"Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer."
-- A Grief Observed, CS Lewis, 1961.
"Will nothing persuade us that they are gone?" CS Lewis keened after the loss of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, in the pseudonymously published A Grief Observed.
Lewis's loss is especially poignant. Not because he lost a life partner. Quite the contrary. He met and married "H." in his late fifties. As with Christianity, Lewis was a late convert to love.
They married in 1956. Helen died in 1960 of the bone cancer she already had when they met. Lewis himself died in 1963, barely 65 years old. "Oh, God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell, if it's now doomed to crawl back -- to be sucked back -- into it?"
Lewis's memoir is a rare Hopkins-like outpouring in the modern world, at least in the West. Rare in its intensity -- god is, variously, a vivisector, a "Cosmic Sadist" and a "spiteful imbecile" -- but rare, too, that it exists at all in a world where death has been taken out of the home and where mourning has become (in anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer's words) a morbid self-indulgence.
Yet grief -- in art at least -- is all around us: big screen and small, fiction and non-fiction, poetry, drama... you name it.
More surprisingly, perhaps, it's doing more than just striking a chord. The best examples of works that mine this rich seam are both popular and critical successes. In the 21st century, grief is good.
60 year-old Irish author John Banville is the current literary master of mourning. Though he is best known for his fictional biographies of scientists, spies and killers, grief is the one theme that keeps dragging him back. His latest novel, The Sea, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, forensically examines the impact of grief on identity. For the narrator, reality is a distant and evanescent echo of staunch memory instead of the reverse.
In Banville's earlier novel Eclipse, one of the great novels of the last hundred years, Banville's narrator, apparently, is in mourning for his life. But this is not some Chekhovian ennui. In a terrible, fatal twist, the mourning becomes justified.
Even in Australia, grief and mourning are players. Think of Tony Ayres's chain-rattling 2002 film Walking On Water and the unexpected (if well-deserved) recent success of Look Both Ways.
Think of the deeply affecting television drama Love My Way and Trisha Broadbridge's clear-eyed account of losing her footballer husband -- eight days after their marriage -- in the Boxing Day tsunami, Beyond The Wave.
Joan Didion's recent memoir about the grave illness of her daughter and the sudden death of her husband has sold an amazing 200,000 copies in hardback in its first two months. (Bizarrely, Didion has been asked if she will adapt the her story for Broadway. English playwright David Hare, reportedly, has signed on to direct.)
Didion's story begins five days after Christmas, 2003. Five days after her daughter Quintana was hospitalised with flu-like symptoms which had exploded into pneumonia and life-threatening septic shock.
Home after visiting Quintana in the intensive care unit at New York City's Beth Israel North hospital, she and her husband of almost 40 years, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, decided to stay in. They built a fire and made some dinner. There, at the table, Dunne slumped, dead of a massive heart attack.
There begins Didion's year of "magical thinking." It's not the usual blame game -- "if only I had done/said/thought/decided..." -- Didion is informed enough, and logical enough, to know that nothing short of a fully-equipped crash cart and immediate intra-venous medication could have kept her man alive for "more than one more day."
But she can't bring herself to give away his shoes, he might need them. She entertains fantasies that would not have been out of place, she says, at an Irish wake. She can't let him go.
With her rolling, precise, commaless sentences, Didion presents well... as they say. Brilliantly. Lucidly. But her compelling story has its blindspots. It seems incredible that a New Yorker post-9/11 could accept, without question, that "one no longer has the right to say [the whole world is empty for you] aloud." That "dwelling on death" and public displays of mourning are indulgences to be avoided; equivalent to wallowing in self-pity.
True, her steely and disciplined gaze and her utterly controlled writing makes this appalling tale something that can be endured, even watched like a richly metaphoric European film with its burning buses outside churches and air-ambulances in cornfields. And one can't help but admire the way Didion has not tried to con her readers any more than she could con herself.
It is no consolation to her whatsoever that her ageing husband died without agony or protracted illness. It is no consolation that their magic circle lasted as long as it did; that they spent almost every available hour of every available day together... editing and commenting upon each others works, living the Hollywood and Manhattan high life, acting -- and thriving -- on inspiration and whim. For forty whole years.
Indeed, it is these very fractures -- these most human of flaws -- that makes Didion's skewed self-analysis so impressive and ennobling.
Each of us deals with grief uniquely. But rather than isolating us, that realisation allows us -- and should encourage us -- to be open to those infinite variations. To be accepting of and sensitive to different needs.
The first step is to acknowledge that death isn't something that "happens to other people."
The Year of Magical Thinking is published by 4th Estate.
Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Year of Magical Thinking (starring Robyn Nevin and directed by Cate Blanchett) runs from March 25 to May 4, 2008.
This piece was published in the December 17-18, 2005 edition of the Australian Financial Review.