Getting Through Grief with Books
It is nearly two months since my mother died the day after my birthday. Many weeks since I flew to her funeral. Like so many who experience loss, it’s in the minutiae that I miss her—thinking I will call to ask about a recipe and realizing I can’t. Seeing her handwriting on an old card and knowing that hand will write no more new words. Seeing a tea towel she embroidered, or her pie board, or a spill of photos I’d forgotten in my suitcase…Those little things that remind me that life as I knew it is utterly gone.
What is hardest to reconcile, I think, is the difference between how I knew her as opposed to how others did, and how all that squares with my own experiences as a mother of young children. We all have the dubious distinction of being close enough to our parents that we’ve seen them at their worst and their best. We see them in intimate ways no one else ever will. And that, I think, is sometimes hardest. “She was so special.” “She had the best laugh.” “She made the best cake I’ve ever tasted.” All of that is true.
And yet, there is more. More that is unique to my experience of her as a mother. More perhaps that’s unfair to share in some ways. What we most want for our legacy, I suppose, is to be held close, to be cherished, to be believed. This kind of grace is not one I’ve always received, but I am learning to give it, nonetheless.
My mother had been unwell for a long time, so her death wasn’t a surprise. What I will take from her going is the love of beautiful things, her determination in the face of so many health issues, the skills she taught me—home canning, embroidery, baking, a love of stories. The rest I will try to let go of as peacefully as I can.
Over the past two months, one thing I have returned to (a thing I learned at the death of my father) was to anchor my grief in joy where I could find it. I turned to my oldest comfort—books. And they did not betray me.
C.S.E. Cooney’s Desdemona and the Deep filled me with delight. I sat in airports wanting to declaim aloud and let the words drip from my tongue, but I managed somehow to swallow all that thallium flame and scorch myself with joy all the way down. And such compassion as she has for all her characters…Well done, beautiful goblin scribe! Well done, I say!
I continued through Fonda Lee’s Jade City—heartened and distracted by the twisting family dynamics, and the loss of one character I felt so deeply.
Underland by Robert MacFarlane was exceptionally appropriate nonfiction about what we hide beneath the earth and what waits there for us, the somber beauty of how we treat our dead. Marvelously written and a wonderful inspiration for the current project.
These three books were my signposts along the way to a new and different life. There is an odd comfort in having been through this once before and knowing that everything will, in fact, be OK. And there is a strange freedom in knowing my childhood is truly gone forever, that there is nothing left to hide and nothing left to mourn. May my mother rest in peace.