The Language of Grief
Through words, an English professor struggles with loss
On November 21, 1996 I gave birth to our second daughter, Claire Margaret. There were many auspicious things about her entrance into the world: she was born on her big sister’s birthday, one of my very best friends, a midwife, had been there to catch her when she came barreling out; her grandparents were here to help welcome her into the world. For about twelve hours everything seemed perfect: she was such a beautiful, peaceful little baby and we were all so happy as the “real family” that her sister Emma declared us to be now that there were four of us. And then our world started to fall apart, bit by terrifying bit: she didn’t eat well; she slept too soundly; she couldn’t hold her head up; she didn’t seem to look at us; she twitched almost all the time. At first it was pretty subtle, and no one believed me the few times I found the courage to say that I thought she wasn’t okay. But then she wasn’t gaining weight and the twitching got worse and finally her doctor conceded that things didn’t seem quite right. Forty-eight hours after that concession, the same doctor was walking into a hospital room to tell my husband, Andrew, and I that Claire — the beautiful little girl sleeping in my arms — had something horrible and unpronounceable wrong with her brain. “Lissencephaly,” she said. And before she could tell us what it meant, I said, “She’s not going to talk. She’s not going to walk. She’s not going to do anything, is she?” The doctor just nodded and blinked madly. Months later, she told me that she had no idea how she was going to tell us that part of it. She felt that my unexpected but accurate prognosis was something like divine intervention. It wasn’t. I had been watching my daughter every minute of every day for eight weeks. I knew.

At home, later, surrounded by pages and pages of a language that I was desperately trying to learn — a language that contained words like agyria and agenesis and septum pellucidum and myoclonic and hypotonic — I came across a phrase I didn’t need to translate: “invariably fatal in infancy or early childhood.” Invariably: without variation or exception; unchangeable; always the same.

In the days after Claire was diagnosed, we entered into a period that was as close to invariable as anything I have ever experienced, a time in which grief and fear formed a kind of grim cocoon around our lives. We lived — sometimes only barely, almost all the time through the sympathetic will of our friends and families — in that cocoon for as long as we could. But it soon became clear that, if we were going to survive ourselves, if we were going to be good parents to both our children, we had to face the pain of re-entering a world of strangers, a variable kind of world that didn’t know, a world in which things would need to be explained — or not, which seemed even more painful.

For me, a great deal of the anticipated pain of “re-entry” was focused on returning to work. There were three classes of UVM English students that I’d only just barely met: I’d taught for a week before Claire had been admitted to the hospital for the tests that would result in her diagnosis. In the two weeks I’d spent at home after the diagnosis, the thought of going back to those classrooms full of nineteen-year-old strangers filled me with such dread that I considered leaving my job altogether.

I’m an English professor — the whole of my job involves doing things with words. But words had turned on me. They were big, scary, medical terms, or ineluctable life sentences like “invariably”; they were language, a reminder of what Claire would never have; or they were just absent — the core of inarticulateness inside of me, my helplessness, my inability to turn my grief and fear into a narrative with a happy ending. My newly troubled relationship with language took on a distressing physical feature: almost every time I spoke to someone about Claire I would begin coughing; I coughed so hard that I actually bruised my ribs. I blamed it on a cold, an otherwise symptomless cold. But I think even then I knew that there was nothing viral troubling me — I was simply choking on words.

So the idea of coming back to work, to a place where I would have to do things with words again, these words that had turned on me in such a spectacular way, was terrifying. Colleagues were supportive, reminding me that work can sometimes be a kind of salvation. Maybe so, I remember thinking, maybe the temporary balm of forgetfulness that will come from just doing my work will save me from suffocating inside the cocoon of grief I’d built around me.

I did come back, and on the day I returned, one of my colleagues took me aside and said that he thought that it was wonderful that I had come back, not just because it showed some courage, but also because my relationship with language, with the literature and the literary theory I was teaching, was going to change, and that the change would be very exciting. I’m sure I couldn’t then even imagine what he meant, but I was struck by what he had said. Looking back now, I realize that a great deal of what struck me was just the notion of variability that he had introduced back into my life. But he also reminded me that one of the primary relationships in my life is with language, and that coming back to work might not only be a diversion for me, but might open the door to something like healing. I might stop choking on my words.

It took a long time, but I did reinvent my relationship to language. And my colleague was right, it came about through renewed encounters with language in the classroom. In the semester after Claire’s diagnosis, I was teaching — for the fifth time in my academic career — a course called “The Bible as Literature.” Despite my relative experience with the text, I was struck anew by the creation stories in Genesis. There are two: the first is an ordered, neat version of a kind of creation by separation: darkness from light, dry land from the waters, beasts from man (Genesis 1 - 2:4). The account is perfectly balanced stylistically and perfectly, it seems, complete. The author of this account, the Priestly Scribe, or just “P,” narrates a story that is without ambivalence: God divides and the division is good.

