other hand, had been friends with Kerr for over a decade as she stabled her horse at Kerr’s barn. In passing, Kerr explained to her that he had given up on the book because finding a writer who saw eye-to-eye with him was hard to accomplish.

Mardorossian, PhD, a professor of English and of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, offered her services. But as an academic writer, her style of writing was not what Kerr was looking for — initially.

“I continually said to Kerr, ‘Let me write it,’” says Mardorossian. “I’m not that type of person, I’m really not. I honestly felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, as I caught myself insisting: I had never written a book for the mainstream, yet I was so determined to write this one.”

Kerr ultimately decided Mardorossian was the right fit, and he again pursued the book. The process of writing soon began and took the duo a year and a half to complete. Kerr says Mardorossian “helped me find a much deeper meaning.”

“I talked to Christopher every single day, and we met up to five times a week, and we would work,” says Mardorossian. “It was a constant back and forth.”

Kerr added, “We took over coffee shops that they should have expelled us from. We could have opened and closed some of them.”

The partnership flourished. The book got picked up by Penguin Random House after what Mardorossian said was “a longer than usual bidding war” between seven companies.

Looking back, Kerr said that there was never an argument or tension throughout the whole process, as their egos were left behind. Kerr admires Mardorossian’s work ethic and determination, and calls the experience of working with her “the most enjoyable process.”

Mardorossian discusses the importance of Kerr’s work in, “As death approaches, our dreams offer comfort, reconciliation,” an article published in The Conversation.

“As hospitals and nursing homes continue to remain closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, it may help to know that the dying rarely speak of being alone. They speak of being loved and put back together,” Mardorossian writes. “There is no substitute for being able to hold our loved ones in their last moments, but there may be solace in knowing that they were being held.”

Mardorossian and Kerr are now writing another book which will be a “natural extension” from their first one, says Mardorossian. The new project will be from the caregiver’s perspective.

Kerr and Mardorossian want to shed light on these caregivers’ experiences because they believe the grieving process is an important part of someone’s end-of-life experience.

“Family members have to become nurses whether they know anything about nursing or not,” says Mardorossian. “The testimonies Kerr has collected from these caregivers say how it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done, but also the best thing as well.”

Complete Article HERE!

The struggle for the right to choose when and how to die

Katie Engelhart’s book spells out the moral and practical conundrums

The Inevitable. By Katie Engelhart. St Martin’s Press; 352 pages; $27.99. Atlantic Books

IF IT IS humane to put down a dog in unbearable and incurable pain, why not extend the same right to humans if they want it? That question echoes through “The Inevitable” as it follows four people in search of a good death—and in fear of a bad one.

Katie Engelhart’s deeply researched and beautifully reported book raises familiar quandaries. Do people have a right to die on their own terms? Should doctors help? Do motivations matter? And might a right become a duty for everyone who grows old, dependent or demented? It also considers less publicised problems, such as: how do people actually die? Advances in medicine and technology that have made pills and appliances safer have made it harder to achieve an “easy” or “peaceful” death for those who seek one.

As policymakers and ethicists ponder these moral conundrums, around the world people are taking matters into their own hands, a trend that gives Ms Engelhart’s book its urgency. Faced with intolerable suffering, her subjects have largely given up on laws and doctors and instead turn to strangers on the internet for help. For instance, Avril Henry, a British octogenarian, spent her nights “marinating in her pain” and considered eating lethal fungi from her garden to end it. But “death by mushroom could be slow, messy, painful. The Nembutal would work better.” The “Peaceful Pill Handbook”suggested buying that drug from either a vet-supply store in Mexico or the Chinese black market. Doubtful about Chinese merchandise, Henry settled on Mexico.

Over several years, Ms Engelhart’s main characters meticulously plan their escapes from old age, dementia and chronic or mental illness. She also follows two doctors, one of whom lost his licence for teaching people how to “exit” via “DIY death seminars”. At times the book itself has a DIY air, taking in the practicalities of connecting a gas canister to a plastic bag that can be placed over a head.

The similarity between the “euthanasia underground” that it describes and underground abortion networks is striking. The president of Compassion & Choices, a lobby group for doctor-assisted dying, once referred to plastic-bag hoods as “the end-of-life equivalent of the coat hanger”. Among those to have taken charge of their deaths were some early AIDS patients, their suffering immense, their fates fixed. Just having the right drugs, or knowing they could get them, seemed to make many of these young men feel better, recalls the more likeable of the two doctors.

