One of the most painful parts of loss and grief is the way it alienates us at the time we most need human understanding. Ask anyone who’s endured a significant loss and she will tell you that it was an isolating experience. It’s not that people don’t make an effort to understand, to help—most of us are good fellow humans when someone we know faces debilitating circumstances—but grief forms its own island, its protective moat, and unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to empathize with any accuracy. Even if you have been there, there’s an incomprehensible difference between loss of parent and loss of spouse; there’s a deep chasm between understanding grief from the distance of experience and living in grief right now. Often, none of us knows what to do or say in the moment. This is when those grieving can find more camaraderie by turning to literature.
The writers on this list range in age from 25 to 75, from a woman who published the first piece she ever submitted, to a woman who in the last year experienced the joy of her first acceptance letter. The grief chronicled by these writers ranges from loss of a sibling to loss of a parent to loss of a spouse; from expected losses to sudden accidental ones; from suicide of a parent, to being suicidal throughout one’s teenage years; from the overarching ache we feel every time there’s a mass shooting to the loss of self at the hands of an abuser, to finally, the most unthinkable—loss of a child. The list below is alphabetical by last name; there’s no one writer on the list more worthy than another. Whether you are steeped in grief as you read this, know the terrain of grief well, or have never yet known such losses, read these essays and eulogies and memoirs. When you are immersed in a loss, these writers will bring you camaraderie and comfort, a knowing. They’ve been to your island. They know how lonely and inhospitable that island is. And they’re proof that we survive.
1. Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander’s “Lottery Tickets” is a tale of loss that is, first and foremost, a love story. By unspooling the story from numerous possible beginnings, Alexander gives us the sweet, vibrant life of her beloved husband, Ficre, even as her reason for telling us all this is his untimely death. This story begins here, or here, or maybe here.
After Ficre’s “big heart burst,” it’s as though his absence from the physical world gets directly transferred to the sons he left behind, who “sprout like beanstalks toward the sky,” one of them outgrowing his shoes seemingly overnight. “His growing seems avid, fevered. It feels like the insistent force of life itself.”
That insistent force of life pulses throughout this essay, from the repeated visits of a hungry hawk to the family’s oak tree, to the urgency behind a last minute purchase of 100 lottery tickets, to the impossible sadness of children rating their grief on a scale of one to ten. “I was a ten in sadness when I was crying, Mommy, but now I’m a six.”
Having published her essay in The New Yorker, Alexander has had ample exposure. But when I think of what I’ve read on this topic, her essay stands out as the most potent, the most gut-kicking, and therefore warranted mention.
2. Beth Alvarado
First, I recommend reading Beth Alvarado’s memoir, Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, so you can get to know her and her husband, who married when Beth was only nineteen. She’s subsumed into Fernando’s Mexican American family, where twelve people share the small tract home on the southside of Tucson. Alvarado gives us this tapestry of tales in a series of drenched snapshots—dreamlike—the way we might imagine the visual of life flashing before our eyes when we die. The result is a poetic, hypnotic page-turner, laced with themes of addiction, class, ethnicity, prejudice, familial obligation, allegiance and loss.
Once you’ve fallen for Beth and Fernando, read the essay “Stars and Moons and Comets,” about Fernando’s death.
I couldn’t remember much from the recent past, and I couldn’t imagine the future… Blessed was the anesthesia of disbelief — and of wine, and of his leftover Oxycodone, and of the Valium the doctor had given me so I could sleep.
Unbearably beautiful. Unbearably sad.
3. Susan DeFreitas
Susan DeFreitas has published stories, essays and poems, and has a debut novel, Hot Season, coming out in November. I’ve been struck by DeFreitas’s attempts to make sense of our cultural culpability in the face of the current epidemic of senseless shootings. While we cannot know the agony felt by the family members who lost loved ones in any of the horrific mass shootings, we may still feel tremendous sadness that this hatred and violence and loss is part of our shared human landscape. It’s the job of writers to comment on such things, and DeFreitas owns that responsibility. After nine African Americans in South Carolina were murdered inside their own church, during a Bible study, DeFreitas had to do something. She researched each life lost, and wrote a daily tribute poem on her blog, memorializing each beautiful person whose life ended that day. DeFreitas addresses a collective, cultural grief in these nine tributes, published originally on her website, and reposted here.
4. Erika DeLeo
Erika DeLeo writes about the loss of her teenage years, most of which she spent in mental hospitals. After a suicide attempt at age 13, DeLeo begins a long-term relationship with mental health care, spending the four years she would’ve been in high school on the adolescent wards of various psychiatric hospitals. Her memoir gives us a glimpse into this world and its inadequacies.
When someone is considered out of control or unsafe, a team somewhat like mall security is called to regain control of the person. These bulky, rote men occupy a part of the building unknown to us, and can arrive onsite within seconds.
