Bereavement: Julian Barnes and my old friend

One of our longtime friends, Donald, has lost his wife to an aggressive form of brain cancer, which took her in barely three months. 

I was reading Julian Barnes' latest book, "Levels of Life", when I got the news. Barnes' book explores, among other themes, his grief following the sudden death of his wife, the editor Pat Kavanaugh, from the same illness. 

That unstinting yet poetic exploration deeply influenced how I spoke to Don, when I learned what happened.

I had already underlined this observation:

"Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still—at least, if we are lucky (or on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute, they are the tropics we cross."

Don and I spoke at length one evening, on the phone, and I recalled this passage vividly:

"I swiftly realized how grief sorts out and realigns those around the griefstruck; how friends are tested; how some pass, some fail. Old friendships may deepen through shared sorrow, or suddenly appear lightweight. The young do better than the middle-aged, women do better than men... 

I remember a 'dinner-table conversation' in a restaurant with three married friends of roughly my age. Each had known her for many years...and each would have said, if asked, that they loved her. I mentioned her name; no one picked it up. I did it again, and again nothing. Perhaps the third time I was deliberately trying to provoke, being pissed off at what struck me not as good manners but as cowardice. Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it."

He also finds the source for his pain, supplied in a letter from one of his friends, a widow:

"...she wrote to me, 'The thing is—nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. I think if it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter.'"

And "it matters" because of how Barnes views love:

"Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of its outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—than love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure."

But grief, he says, "does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive is more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living."

No surprise, then, that Barnes considers taking his life, but realizes, "insofar as she was alive at all, she was alive in my memory" and asks himself, "... how am I to live? I must live as she would have wanted me to."

Without Barnes' witness to the wildness and depth of his grief, I might have stumbled through a conversation focused on facts and details. But thanks to his magnificent writing, I was able to stay with my friend to reminisce about their love for one another, and the passage he had recently entered. 

Conversations with bereaved friends grow more frequent. I hope to be present to each as he or she wishes—to not avoid mentioning the absent partner, as Barnes' friends (and some of my mother's) did, perhaps in a misguided wish to "not bring it all back". 

It's a scary conversation when one is relieved of sure-fire comforts and clichés, but it's real, and it is just one of the ways we can take care of one another, as this generation faces its last decades.



17 comments

LauraH said...

Your friend is lucky to have you to talk with. When my husband died at age 48 of a brain tumour very few were able to talk to me or to listen. Maybe I expected too much but I was very disillusioned and, yes, angry, at the response. After six years of struggle, I found a support group which helped enormously (never thought I'ld be in a 'group'). I heard that my experience was not all that uncommon. Most of those friends are no longer part of my life - a hard lesson but a valuable one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I have seen this in death as well as illness. Cancer is a great divider. My dearest friend passed away and I had no one to share it with, not being family. One comment her daughter made that stayed with me was that if she had one more person share with her what HER mother meant to them, she was going to go crazy. I then realized that she wanted to hear what her mother had felt about her. I supplied that as often as I spoke to her because that is what she needed to survive this tragedy. I still grieve my friend and talk to her.....she will always be with me.

Susan said...

Thank you Anonymous for that insight. I am going to remember that it is just as important to tell a survivor that they were beloved by the deceased.

Excellent post Duchesse.

Duchesse said...

LauraH: Not to make excuses, and yet, perhaps, if your friends were only in early middle age, they had not the perspective to offer more. Many in their fourth decade have been relatively untouched by loss. I wish they had been more present for you.

Anon@8:30: Thank you so much for that observation. I have seen widowed friends trying to 'hold' the grief their friends bring them,
and Don spoke of that, too.

Susan: In this case, recalling my friend's wife's love for him would be accurate. Other situations are less evident; we have to assess what we know, and sometimes use tact.

materfamilias said...

Just this week, a colleague lost his very beloved wife to an astonishingly efficient form of cancer. He's asked us not to discuss it at work -- he just can't cope otherwise, and we respect that. But. I do wonder how we will all manage that now that she's gone. Especially, how will he? Talking about and grieving and crying -- there's not much room in our workaday world, is there? Yours is a thoughtful, rich post -- I loved, loved, loved Levels of Life and have been readying myself to go back to it -- those opening chapters, the intricately tied together complex of images and histories and concepts. Brilliant and moving. I'm so glad your friend has you to talk to.

une femme said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. I think our culture doesn't to a good job with confronting death and grief. We are often taught to tread lightly and avoid "opening the wound" when actually sometimes talking and remembering is exactly what the bereaved need most.

Madame Là-bas said...

I just spent the week-end with my mother. Since my father died almost 2 years ago she has experienced grief that is impossible to share. Our lives have gone on but a piece of her has been lost. I have just read one of Barnes' works of fiction so I shall reserve Levels of Life at the library.

