What would you do if the love of your life died unexpectedly in the middle of the night, right in front of you? Despite her panicked efforts to save him, this is exactly what happened to Natasha Sholl when her partner, Rob, died of a heart attack. He was 27.
Found, Wanting traces Sholl's grief in the days following the tragedy, and its life-long reverberations. It examines not only her own experiences of grief, but the social and cultural expectations surrounding the act of grieving.
It's common for writers to parallel their experiences with that of others, or use broad metaphors. For example, in Poor Your Soul, Mira Ptacin intertwines her grief of losing her unborn child with the experiences of her Polish immigrant mother and the bonds that connect her family. Helen MacDonald's H is For Hawk leans on metaphor. The author and falconry expert works through the grief of her father's death by training a goshawk - a notoriously difficult bird - splicing her experiences with the life of English literary giant and amateur austringer, T.H. White.
Natasha Sholl doesn't follow this path. Found, Wanting is intensely self-focused. It's not self-obsessed, but a reflection of the lifelong marks left by the loss of loved ones. People process trauma and loss in different ways. Some reach out to those around them, finding comfort in shared experience. Some embark on ambitious projects or deeply re-evaluate their lives, values and priorities. Some, like Sholl, collapse in on themselves.
Sholl is unflinchingly honest. She doesn't sugarcoat her grief or paint it as some transcendental opportunity for growth. Her grief consumes her. Her grief becomes her. As she moves through a world with Rob no longer in it, she simply exists. Sholl reflects on friendships that fade away under the weight of her grief, on how people perceive those who are grieving, and how those who are grieving perceive themselves. She speaks of survivor's guilt, years of therapy, and the development of a long-term eating disorder. And she speaks of experiencing another loss - her brother - felt no less keenly despite the fact she's done this before. Because that's the thing about grief, it doesn't get easier with each loss. Maybe we just have better coping mechanisms.
Grief makes for an unreliable narrator. As Sholl acknowledges in her author's note: "Trauma distorts the present moment and twists our memories of the past. As a grief memoir, it is accurate only so far as it captures the madness of grief." A recurring theme in writing about grief is the constant "what ifs?. In the face of life and death, we cling to whatever sense of power we can find. We sift through our thoughts and actions for clues, a sign that there was something we could have done differently. Maybe we could have changed things. Reversed the death. This is most evident in Joan Didion's famous work The Year Of Magical Thinking, named after psychiatry's definition of the term: the delusional belief that our thoughts, feelings, or actions may influence specific outcomes in a way that defies the laws of cause and effect.
Grief memoirs, or grief-focused autobiographical writing, is becoming increasingly common. The universality of grief is part of its appeal, but does it also render it bloated and overdone? Even back in 2011, journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders questioned the influx of grief-focused autobiographies. She lamented authors using the dead as "writing meat", and wondered if the subject matter can ever excuse cliché. These are legitimate questions. After all, death happens to everyone, but do we all need to write books about it?
There isn't a clear answer to this, but it does lead to the other facets of grief memoir as a genre: self-therapy and public mourning. There are many studies that show the importance of writing about grief in the healing process. Writing helps us make sense of things. It can balance the chaos of our experiences and emotions with a more grounded understanding of ourselves and our lives. The simple act of making these experiences public can be just as validating as knowing the comfort the work may bring to others.
The flipside, though, is trauma dumping. Grief memoirs should be moving, compelling, thoughtful, and even cathartic; but they should never be gratuitously distressing. Otherwise writers risk wading into the ethically murky waters commonly known as misery porn.
At their best, grief memoirs remind us of what it is to be human. To grieve is to have loved, and there is nothing more universal than that. Reading these works should be a meditation on life in all its messy, painful and confusing glory.
Found, Wanting is this kind of memoir. Sholl is raw and direct, but she is careful with readers. Infused with self-effacing wisdom and poignant, pithy, and sometimes cynical observations, this is an elegant reflection on loss and love.
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