The second account, written by the Jahwist Scribe, or “J,” and following without any transition on the heels of the first, is the one that most of us know but often mistakenly conflate with the first story. In this version of creation, Eve is created from Adam’s side; is tempted by a serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge; generously shares the leftovers with Adam and is exiled with her husband from Eden (Genesis 2:4 - 3:24).

In gaining access to knowledge, an act I had previously understood as providing the conditions for human experience and thus the rest of the story, Adam and Eve had also lost something — innocence, safety, intimacy with God. I now understood that it was loss that made the story possible. J knew what I was learning to tell: loss and separation are the conditions of human life; they are also the conditions of life stories. Together, P’s and J’s creation stories, welded together as they are in Genesis, make that point even clearer. Shortly after my reencounter with Genesis, I read Karen Armstrong’s (then) new book, In The Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis. In it I found a succinct summary of my own thinking about these two stories: “In the first chapter of Genesis…separation was seen as positive and redemptive. It was a source of blessing and life. But once we have entered J’s story, we find that separation could also entail irretrievable loss”.

My own suffering was bearing this out completely: Claire’s life was, to me and to many others, a “source of blessing and life.” Even in the darkest moments of my grieving, I knew that this beloved little person, a person who was never going to be able to speak for herself, had nonetheless created love in places where there previously had been none. But the fact of her life was also, at exactly the same time, a separation — from my previous hopes for my family, from my sense of the safety of my life story, from my sense of who God was — that could not be mended. Genesis taught me that this is the condition of “story,” though perhaps not conventional American stories.

And then there was Job — a familiar book that I felt like I was meeting for the first time. Getting ready to teach it that fall, I read a line that might have been my own: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.” The reiterative structure of the line reminded me of how important it was to talk, even if all I could do was repeat myself. Job says: “Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Anyone who has read the Book of Job knows that Job doesn’t really have anything to say — but that doesn’t stop him from trying to form a narrative out of the unthinkable. Of course, Job eventually gets all his stuff back. All we have as readers of Job — as sufferers ourselves — is language; but I think I started to see the glimmer of a redemptive possibility in that. If I had lost my ability to tell my own story, Job reminded me that it was important to at least keep on trying, that there might be the possibility of a new narrative — that I might, metaphorically, get my stuff back — if I learned how to tell.

Claire died at home on June 1, 1998. Her death was neither sudden nor unexpected; yet, the new grief was debilitating, her absence creating a vacuum that felt like it would suck the life out of us altogether. Having learned to live, albeit tenuously, with the grief associated with her life, we were in some ways entirely unprepared for the grief that accompanied her death. The eighteen months of her life, however, had given me time to begin to find my way through our story. So when, six months after Claire’s death, Andrew came home with an application for a grant from an institution with the unadorned name, “Project on Death in America,” I knew I had found my opportunity to try to say what we were learning from Claire about the encounter of life and death.

I applied for a grant to write a book I had been thinking about. The writing of the proposal itself convinced me that, grant or no grant, I needed to write this book. One part of my need came from my growing understanding of the redemptive power of language. I knew that words could not have made Claire healthy, that they could not bring her back now; but I recognized that the struggle to find the words to tell my grief was itself leading me to an understanding and an intense appreciation of the many things Claire had taught me about life, and that was saving me from the bitterness that I knew was always lurking around the corner. I found the process of writing profoundly enriching; in the simplest formulation I suppose, it was a way I could continue to be Claire’s mom.

But also, as I wrote the proposal for the grant, and as I continued to think about the book I was conceiving, I found myself going back to the conversation I had had with my colleague on the day I returned to work in February of 1997. He had said that my life as a literary critic would help me to find my way through the minefield of despair and bitterness and unrelenting sadness that was ahead of me. And I could see now how very right he had been. While Claire was alive, but particularly in the months right after she had died, I had read voraciously, almost as though my life had depended on it: Anne Michaels’ stunning novel Fugitive Pieces, Arundhati Roy’s equal-ly moving The God of Small Things, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the poems of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The books became part of what felt like the cellular structure of my grief. And my connection was not just to the subject matter of the wide variety of things on my bookshelf. Though they were all, in some way, about loss, my relationship with the writing went beyond simple “identification” to a literary critical appreciation of the way the language was working in these powerful pieces of writing. “Sometimes, the closest we get to answering the saddest questions life asks us is to respond in the most beautiful language we can muster,” says writer Lucy Grealy in the blurb she wrote for the back cover of Christopher Noël’s In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing, itself a remarkable rendering of a journey through grief. I appreciated that all of the writers I was leaning on had learned not just what to tell, but how to tell. And my sense of that and my attempt to name it was making a huge difference to my own abilities to cope with inescapable loss.