Susan said...

I do agree that tact (together with using knowledge that you have) is always important. You can't tell someone that they were beloved if you don't know that it was true. I just appreciated that sometimes that is what a grieving person (whether it be a spouse or a grown child) needs or wants to hear.

And I agree that a person who has never experienced great loss may fall short in appreciating what a friend should say or do.

SISSY MAC ALLISTER said...

IT IS SO DIFFICULT FOR US TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORDS ( AT TIMES ) HAVING LOST MY HUSBAND , I WISHED THAT SOME PEOPLE WOULD HAVE JUST SAID - NOTHING -

Leslie said...

When we lost our father to cancer earlier this year, my brother made a wise observation after the memorial service. He said, "When my friends lost a parent, I always told them I was sorry, and I was. Now I can see I had no idea." Later I noticed that my friends that made the effort to come to the service were the ones who had lost their fathers also. There is definitely a division and though I'm sorry to be on the other side now, it's helped in my responses to several friends who have lost a parent recently.

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I lost a very dear friend when she was in her mid 30's and she left a husband and three very young girls. It was a horrible time for all of us as we were a close group of friends but not as difficult for the husband and those darling girls. Who by the way have grown up and attended university and got on with their lives in spite of losing their mother. The spouse has had much more of a struggle and has never remarried.
We see him from time to time and it is very evident that the grief is still raw...
Your post is excellent and deals with a sensitive issue which so many of us have trouble navigating and yet it is inevitable...thank you.

Eleanorjane said...

Hi Duchesse, an excellent post about a very relevant issue.

There is definitely a 'grief club'. My mother died while I was in my 30s and strangely enough, I had two friends who also recently lost parents. While our experiences were very different, there was also a level of understanding.

Still, I didn't actually want to talk about my mother and all the stuff we'd been enduring for the last years. I just wanted friends around, to show they cared etc.

One of the best responses was a friend who brought flowers round in person and just sat and chatted. She hadn't known grief but was basically a kind and caring person who actually fronted up in a tough time.

lagatta à montréal said...

Duchesse, how is your friend doing? Obviously very sad and empty, but how is he coping?

A friend of mine, like hostess's friend's husband, never really recovered after the death of her husband, whom she had devoted her all as a caregiver during his long decline from Alzheimer's (he was at least a decade older). Sadly, she died not long ago and it seemed inevitable given her deep depression and its effects.

We recall that you lost your sister in early adulthood, so alas you did have an early knowledge of "parallel" grief. I think the grief for a person close to you of your own generation - or worse still, the loss of a child - hits one in a way that the loss of a parent doesn't, sad though that always will remain. My father died when I was 15, but it affected my mother in a much more fundamental way, though of course I was sad and upset.

Duchesse said...

msterfamilias: First, I am glad he asked for what he needs, which may change over time. Sounds as if you care for him; that in itself will carry all of you, as much as anyone can relieve another's grief.

une femme: I have learned they let you know- but sometimes only after they miss what could have been offered. Getting better at it but it's still a mode of caring that I'm discovering.

Mme. La-bàs: When one tries to help a parent, its even more layered and complex than a friend. I found the book remarkable.

Susan: Yes, and chances are you will know that a child was loved.

Sissy: That is often a huge burden for the widow- "well meaning" remarks, especially clichés.

Leslie; What Barnes has said about losing his adored wife is also true when one loses a beloved parent or other relative. Yet even those who have not experienced it can show up to say they care.

hostess: Yes, inevitable and I believe we should not excuse ourselves from being there for our friends just because we don't know how to address the loss.

Eleanorjane; Just sit and chat, yes. I did the same for another friend, but with a bottle of wine (her idea). Even though I had never met her mother it was vitally important to witness this loss.

lagatta: Barnes has a lot to say about the term "grief work" but that aside, my friend is subsumed by sorrow, but able to get out and do things. When they married, his wife had with two teenaged sons,now adults. He is helping them build their business; in this way, he continues his life with her.

Fifteen is a very young age to lose a parent, and old enough to have so many memories.







LPC said...

I am so sorry for your friend's loss. Do you think the death of a marriage counts? Or only the actual death of a loved one? Not that I am trying to downgrade the grief at death in the slightest, only wondering how much the feelings might be similar or not.

Duchesse said...

LPC: I suspect there are similarities and differences (not having lost a spouse through death myself). During divorce, I noticed those who had endured a profound loss (of any kind) spoke to me differently than those untouched by such reversals. They were less apt to offer pat reassurances and assume I was fine just because I could, for example, go to work.

tess said...

Julian Barnes is a remarkable writer, I am reading his "Nothing to be Afraid of," a book about death, from 2008, at least I think that is the title. Would like to read his entire body of work.

Wishing everyone comfort. I'm grieving my father's death still,some 40 years later.