As the narrator is thrown onto the bed where she will be restrained, DeLeo writes: “I hit the bed like a car accident: that moment when you become acutely aware of your velocity in the world, and how startling it is to be stopped.” DeLeo may not have intended to write about grief, but that line about velocity is one of the more accurate descriptions of loss I’ve ever read.
5. Margaret Diehl
In Margaret Diehl’s brilliant and beautiful essay, “And Then the Letting Go,” in Alligator Juniper (2016), we know from the opening paragraph that the narrator will tell it like it is, not hold back. She gives us humor and sarcasm along with stark honesty.
Being the child of a suicide means learning early that it’s okay to give up. To give up entirely, without consequence, whenever you want to. When I was eight or nine, my father bought one of those joke signs from a highway rest stop: If at first you don’t succeed, to hell with it. I was new to subversive humor and it stuck with me. Then, very early one June morning, after a night of drinking, he ended his life, making sure I wouldn’t forget the lesson.
My father’s death was not the end of it. My adolescence was littered with suicides.
This is no exaggeration. Diehl’s inventory of suicides astounds.
Diehl says, “Suicide offers a glimpse into the innermost chamber of a person, the place where the self endures alone.” Sounds not unlike the territory of grief.
6. Vanessa Martir
My introduction to the amazing Vanessa Martir came when WordPress featured one of her posts several years ago; I’ve been following her blog ever since. From the grief of molestation to an abusive relationship, to the loss of a beloved brother, to the ongoing experience of being “unmothered,” Martir has intimate knowledge of so many kinds of grief. Never sentimental, never self-pitying, Martir writes about the fierceness necessary to balance out abundant and inevitable sadness, and she writes about the joy of mothering her daughter, while acknowledging the lack of her own mother in her life.
For a taste of her range as a writer, go to her blog, and start with these four essays: “Unmothered on this Mother’s Day,” “Where the Mind Goes When the Heart Aches,” “How We Rationalize the Privacies We Invade,” and “When the Heart Breaks.”
You can find more of her nonfiction in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal, As/Us Journal, Thought Catalog and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle. And look for her upcoming book-length memoir, Relentless.
7. Linda I. Meyers
While Linda I. Meyers has published in professional journals (she’s a psychologist), “The Spring Line,” in Post Road Magazine, is her first literary publication. The essay is a gorgeous braiding of two experiences: the loss of a spouse and an accidental fall that results in surgeries to repair significant damage to her face.
The narrator moves in and out of consciousness:
…I wonder if I have hallucinated all of it. Maybe I didn’t fall? Maybe I just dreamt I fell. Maybe I fell and I’m dead. Is this smooth and purple floating place where we go when we die? This blue moon? I reach up and feel the bandages on my face. The nurse comes in.
“Don’t touch your face,” she says. “Don’t smile and try not to sneeze.”
I admire the way Meyers allows one experience to inform the other, one fear to be subsumed by the next, all culminating in a symbolic search for a missing glove that leads to the story’s exquisite and hopeful ending. Meyers has another essay in Alligator Juniper (2016), and is finishing a book-length memoir, The Tell.
8. Kelly Sundberg
Like the work of Martir, just about anything Kelly Sundberg writes includes some navigation of grief, just given the topography of her past. After leaving an abusive marriage several years ago, Sundberg published an essay in Guernica that went viral— “It Will Look Like a Sunset.” (I wrote about it here.)
In “The Sharp Point in the Middle,” Sundberg opens with this:
I am familiar with the geography of a bruise. The borders shift. The color stains bright, then fades. Fingerprints like points on a map.
A bruise stretched across the The Corner Store cashier’s cheek and jaw. It was nearly black in the middle, blossoming into a velvety purple near the cheekbone and lips. A fairly recent bruise. Any older, and yellow would have circled it like the glow of a solar system.
What Sundberg has mastered is the cutting up and pasting back together of the stories she’s decided to tell, side-by-side. Sundberg’s essays often traverse two or more narratives, which together build a singular momentum.
See the more recently published “Poppies” for another example of Sundberg’s candor, depth and style.
9. Anna Whiston-Donaldson
This was the broken woman who had told her kids to go ahead and play in the rain. Who had warned her kids about lightning and salmonella and sexual abuse and pornography and STDs and bullying and collapsing tunnels of sand and snow, but who had never given the creek one single thought.
The horror, the regret and the disbelief are all palpable in this blog post—it’s any parent’s worst nightmare. She went on to write the memoir Rare Bird, about her son lost in a creek-turned-raging-river, about her family having to go on without him. The memoir contains the anguish you’d expect, but also surprisingly dishes up hope, faith and inspiration.
Read “The Bridge: One Terrible Night” before you read the memoir. It will give you a more raw sense of the grief that flattened this woman, making it that much more admirable and courageous that she ventured out of that black hole to share her experience with us.