To put it in the simplest terms, my experience of grief was both personal and intellectual. And that did not feel like a dichotomy; it did not even feel like a stretch. And that was quite a major insight for me. We belong, in America, to a disturbingly anti-intellectual culture, particularly where emotion is concerned. We are brought up to think that it is okay to feel — though not for too long (we are relentlessly trying to bring things to “closure” — a singularly American concept if ever there was one) — but that it is tedious, maybe even suspicious, to “think” about what we are feeling. Emotion, popular American culture teaches us, can only be authentic if it is left largely unarticulated by our intellects. Add to that the almost pathological American refusal to discuss the topic of death, and it is no wonder that it came as such a surprise for me to discover that the relationship between my personal life and my intellectual life, particularly in the encounter with death, was such a rich one. I knew that, however I found my way to my subject matter, the book I needed to write would be one that attempted to display the relationship I had discovered between my mind and my feelings.

The book I proposed, and for which I was, to my utter amazement, awarded a Humanities Fellowship from the Project on Death in America is called “Learning How To Tell.” It begins, appropriately, with my encounter with Genesis, an encounter that taught me something fundamental about how narrative operates: without loss there can be no story. Freud, an astonishingly good writer, even in translation, has since done a great deal to further enlighten my understanding of this; so have Aristotle, and Shakespeare, and George Herbert, and Adrienne Rich, and countless other writers, many of whom I have re-encountered in the last couple of years in my own classrooms, and who have, I would guess, taught me more in those classes than my students were learning.

My point in the book is to describe the ways in which the forward-moving energies of narrative — the form and structure of the stories we tell — are always operating within the shadow of our overweening fear of the ending we don’t, we can’t, understand. And yet our stories depend on their endings, can only be called stories if they do end. In the process of theorizing the claims narrative has on our lives, I tell my own story, which is, itself, a constant struggle to come to terms with an initial loss and an ending I don’t understand but that I nonetheless need to accept if I am to continue with my own story.

If my struggle these last few years has been to find ways to make my own encounter with an unimaginable death mean something, my struggle on paper, strange as it may seem, is actually against my impulse to make my story about that coming to terms coherent. I am acutely aware while I write that it is only in retrospect that I know what is going to happen next and how to deal with it. Only in hindsight do I look like a person who was whole all the way through the experience. As I struggle against my temptation — the temptation of fiction I think — to project the fragments of understanding that occasionally rose up through my grief as something coherent, I find myself in good company with Christopher Noël who, in his own memoir of bereavement, and in an exquisitely ironic moment that I recognize as part of the vestigial bitterness of loss, quotes his deceased fiancé’s own journal: “To write a memoir is, I think, to be seduced by the idea of persistence, of a single identity. What, in me, persists? Who am I always? What was my source?…With the passing of time, with the aging of our conscious selves and the loss of former selves knocking about in the backs of our minds, the image of the grave appears and disappears, a vast, black maw yawning at our feet; the world suddenly looms, is all, and all significance — the past must be examined with a magnifying glass in order to draw every drop of life from it. We all know that writing about life detracts from and alleviates the fear of death. It follows that remembering the past is a kind of salve; memories of childhood (if they’re good) soothe us, and remind us that we have felt; to shape our lives into something coherent is to act, be vital, to remember that we are here, and do exist.”

“What, in me, persists?” And yet, as she herself admits, this woman who is now gone, the idea is part of an elaborate seduction — the seduction of narrative, the seduction of the forward motion of our lives that we want to believe is actually leading us somewhere. That we have been seduced into that thinking becomes most evident when we try to set our lives down on paper. And as an English teacher, the habits of linearity and the demand for written coherence die hard. My students get tired of hearing me ask, over and over again, “What’s the point, where is this essay headed?” Yet when it comes to my own project, and people ask me what the “thesis” is of my book, I have to say rather shamefacedly, that there really is none. There can be none. There is no coherent shape, no traceable outline, in the encounter of life and death, just as there is hardly ever a coherence to lives. To think otherwise would be to miss out on the surprisingly random events that, more than any coherent set of ideas, help us to “remember that we are here, and do exist.”

Anne Lamott says, in Traveling Mercies, her wonderfully quirky spiritual memoir, that her coming to faith “did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another.” “Like lily pads,” she continues, “round and green, these places summoned and then held me while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.” My own itinerant and at times almost unbearably painful journey towards something like wisdom, a journey on which my lily pads have sometimes felt a lot more like cacti, has also been a journey through language, a language fragmented by moments of utter inarticulateness, but a language that has nonetheless persisted. “What, in me, persists?” I can’t answer that question any better than Shakespeare did in Hamlet: “Words, words, words.” VQ

Assistant Professor of English Lisa Schnell has taught at UVM since 1992.