Literature as a Salve for Grief: Books that Healed my Broken Heart

My father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, I was devastated. It’s impossible to describe a loved one to others–to capture the special qualities that make their absence so profoundly felt–so all I’ll say about my father is that he epitomized that old saying: Any man can be a father, but it takes a special man to be a daddy. My dad was a very special man.

After his death, the profound weight of grief settled on my shoulders and wrapped around my spine, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so unexpectedly and early in his life. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like play-acting sometimes, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. I’d never known a life without my father.

Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, in fact, is exactly how I felt). Instead, a trip to my local library proved the proverbial window that opens when a door closes. Ultimately, three authors guided me through and out of my grief. I’m sharing them below, in hopes that they might offer similar comfort to you in a time of great struggle.

  1. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

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In my writing career I think it is well-established that I am an adoring fan of P.D. James’s entire catalogue. What may not be as well known is when my affinity for her work began.  My library has a stack of shelves at its entrance that features new books and recommendations from its resident librarians. In the first month or two after losing my father, I stumbled into the library in search of some piece of mind between work and bus stop duty for my children. The cover of this book caught the corner of my eye as I rushed past: Pemberley! Scarves! My heart gave an encouraging flutter. Who is this P.D. James?

I took the book home and devoured it in two days. For the first time since losing my dad, I felt fully distracted from my grief while reading it. James’s prose and her intricate plotting, along with the setting of the story in the familiar and beloved environs of Austen’s Pemberley, allowed the hole in my heart to, though not be filled, at least be swaddled for a time from the crushing pulse of life moving on without my father. I quickly went on to the read James’s other mysteries, including her stand alone novels and her series featuring Det. Adam Dalgliesh. Discovering that she was widowed early in her life and began writing as a relatively young single mother only further confirmed the power of her writing over my grief: She had lost and yet survived. She had come through and so would I.

2. My Life from Scratch by Gesine Bullock-Prado

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Gesine’s memoir of losing her mother, leaving Hollywood, and moving to Vermont to start her own bakery offers a very different style from James–one that is informal, humorous, and self-deprecating at times–but which is equally perceptive and razor-sharp in its prose. This memoir describes several phases in Gesine’s life, but the universal thread tying them all together is her love for her mother and her struggle to come to terms with her death. For Gesine, baking became an outlet for her mourning, and for each chapter of her book  she offers tried and true recipes from her eponymous bakery (now shuttered in order for Gesine to focus on writing her exquisite cookbooks). After I finished the book, it remained in my kitchen (and resides there to this day) as I tried out each and every recipe from the book. Sinking my fingers into a mixture of flour, sugar, and butter as I knead together pie crust, or sift flour and salt together in preparation for a cake, I entirely understand the healing powers of baking. In a world where events often are inexplicable, the certainty that you will have a tender cake after whipping butter and sugar until 3x its original size is something to hold onto.

  3. The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

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I discovered The Report by chance walking through the displays at my local book store and picked it up because of the intriguing cover.  On the surface, it might seem strange to find comfort from a writer whose self-proclaimed interests lie separate from “happy” fiction, but digging deeper it would hopefully become obvious how Kane’s capacity for bringing witness to the small frailties of life, and how one can reconcile with them, would bring solace to any reader, especially one at the loose ends of grief. The Report, set in the bomb shelters of WWII London, chronicles a tragic series of events, and the subsequent choices made by their participants, that forces the reader to question whether actions can be right without being moral. Kane is a highly calibrated craftsman of words (reminiscent of Amy Hempel) and I continue to find great satisfaction in her short stories, published in her collection This Close. By examining the dark selfishness in all of us, she also reveals our shared humanity as we struggle to overcome it.

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Write On: The Importance of Being Ernest

Today I will be picking the brain of my friend and colleague, Francis Sparks, author of the forthcoming hard-boiled and page-turning detective novel, Made Safe (I was a lucky beta-reader for Francis–I know, I’m lucky), and resident Hemingway expert. Given my love for Papa, I was thrilled that Francis agreed to let me into his world of concision, deep-water fishing, and real-ness.

Portrait of the artist as a young man. . .

1. First off, what draws you into Hemingway’s writing and life?

 

There are many things that draw me to Hemingway. The first time I really read Hemingway I was working in the library at college. I stumbled across his section of books and started reading The Sun Also Rises. Clean declarative prose. Interesting and complex relationships. Action. I think effective writers have the ability to bust open their guts and show everyone what is making them hurt and he was able to do that over and over.