Henry planned to kill herself with the Mexican drugs in her bathtub, but fretted that she would soil herself and that her house would smell. Dignity—in life and death—seems to preoccupy her and others above all. Even more than a bad death they fear a bad end to life, in which they are no longer themselves. A desire for autonomy runs through their stories like the thin veins of some of the characters.

Yet this is not a right-to-die manifesto. The author’s own ethical doubts are among the book’s strengths. She writes compassionately of her subjects’ struggles, but is more reserved about the motives of some of their helpers. She remains torn about what is perhaps the hardest question of all: euthanasia for victims of dementia. Rather than passing judgment, she presents facts. About half of Americans think patients do not have enough control over end-of-life decisions. Existing laws often have arbitrary effects.

After the drugs arrived from Mexico, Henry’s house was raided by police. She had discovered the concept of the “Completed Life”. “That’s when you feel that your life is shaped and finished. And the direction thereafter is down. I did have a complete life. It was a great life,” she told a friend. Soon after the raid she was found in her bathtub, having drunk the poison the police had missed. The note she left had a postscript: “If I have fouled the bath in death, please please be kind to wash it down.” She provided the disinfectant.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Dear Life’ explores the beauty of end-of-life experiences

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Before the doctor opened her mouth, you knew this wasn’t going to be good.

And it wasn’t, although you can barely remember what happened a minute after you heard the diagnosis. All you could wrap your head around were monitors and tubes and machines and death, when what you needed was “Dear Life” by Rachel Clarke, and a reminder that it wasn’t time for that yet.

When she was a little girl, Rachel Clarke was in awe of her father, a doctor who loved music and nature and who shared his sense of curiosity with his children. As a teen, Clarke toyed with the idea of following in his footsteps, but she chose a career in television instead. And then one day, after experiencing a couple of close brushes with death, she decided to go back to school to become a doctor, specializing in palliative medicine.

“I learned that dying, up close, is not what you imagine,” she says. “It is the essence of living… that really matters…”

About death, there are two main things: unlike our ancestors, we aren’t used to it; and we can’t know what it’ll be like. These are what Clarke helps her patients and their families deal with, and while she can’t answer the latter question, she promises them that the days and hours before the end are as full of life as possible.

Sometimes, that means meeting fears head-on, and discussing death matter-of-factly. Sometimes, it’s asking questions of a patient because no one else has done so. Caring for someone who’s dying may mean literally opening a window to sunshine or birdsong, holding a hand, letting “a wife curl up in a hospital bed beside her dying husband,” or encouraging a visit from a pet or a beloved grandchild. And sometimes, a doctor just needs to remember that “There is always a spark of beauty or significance…in the life you have left,” even when the person dying is someone the doctor loves.

This year, no doubt, you’ve seen enough death to last several lifetimes, and you’re not sure you can withstand a book about it right now.

But hold on, because “Dear Life” lives up to its title.

Beautiful, thoughtful, and loving, this book is absolutely brimming with life as author Rachel Clarke describes the end-of-life care offered at the hospice where she works and some of the most memorable patients to whom she ministered care.

If that sounds like an anti-life book, well, it’s not. It’s true that people die in this book, and they do it often but Clarke’s accounts of their days prior to death are quiet and serene, with no fear, no pain, and the minimum of loose ends left. Her workplace is not a sterile, clinical home where people go to die; rather, it’s a place where people die but first, happiness sneaks in sometimes.

And for that, curiously, this book on death-and-life may be the balm your COVID-bruised mind needs now. Indeed, calm, truthful, and not too gory, “Dear Life” is good.

Another book to look for is “Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph” by David Shneer. It’s the story of a photo taken toward the end of World War II, and the emotion inside it. Part meditation, part history, this book is perfect for the historian, too.

Complete Article HERE!

What to read when you’re grieving a loved one

By Yvonne Abraham

I am a great grief compartmentalizer. I can put sadness into a box or write about it, pretending to be a detached expert. My therapist tells me I don’t feel it, though. She claims I have one button for all emotions, and that by turning off the grief, I also prevent myself from experiencing joy, hope, and excitement. You can’t get the good without the bad, she claims. I hate that.

There are a zillion wonderful books about loss, but none of them helped me feel. But a script did it. It unstuck the button. “Fleabag: The Scriptures,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s compilation of scripts from the show, includes pages of dialogue showing her character’s compartmentalized grief, which was all too familiar. On page 331, in a flashback, Fleabag considers the loss of her mother, and tells her best friend, ”I don’t know what to do with it —” “With what?” the friend, Boo, asks. “With all the love I have for her. I don’t know … where to — put it now.” Reading that, I was able to see all the love for my late mom that has been following me for years, with nowhere to go. I’m learning to give it to others. “I’ll take it,” Boo offers Fleabag. “No, I’m serious. It sounds lovely.”

