At the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference earlier this month (February 2024), I attended a panel entitled Grief: What Is It Good For? As I listened to the panelists' excellent conversation, one of the things I scribbled in my notebook was: "Maybe it's time I wrote about grief."
As if I haven't been writing about grief for decades. Unequal Temperament, after all, is in large part a story of a woman's grief over not just the loss of her father, but the loss of an ambition, and the loss of a life-changing opportunity.
Going back even further, my first novel (Our Trespasses, still unpublished) featured in one of its narrative threads the protagonist's unresolved grief over the loss of a relationship. For me, the breakup of a friendship, most especially one with a romantic attachment, is an ambiguous loss: the relationship is gone, but the person is still there, the connection feels like it's still there (and sometimes it is, albeit in different form). The grief is sticky, and I have never found the solvent that will dissolve it and let me wash it away. It erodes with time and the soft abrasion of other relationships. But the remnants are still there, still causing an irritation if not an outright ache.
I've written about and around my heartaches before, sometimes in essays but many times more in fiction. Writing is no cure for grief, but it's one way to contend with it. I was covered in terribly sticky grief throughout my 30s and well into my 40s, but I nevertheless achieved a lot during that time. I wrote Our Trespasses, for one thing, and though grief underlies one thread, there are several others that have nothing to do with loss. And my own life in that time was not about grieving. I was simply living with grief and, maybe, very slowly healing the burn that loss had made and that ambiguity kept refreshing. Or maybe it's more that I allowed ambiguity to keep refreshing it.
Before the AWP panel on grief got underway, the moderator asked all of us in the audience to turn to someone nearby and briefly name a person for whom we were grieving. Did I name my mother, who had died only a few weeks before? No, what popped out of my mouth was the name of my husband, who is very much alive.
Bru has dementia. He can talk, but more and more he can't find the words he wants. He can follow simple directions, but problem-solving is almost always out of his reach. He can read, but he can no longer read books, because he can't remember enough from one page to the next to make sense of them. He can dress himself, but I can tell he is becoming confused about the order in which he needs to put his clothes on. Bru is losing his cognitive abilities frighteningly fast.
And yet, Bru and I still laugh a lot together. He is still my Bru, even though he may not recognize me at times and lacks the confidence to do things that used to be second nature. His personality hasn't changed (yet), but he is no longer the man I fell in love with, that I married, that I built a life with. I can no longer have those stimulating, clarifying, problem-solving conversations we used to have, and I can't remember when they no longer became possible.
I am covered in a very sticky ambiguous grief. There are fresh coats being laid down all the time.
I need to stop trying to wipe it off and instead write about it. Or around it, or through it.