2. What’s your knock-down, drag-out, most favorite line Hemingway ever wrote.

 

That is a tough one. I think I’m in awe with the way he ends his books. The Sun Also Rises has a great line toward the end.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

SPOILERS ON A 100 YEAR OLD BOOK: It is one line that I remember and think about every once in awhile. The set up to this line and the line itself I think are Ernest Hemingway explaining his view of the damaged psyche of his generation. The men and women having endured WWI and its atrocities are damaged either physically or emotionally or both. The speaker in this line is Jake Barnes a WWI veteran who was injured during that terrible war leaving him eviscerated. The entire narrative of the book follows the ‘Lost Generation’ exploits of Brett as she tries on and discards one male suitor after another all with Jake at her side and sometimes facilitating her engagements with the other men. Jake and Brett both think they are perfect for each other but have this physical limit between them due to Jake’s war injury. Would they be together if not for the war? I don’t think so. There are Lost Generation type of things we could talk about and the expat culture but in the end, I think Brett likes Jake because he’s safe. He’ll never ask of her too much. I think possibly Jake really does love her but maybe not. Maybe he is using her just as much to fulfill his masculine shortcomings. Either way at the end I think Jake has come to terms to some degree with his life and we have caught him at a sad reflective moment where he is ready to move on. Damn Hemingway and all of his great one-liners! I love him to death.

3. Which book of his did you like least, and why?

 

The book I liked least of all of Hemingway’s works would probably be A Farewell To Arms now that you mention it. It is one that I have not re-read. I am sure I should go back and give it another chance.

4. Which book of his did you like most, and why?

 

This is a tough one but I think I always say The Sun Also Rises. It is just a fantastic work. A close second would be For Whom The Bell Tolls and who could forget The Old Man and the Sea? The Sun Also Rises is the one for me because of the way Hemingway was able to brilliantly weave the symbolism of the pamplona bull fights and running of the bulls and all the many other metaphors into his story telling about damaged people left over from WWI. Here is a great article I just read about the origins of the book.

5. For all of our readers who perhaps despised having to read A Farewell to Arms in high school, convince them why they should go back and try Hemingway again.

 

The Old Man and the Sea was 27,000 words and won a Pulitzer. If you find yourself struggling to elicit interest in your 200,000-word manuscript, I suggest reading Hemingway. He was a master of economical word use. If you find yourself struggling to write dialogue that sounds authentic, read Hemingway. He is roundly regarded as the master of dialogue. Those are purely suggestions for writers looking to improve their craft — for the reader looking to try Hemingway again I would suggest The Old Man and the Sea which I mentioned is shorter and less of a commitment or any of his short stories which he was also a master of (one of those guys). One last recommendation — those of you who have an interest in absinthe should read For Whom The Bell Tolls. It has one of the most complete descriptions of the complex and ritualized preparation of that drink.

Kind of makes you hate your iPad, huh?

6. Hemingway struggled with many personal demons. What do you think he found in Cuba and the Keys that he didn’t find anywhere else in the world? Or perhaps, he didn’t even find what he was searching for there?

 

I think Hemingway was always searching out untouched nature. He has been quoted as saying he was proud he had never lived in New York which I think is an illuminating statement. I think maybe Cuba and the Keys reminded him sometimes of his earlier days in Spain. He always had a fondness for Spain. I can’t know if he found what he was looking for but I like to think that he was wise enough to know that ‘it’ isn’t something that you find. I think he used nature and the outdoors as a tool to beat back the demons he had. Some days were better than others.

7. Do you see any connection between his struggle to represent truth in his writing with his own struggles with mental illness and substance use?

 

I’ve read stories that Hemingway would be out drinking all night but would rise early the next morning and immediately start writing. That might be a myth but I think that writing was the one constant in his life. If not for writing I think he might have tried to be a fisherman but I don’t think he would have lasted long. Why did he kill himself? I think he had a morbid fascination with it after his own father’s suicide. I think the artist and particularly the writer is more susceptible to darkness and despair. I think the women, the drinking, the absinthe and the writing were all forms of self-medication. Fortunately, the end product of his writing is something we can enjoy.

8. If you had one afternoon to spend with Papa, what would you do and what would you ask him?    

 

If I had one afternoon with Hemingway I think I’d want to go fishing for marlin with him and I would ask him if Anselmo was his grandfather and if he ever forgave his father. He would probably push me overboard.

9. Okay, I’ll give you one freebie: Second favorite line?

 

The old man was dreaming about the lions. – The Old Man and the Sea

 

Thank you, Sparks–as ever, it is a pleasure to roam around in your deep thoughts.

Sparks also recommends any Hemingway lovers (or lovers-to-be) check out this interview at the Paris Review.