MEREDITH GOLDSTEIN

Letters for life

The opening words of Donald Hall’s “Letter After a Year,” addressed to his late wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon, are: “Here’s a story I never told you.”

Hall proceeds to describe a time, long before he met Kenyon, when he discovered letters in the attic of a rented house that a previous tenant had written to a lover who had died in a plane crash. He recalls his puzzlement back then: “She’s writing to somebody dead?”

But Hall came to understand, and act on, that same impulse after Kenyon died at 47. The proof of that is “Without,” a 1998 collection of poems (many of them with the word “Letter’’ in the title) that falls somewhere between conversation and correspondence. These poems are written about and to Kenyon, who succumbed to leukemia in 1995 on the New Hampshire farm where she and Hall lived.

Now, it would be a mistake to read “Without’’ in the expectation of bromidic uplift. Hall was too honest a poet — and too faithful a husband — for that. There is overwhelming pain in these pages, numerous times when, in Hall’s words, “grief’s repeated particles suffuse the air.” In “Letter in the New Year,” Hall writes to Kenyon that “this new year is offensive because it will not contain you.” For him, grieving is not a linear process but a flailing struggle to stay afloat amid a flood.

Yet within the quasi-epistolary structure of “Without” can be discerned the hope that, on some indefinable level, a relationship is not over so long as one partner lives. Hall updates Kenyon on the doings of children, grandchildren, and friends; he tells her about watching the Red Sox; he describes the springtime arrival of goldfinches and the emergence of daffodils on the hillside. And he evokes the numberless little moments that made up their life together, from shopping to lovemaking to holiday rituals like Kenyon’s habit of opening the daily Advent calendar window and then reading the Gospels. “Ordinary days were best, when we worked over poems in our separate rooms,” Hall tells Kenyon.

To be “without,” obviously, is a fate that befalls many of us. What Hall’s poems suggest is that memory, and perhaps an untold story or two, can help sustain just enough “with” to pull us through.

DON AUCOIN

Walking with grief

Grief of any kind obeys a logic all its own. But a parent’s grief over the loss of a child must defy logic altogether. “Because how can one articulate logical, coherent, human speech when the foundations of logic and proper order, the so-called natural order, the order whereby parents should not mourn their children — have foundered?”

So writes the Israeli author David Grossman, who lost his own son in Israel’s Second Lebanon War in 2006. Some five years after that shattering event, Grossman, in keeping with this observation, corralled the materials of his own mourning not into a coolly coherent memoir but into a kind of haunting parable.

A grieving man gets up from dinner one night and sets out to walk around his village in ever-widening circles. He has left behind normal life to search for his departed son, to seek out an elusive place described only as “there,” to trace on the land his own spiraling itinerary of loss and boundless yearning. The man begins his walk alone but is quickly joined by others who have also lost children, each one inevitably trapped within a kind of private exile yet now, suddenly, walking together.

Narrated in spare, poetic language, “Falling Out of Time” is a story of reckoning and reclamation — of learning to live with, and without, the dead. The novel, which was recently adapted by composer Osvaldo Golijov into a tone poem of the same name, also constitutes its own act of co-walking with the grieving, a way of broadening outward from sharp solitude of private sorrow. Finally, it is a meditation on the working through of a wild, impossible grief until the point that, as Grossman writes, “there is breath inside the pain.”

JEREMY EICHLER

Keep moving forward

“It’s okay. She’s a pretty cool customer.”

That’s what a social worker says to a doctor who’s wondering how to tell Joan Didion that the heart attack suffered barely an hour ago by her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, had proven fatal.

Anyone who knows the chill, clipped control found in Didion’s novels and essays realizes how well “cool customer” describes her as a writer. How it does and doesn’t apply to her as a grieving widow is the burden of “The Year of Magical Thinking.” It won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, but to think of so searching and personal a work in terms of something as transitory as a literary prize doesn’t so much miss the point as ignore it.

The point is that neither grief nor life stops. It’s not just the consequences of Dunne’s death that Didion writes about but also dire health crises affecting their daughter, Quintana, over the same period of time. To lose one’s spouse and then possibly one’s only child? The Old Testament may offer the closest literary counterpart: the Book of Job. That “Magical Thinking” and its author merit the comparison is no small compliment to Didion as writer and human being both.

MARK FEENEY

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