Archives for posts with tag: Loss

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’




Jon Sanders follow up to the earlier Late September is also a quintessentially British and theatrical piece. Set in Kent, Back to the Garden features the reunion of actor friends one year on from the death of one of the group. His widow remains stuck in her grief, and the film delves into and around issues of loss, of the meaning of mortality, and how terrifying the finality of death can be.

For the grieving widow, she now realises how totally bound up in her marriage, and in their love, her own identity had been. Following her husband’s death, it is as if she has not only lost him, but has also lost her self.

Her friends gently probe and question her feelings and her experience of grief.

‘Are you still in love with a dead person?’, one asks. An intriguing question, and one that proved hard to definitively answer, despite the fact that love was clearly consistently central to their relationship.

‘Does time heal?’, asks another. No, but taking one day at a time helps.

‘Is death the annihilation of self?’ ‘Do we just, stop?’ Also unanswerable and unknowable, but the discussions around these and other questions were illuminating.

Similar to his earlier work, Sanders encouraged improvisation in this recent release. This approach heightens the natural feel to the film, and its authenticity, and serves to make the experience of watching and listening to Back to the Garden real, thought provoking, and lingering.



I heard the leading Israeli writer David Grossman interviewed on Radio 4 Front Row recently [], ahead of his appearance at the Jewish Book Week last week.

Grossman’s son was killed while in the Israeli defence forces in 2006. In 2012 he published his response to the tragedy, Falling out of Time, which has now been translated into English.

Falling out of Time appears to defy genre classification, and has been variously described as prose/theatre/poetry/radio play, as well as an oratorio without music. It tells the story of bereaved parents as they set out to reach their lost children.

Grossman believes that the book wrote itself. Within that process, he felt as if he had no control over what he wrote.

When asked about the uncompleted sentences within the text, Grossman responds that the book arose from a world where rules had been lost. In the face of tragedy, language itself fails. Falling out of Time was an attempt to find words for the unspeakable. For Grossman, writing this novel was his way of making the effort, and of refusing to avoid the tragedy that had engulfed him and his family.

‘I can’t understand anything unless I write it.’ While the undertaking of writing the book was not in itself therapeutic, and nor did it help him understand the death and loss of his son, Grossman did see it as a way of returning, the processes of writing, imagining, fantasising, all contributing to a ‘being in this life’.

For Grossman too, the book is about more than his personal tragedy, and extends beyond the loss of a loved one. In that sense, Falling out of Time speaks to the universal and existential experience of the mystery of life and death coexisting.



Today is the first anniversary of my sister’s death. I am not so sure about formal remembrances and rituals. However, I do feel like sharing some of my thoughts from 2013, my first year without my sister.

Mostly, the past months have surprised me. Little has been how I might have predicted it, echoing the experience of Joan Didion following her husband’s death:

‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it’

The initial period was relatively easy to manoeuvre. I got on with my life as if on autopilot. I remember being grateful that I was alive, and resolutely determined to make the most of my own living. My sister’s death also reminded me of my mother’s grief when her mother and her sister died in relatively quick succession. I was a teenager at the time, the youngest of five children, and the only one still living at home. I was thus unrelentingly exposed to my mother’s ‘decline’, as sadness and doom enveloped her and those around her. I did not want a similar experience for my own teenage daughter, who was herself traumatised by her aunt’s death. Instead, I worked on negotiating a path where we could keep my sister’s loss a presence in our lives, but one that would not destroy us.

To some extent we managed this. However, how we respond to loss cannot be completely controlled and contained. When I have experienced loss previously in my life, I have noticed how delayed my personal response to the trauma of the experience can be. So it was on this occasion. As the acute distress around the dying period and the death itself eased, the loss that evolved from the death manifested itself acutely. Yet the clichés are also true. Life does go on, and passing time does facilitate a living with loss that is manageable. I have not experienced anger at any point. Regret, yes. Guilt, some. Mostly, my emotional volcanoes consist of random and unpredictable moments of acute pain, which are so cataclysmic that every time I feel they will overwhelm and destroy me. But of course they do not. Reassuringly or fatalistically, you continue getting on with your life in the ‘club of the left-over living’.

My sister is buried in another country. I am sad about this. Her graveside is a place I would like to spend time. Yet, for the memorial mass today, I chose not to attend. My other sisters did. The experience of loss has been different for all of us, and not one we have easily been able to share.

What has surprised me most of all, is how much I miss my sister. Living in different countries, we communicated infrequently, and spent time together just a few times a year. Yet, as time goes on, the fact that we will never have those times again fills me with a sadness that is as infinite as her loss.

