The past year has been plagued by grief. Whether or not you lost a loved one during the pandemic, you have dealt with grief in some form, whether it be personal, familial, societal, spiritual, and/or existential. While I am blessed that both of my parents—and most members of my extended family—are alive and healthy, I have dealt with grief in a variety of forms in the past few years.
The stuck-in-place, existential dread that has characterized much of this pandemic year got me thinking about grief and how it has manifested in my adult life. Foremost among those memories are the deaths of three beloved grandparents (all of whom lived long, fulfilling lives) and, perhaps more tragically, the suicide of one my lifelong friends a few years ago. His death haunted me, and his memory continues to both enhance and harass my dreams. It’s nearly impossible to put into words the feelings that arise from such an event, but regardless of the form my grief assumes, I have always learned more from raw, personal expressions of grief rather than self-help guidebooks.
As I was considering the concept of grief, I was fortunate to have new, relevant work from one of our most emotionally attuned writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her latest, Notes on Grief (Knopf, May 11), is a slim yet potent tribute to her father, James Nwoye Adichie (1932-2020), the first professor of statistics in his native Nigeria. As our critic notes in a starred review, the author “moves through some of the classic stages of grief, including no small amount of anger—at the well-meaning but empty word demise as well as the ineffectual condolences of well-meaning people.…Eventually, the author reflects on a newfound awareness of mortality and finds a ‘new urgency’ to live her life and do her work in the ever present shadow of death.”
Some of the most insidious aspects of grief are its duration and strength and how it forces near-daily games of what if and why me. Near the end of the book, Adichie addresses the capacity of grief to warp chronology, drown the mind in “roiling thoughts,” and force us to face head-on the reality of death:
“I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity….It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present. It doesn’t matter whether I want to be changed, because I am changed. A new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my own mortality, so finely threaded, so acute. A new urgency. An impermanence in the air. I must write everything now, because who knows how long I have?”
For anyone experiencing grief, regardless of its source, Adichie’s new book is a welcome balm, as are these three significant books on the subject: Hope Edelman’s The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss (“a timelessly relevant chronicle on enduring grief,” said Kirkus); Naja Maria Aidt’s When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (“a stirring, inventive masterpiece of heartbreak”); and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (“a slim, somber classic”).
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.