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Out Of The Woods

Navigating loss through reading


What is the story of one’s grief? How can one express this fluctuating emotional landscape through words, or find a sense of understanding?

My interest in this topic stems from a series of personal losses, which drew me to write a doctorate concerning grief narratives. To find a mirror in literature is of great comfort. My own stories have never been directly mapped in a single author’s account or creation because each grief and griever are individual. However, through reading a mixture of personal and fictional stories, I’ve assembled a literary jigsaw of helpful insights into my own grieving process.

Douglas Davies, the author of Death, Ritual and Belief (Bloomsbury, 2017), draws on various cultures to describe the social role of the bereaved; how one may be noted as a member of society who has accomplished this ‘rite of passage’, with a consequent change in social status. There is an upward trajectory implicit in this description, of achievement, and even reward. My own experience tells me otherwise — that the process begins not with ascent, but with descent. The first suggestions are physical: a head hung in sorrow, feeling ‘down’, bearing a heavy heart.

Reading Pamela Gillilan’s poems from All-Steel Traveller (Bloodaxe, 1994) was my first encounter with a form into which I could pour my own version of sorrow. Reflecting on the death of her husband, Gillilan presents a series of poems titled ‘When You Died’, ‘Two Years’, ‘Four Years’ and ‘Five Years’. These titles reassured me that my grief was not unusual in lasting more than a few months, as described by Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works: ‘grief: it’s impervious to control. It does things in its own time, and that’s usually much longer than anyone wants’. In 2003, I lost my brother, aged thirty-four, to suicide and Gillilan gave me the permission to consider this sadness creatively over years, not months, and to acknowledge its changing nature against concrete metaphors and images from the real world, such as: ‘doors banged shut’ and ‘a hair of his in a comb’.

Meanwhile, Melvyn Bragg’s Remember Me (Sceptre, 2008) has scenes that touched on two private aspects of my own grief: one is a recurring dream that the character Joe experiences; the other describes the night that Joe’s wife Natasha takes her own life. Joe’s dream contains the hallmark of responsibility: ‘In the field beside the dam a girl was buried, a girl he had somehow murdered, a girl he recognised’. This recurring dream begins in Joe’s adolescence (long before he meets Natasha) and persists alongside his adult writing life. I had a similar recurring dream in which my brother and I have murdered someone in self-defence, accompanied by the dreadful feeling (like Joe) that ‘one day they would arrive and dig her up’. I was struck by the similarity between this fictional description and my own experience; it allowed me to give voice in poetry to this strange, almost portentous dream that would otherwise have remained hidden. Although not comfortable, this was a way of connecting with my inability to save my brother’s life.

This links to Bragg’s description of the night of Natasha’s suicide and the mistaken belief that there will be more time in which to connect with a loved one. Joe chooses to see Natasha ‘tomorrow’, and yet: ‘He should have gone. For the rest of his life he should have gone’. For Joe, the act of averting Natasha’s death will always be left undone. In both these examples, there is a mysterious temporal element: the dream has predicted a sense of accountability for a death long before it occurs, and how the prevention of a tragedy will forever remain an impossibility.

In Max Porter’s hybrid novella, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, grief is anthropomorphised into the character of Crow. Crow is manipulative, cruel, and takes up residence in a London household where an unnamed wife and mother has died in a domestic accident. ‘She banged her head’, Crow describes baldly to Dad, echoing what Joan Didion writes about her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking (Harper Perennial, 2006): ‘Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant’. Dad remarks on the lack of drama surrounding his wife’s death; the drama is left to Crow, who embodies many of the phenomena of grief, such as impersonating the mother and duping the Boys into letting him into the house. Crow impersonating the mother highlights the disappointment that there can be no return to the time prior to her death, as Hilary Mantel describes in her own reflections on loss:

Your former life still seems to exist, but you can’t get back to it; there is a glimpse in dreams of those peacock lawns and fountains, but you’re fenced out, and each morning you wake up to the loss over again.

Likewise, Crow is a persistent and uncomfortable presence in Max Porter’s book, until one day Dad notices, after a flurry of domestic activity: ‘I realised, of course, that Crow was gone’.

Crow’s departure reminds me of the relief in moments where grief is absent, but which also carries with it the depth of lessons learned and the fear of losing a connection with lost loved ones, evoking ‘continuing bonds’ with the deceased which are often represented in literature through descent narratives, like Orpheus and Eurydice.

After my brother’s death, I was drawn to reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in which Dante is guided down through the many circles of hell by Virgil. Perhaps I was attracted by the iconic first lines that I somehow already knew. The words, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, echo how the narrative of my imagined future had been shattered and how the terror of an unknown path lay ahead:

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
   I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
   Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ay me! How hard to speak of it – that rude
   And rough and stubborn forest the mere breath
   Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

I found the terza rima rhyme form hypnotic, drawing me deeper into the Inferno and Dante’s encounters with the recognisable dead. The horrific images of the fate of those who had rejected a spiritual path and turned to violence or deception, are made bearable by the rhythm of Sayers’ translated pentameters. The book describes a journey from which Dante is unsure he will safely return, and this felt familiar to me in the descent of my grief. I was on a similarly frightening voyage and found myself employing the terza rima form for a character in one of my own books; it was a good container for strong, yet restricted feelings. It seemed that the right form presented an opening or possibility for expression, such as when I encountered Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers.

When I was twelve years old, my mother told me that I was not her child and later my father told me that he was not my parent either. This occurred in the 1980s, and neither formally adopted, nor part of a nuclear family, for many years I was unable to name or find terminology for this new, obscure no-man’s-land; it was a secret, and I was silent. My brothers had already left home and took other enigmas with them (which we would later share). In The Adoption Papers, Kay’s use of different fonts for the voices of the daughter, adoptive mother and birth mother and the creative leaps of faith in poetry to speak from their perspectives made it possible for me to follow suit; an exercise by which I found compassion where there had been anger and injury; understanding, where there had been confusion.

Reading is not a panacea for loss; it has, however, offered a way to find company on lonely grief journeys, and has inspired me to express myself verbally, or in literary form, so that I don’t feel so estranged in a world of dominant narratives that exclude suffering. As Dante survives his experience in the underworld to tell the tale, I have, as Douglas Davies implies, slowly risen through this rite of passage to be recognised as someone who has navigated loss and found their way out of the ‘dark wood’.

Claire Williamson is a poet and writing mentor, with competition credits including The Bridport prize and Neil Gunn awards. Her doctorate in Creative and Critical writing at Cardiff University focuses on narrative responses to grief. Her latest poetry collection is Visiting the Minotaur (Seren, 2018).

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