My sister was older than I am, and so, until this past year, she had always been in my life.

I miss the fact of her, her living and energetic being. I miss how much she used (sometimes) to annoy me. I miss her loyalty and absolute support. I miss her reckless generosity.

I miss.




Susan Hill’s novel, written in 1974, is a story about loss, relationships, and about how we mourn.

The acute loss central to the story results from the sudden death of Ruth’s young husband Ben. However, a more global pre-existing loss is also unmasked by the tragedy.

Ruth is devastated by Ben’s death, and inhabits a place of unremitting despair where she is untouchable by others. Reluctantly, she attends the funeral, where she resents the mourning of others:

‘She imagined the line of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering into the coffin. As Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?

But it was better. She thought, they don’t have Ben.’

‘They were forcing her to take part in some curious ritual of their own…’

My sister’s husband died a few years ago, and I can see her response to his death, and to fellow-mourners, in Ruth’s behaviour. At the time, I struggled with my sister’s reaction, as I tried to deal with both his loss from our lives and also her belief that only she was entitled to mourn this loss.

Ruth, with time, comes to realise the wide-reaching effects of Ben’s death:

‘The death of Ben Bryce had been like a stone cast into still water, and the water had become a whirlpool with Ruth sucked down into the terrible heart of it. But the waves spread out, through the countryside down to the village and beyond the village. People felt changed, as if by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face.’

She comes to acknowledge her behaviour at the time:

‘But she had been too wrapped up, first within the warm womb of her happiness with Ben, and then in the cold shell of grief. She had not thought of anyone.’

We read to find ourselves, and to witness experiences that resonate with our own. Thus, within In the Springtime of the Year, I found some consolation in its echoes of my sister’s reaction to her husband’s death:

‘…she had kept Ben’s death to herself, as a private thing, tried to possess it utterly and allow no one else the right to mourn…’



I have seen such great theatre in London of late, tonight absolutely included.

I rarely go to large venues these days, instead loving the intimacy that smaller theatres offer and so often deliver.

This is probably my third or fourth time at The Print Room, and as a space to visit I love it more each time. Within the building I have been entertained in different ‘rooms’ on different occasions. Tonight, we were treated to a glass of wine in a little candlelit ante room (with piano), before moving up (narrow) stairs to the performance.

The play was performed within a relatively narrow rectangular space. There are three performers, Catherine, Joshua and Simon, all of whom are present for the 90 minute or so duration of the piece. The actors were uniformly really impressive.

Simon is a psychiatrist – of the ‘old’ school, a ‘pedantic piece of shit’ as named by Joshua – who is simultaneously seeing/treating both Catherine and Joshua.

Catherine has amnesia. Simon, who has become ‘bored by suffering’, is nonetheless interested in Catherine and her psychiatric state. His goal is to ‘remove the plaster’, thereby liberating her memory. The amygdala of the play’s title is the part of the brain that has come to be viewed as the centre of emotional memory.

The story that predated Catherine’s amnesia gradually unfolds. Catherine is a middle class lawyer who lives in Hampstead with her French lawyer husband, who seems to spend more time in Paris than in London, and their two young children. Joshua’s life rests at the other end of the spectrum, as a musician (saxophone) who takes the bus rather than black cabs, and who lives a life devoid of books. Yet, a series of (seemingly) chance encounters brings Catherine and Joshua together.

As Simon works on removing Catherine’s ‘plaster’, the traumatic and tragic story behind her memory loss is revealed. Many themes and threads pervade this short work of art, all of which weave together to create a story of humanness with all its inherent and inevitable flaws, frailties and vulnerabilities.

All three characters, most especially Simon and Catherine, are alone, lonely and vulnerable. Inside, but most especially outside the courtroom, truth is questioned and sought. Amygdala is a story of need and of desire, and of the reality and consequences of love, and the living of it, that is both beautiful and tragic.




I saw this play at the weekend at The Roundhouse London, as part of its current The Last Word – ‘London’s first ever spoken word festival.’

And what a truly magnificent representation of the power and magic and beauty of words Wasted is. The energy, passion and dynamism of the three performers was also hugely impressive.

Written by the so very talented Kate Tempest, I have thought much about the play since, and have read and re-read the text. Wasted is word-dense, each word carefully chosen to create a piece of art that is thought-provoking, moving, sad, disturbing, funny, and all the while gripping and enthralling.

The three characters arrive on stage and address the audience directly. Immediately, one feels involved, drawn into the stories of their lives, a witness to something significant and vital:

“We wish we has some kind of incredible truth to express.”

