For those of us who have not suffered a life-changing loss, reading these books can be shocking. I think of, for instance, when I first read Roland Barthes’s almost unbearable Mourning Diary, about the death of his mother. Barthes was a true mama’s boy, having lived with his mother for virtually all his adult life, counting her his closest friend in the world. When she at last died, it was devastating. Barthes began to manifest this overpowering grief onto the small slips of paper that were later found and published as Mourning Diary. Although the book is little more than a series of thought fragments, these spare words have made a more powerful impression on me than most other books I have read. The vision of a mind attempting to find a place for its pain, and continually failing, is heartbreaking. “Listening to Souzay sing: ‘My heart is full of a terrible sadness,’ I burst into tears.” “I ask for nothing but to live in my suffering.” “Dreamed of maman again. She was telling me—O cruelty!—that I didn’t really love her. But I took it calmly, because I was so sure it wasn’t true.”
When I first read Mourning Diary as a perfectly happy, healthy young man of 32, I was overcome, for it made me see that with just one loss any of us could be thrown into such a pit. This was one of the first times I had ever confronted this possibility face-to-face, and I remember well what a somber realization it was. I began thinking about how I would respond to such a loss. I began to see how important it was to be fully present with those I loved and to be as honest and compassionate as I could in our relationships.
Not that anyone can ever prepare for the loss of someone we love. Of course we must try, but such intense grief reveals to us just how puny our will is in the face of the strongest emotions. It seems most unfair that we must work to build our lives, always under threat from overpowering grief, but this is purely a fact of our existence. It in inescapable, and I believe that one of literature’s tasks is to help us think through this condition of our lives. These books attempt to make meaning of this condition we all must simply accept.
From “On The Books We Read (and Write) to Get By,” by Scott Esposito