‘Give sorrow words,” Shakespeare instructed us, since “the grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.”
This is, of course, just a fancy way of saying it’s okay to talk about being sad, especially when the person you love most in the world has died. We say this and yet we persist in having no reasonable language for grief or the grief-stricken among us. We blunder and we stammer and we use polite euphemisms like “passed” and “lost” in the hope of dulling the razor-sharp truth.
Mostly we fail to provide comfort, for the simple reason that, when it comes to death, most of us just don’t know what to say. As Julian Barnes observes in The Loss of Depth, the best (and last) essay in his newly published collection, Levels of Life, when someone you love dies, your surviving friends usually behave in one of two equally unsatisfactory ways: Either they dispense bromides or they say nothing at all.
Barnes should know. He lost his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, just a month after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008. The loss left him feeling as though he’d been “dropped from a height of several feet, conscious all the time, having landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.”
Given this, he is disconcerted to find that after his wife’s death, he looks quite normal from the outside. Worse still, his friends mostly don’t want to talk about it – or her. “The Silent Ones,” he writes “will be feeling grief of their own, and perhaps their own anger, which may be aimed at us – at me. They might be wanting to say: ‘Your grief is an embarrassment. We’re just waiting for it to pass. And by the way, you’re less interesting without her.’ (This is true.)”
Barnes is certainly not the first great writer of our time to turn the full force of his grief-stricken intelligence and attention to the subject of mourning. In recent years, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates – two of America’s most brilliant literary women – have produced important works on the subject. Barnes’s effort is equally brilliant but utterly distinct.
For one thing, it is far more emotional and violent in both its sentiment and imagery. He talks openly of suicide (“I knew soon enough my preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.”) but eventually dismisses the idea since he has become the keeper of his wife’s memory. If he died, so would she – again.
One of our last unspoken cultural taboos is for widowers like Barnes (successful, accolade-laden, of a certain age) to grieve openly and publicly. As a society, we expect them to suck it up – go back to their book-lined studies, drink a snifter or two of brandy, take a long bracing walk, and then emerge calm and subdued, the same men they were before, only with mismatched socks. The private anguish of powerful men scares us, I think, because we expect them to be perennially in control – of themselves and other people. In grief, of course (and in some ways, quite mercifully), they are not.
Barnes is not the only man to break this taboo of late. British advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi, who lost his wife, the author and philanthropist Josephine Hart, to cancer in 2011 has spoken of the “incomparable nightmare” of his grief. He told the press late last year that he still sets a place at the table for her at mealtimes and behaves as if she were there, admitting, “I have thought that this is close to madness.” Last year, he launched a poetry app in her honour, which consists of classics of English verse read by famous actors, writers and rock stars.
Noam Chomsky, that great American political thinker, now in his 80s, lost his wife, Carol, in 2008. He talks of her constantly in interviews – when he isn’t expounding on the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy. He once told an interviewer that it doesn’t make sense for women to die before the men in their lives, “because women manage so much better, they talk and support each other. My oldest and closest friend is in the office next door to me; we haven’t once talked about Carol.”
After centuries of thoughtful men coping with grief so quietly, it seems the widower’s time has come. Barnes’s essay, so powerful and fearless in its exploration of what it’s like to love and then lose a person who is, as he puts it “the heart of my life; the life of my heart,” will be a balm for survivors everywhere.
And for silently grief-stricken husbands, perhaps it will prompt them to talk. As Shakespeare said, and women have known for ages: It helps ease the pain.