“We wish we knew the deeper meaning.”

“But we don’t.”

“We don’t have nothing to tell you that you don’t already know…”

They speak of the city, their home, and the despondency that it and living their lives there has fostered:

“Deserted playgrounds, tramps singing on the street, bleeding gums outside the pub, takeaways and car exhausts and bodies till you can’t see bodies.”

“A city where nothing much happens except everything.”

“Where everyone is so entirely involved in their own ‘nothing much’ that they forget about the everything happening elsewhere.”

It was not always so. The trio remember their teen years, when they ‘lived without fear’, then later ‘got wasted in raves and felt Godlike.’ But as the years pass (they are now 25) “Our eyes got dimmer and our dreams got flattened”, and we “forgot what we was living for.”

They mention Tony, both individually and as a group, who, it appears, died 10 years earlier:

“So you’re lucky. Coz if you was still here, you’d have a habit, or depression, or anxiety attacks, or all three…”

Seeking change and epiphanies that don’t happen, all three are drowning in the reality of their current lives. They also realise that they no longer have anything to say to each other, only a shared and ‘wasted’ past – “we spend life retelling life and it’s pointless and boring.”

Many phrases – “All of us, regretting the decisions we never had the guts to make” – resonate and leave much to consider.

I have not yet decided how the play concluded for me. But then, there can be no definitive conclusion or ending. This is a story about life, about the challenges inherent in living it, and about the choices you can make, or choose to ignore.

“…your dreams are more than just something that came before you shook them off, your dreams are worth pursuing…”

“But you’ll never fly until you’re prepared to jump.”

“Your life is much more than getting wasted.”



I found much to connect with in David Sedaris’s recent reflective piece in The New Yorker, ‘Now We Are Five’ (
Sedaris’s sister, Tiffany, died in May this year, at the age of 49. She committed suicide, and although Sedaris had not communicated with her for 8 years, her death provoked a profound sense of loss.
‘A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born.’
Until May, Sedaris belonged to a family of six siblings. Now, there are five.
‘”And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,'” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”‘

My sister died in January this year. Amidst the multi-faceted and infinite aspects of felt loss, I was unexpectedly struck by how diminished our sibling group has now become. The experience of going from five of us to ‘just four’, felt much greater than the loss of an individual. We seemed to have lost something indefinable that had hitherto made us the family that we had been.

‘Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives–we’d had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris.’

So too has it been for my family. We probably still do it, that pulling away, but there is always a coming back, even if unpredictable and transient.

The poet and physician Dannie Abse believes that ‘Men become mortal the night their fathers die.’ When the generation that appears to separate you from your own mortality is removed, it is a defining life moment, not merely in terms of the experience of losing a parent, but also in terms of what it means for the living and passing of one’s own life.

The death of a sibling is momentous for other reasons. Yes, it does indeed make you aware yet again of the fragility of life. It also challenges your sense of self and identity, especially that significant part of you that has always been bound up in ‘family’, much of which disappears along with the sibling you mourn.



Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”



This phrase is taken from Christopher Reid’s poem Exasperated Piety from his collection A Scattering, which was created as a tribute to his wife, who died as a result of cancer in 2005.

It is no coincidence that this came to mind today. This day a year ago, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, from which she died less than five months later. When I first saw her a few days after the diagnosis, we were both overwhelmed by our sadness and distress. I was also acutely aware that my sister had now entered a world that was instantly unshareable, and which progressively alienated her over the next months from those of us who remained in a world she had hitherto inhabited.

Susan Sontag describes illness as ‘the night-side of life, a more onerous citzenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’

Yet, although the gap between the kingdoms is narrow, those who are suddenly transported from the land of the well to that of the ill very quickly realise the meaning and the isolation that this entails. Christopher Hitchens described is as follows:

‘I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.’

I will never know what my sister’s experience was. She chose not to talk about it. I became increasingly aware, and guilty, of the gap between our worlds, one that seemed to widen every moment of every day of those few short months.

A Hospital Odyssey is an epic poetic and mythical journey through illness by Gwyneth Lewis, which focuses on Maris’s experience following her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Maris journeys alone to the Otherworld, separated from Hardy, and explores an imaginary and surreal illness landscape.

The voice throughout is that of Maris:

‘I want to capture what it is to care

for someone you love who’s very ill,

how quickly you age as you see them suffer,

you’d do anything to make them well,

but you can’t.’

‘What do you say when someone you love

is dying and there’s nothing you can do

to stop it happening, and you’re alive

and well, nowhere near through

adoring , and you can’t follow?’