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There Is No Cure for Grief

On a short flight a few weeks ago, I overheard two flight attendants seated in the back galley of the plane idly chat about death. There were just a few minutes left in the flight, and the pilots had already begun pitching us toward the ground. From my seat in the very back row, I heard one flight attendant, a young woman, say to her colleague, “I think I would prefer to be cremated. It just feels weird to me to have my body rotting in the ground.” Her colleague responded by sharing that in Hong Kong, where he was from, cremation was the norm. Their exchange petered out as we descended, all talk of death abandoned as soon as the wheels hit the ground.

It was striking to witness the banality of their discussion, to observe the casualness with which two colleagues contemplated the end of life, all while hurtling, at 300 miles an hour, down to Earth. But aside from the unexpected setting, there was little of note about their exchange. After all, many conversations about death take place in a similarly arbitrary manner: Questions about end-of-life plans come up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere; then, inevitably, we move on.

In the United States, our vernacular of death, dying, and grieving leaves much to be desired: Books and advice meant to help people mourn too often offer up only clichéd solutions and shallow platitudes. Grief is treated as something that can be processed and managed; concepts such as “efficient grieving” are designed to coax bereaved individuals back toward maximum productivity. After the writer Cody Delistraty lost his mother to cancer, he found himself taking the “path of least resistance” in conversations, partaking in what he calls the “bullshit dance we all do” to deflect and minimize the weight of our losses. He found himself responding to people who said Oh, I’m very sorry to him with “kinder and kinder letdowns to the point of replying No worries!”  

In The Grief Cure, his debut work of nonfiction, Delistraty makes an admirable attempt to write his way out of that “bullshit dance,” to directly confront the contours of his own grief. Yet his writing ends up mired in the same unsatisfying truisms about the universality and incommunicability of death that ostensibly propelled his project in the first place. “Every generation, every person, really, must relearn the truths of grief for themselves,” he writes. “There is no other way to grieve than to grieve.” The book chronicles his almost decade-long journey to come to terms with his mother’s death and his “search for possible cures to my grief,” only to discover that no such remedies have been found, nor will they ever be. To be a person is to inhabit a permanent condition of mourning for everyone and everything that has been irrevocably lost, and to try to live on—and live well—all the same.

[Read: What to read to come to terms with death]

The search takes him far and wide. After a compulsive exercise regime fails to do the trick, he tries something called “laughter therapy,” where you force yourself to laugh until you might just cry. He uses audio recordings of his mother to program AI bots that can imitate her personality; he takes mushrooms to see if they could kick him out of his grief and release him from his newfound identity as “a person whose fundamental personality is rooted in loss.” He tries “bibliotherapy,” in which a therapist prescribes him a reading list intended to help him process his loss. Here, Delistraty pauses to tritely acknowledge that “the most intense kind of grief can feel unprecedented because, when it happens to us, within our own perception, it really is unprecedented … But countless works of history, literature, and philosophy have reckoned with grief.”

He goes on a silent retreat to the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, for Zen meditation classes; he looks into life-extension technology and wonders whether it might one day be possible to stave off the inevitable. He speaks to a neuroscientist working toward a way of deleting memories; he goes to Mexico for the Day of the Dead, takes a cocktail-mixing class, and then wanders around a cemetery looking for closure. He pays $3,295 to attend a “breakup bootcamp” to see if it is possible to break up with his grief the same way one breaks up with a destructive ex.

In sum, Delistraty wears himself—and his reader—out by frenetically searching for “cures” for his grief, cures that, somewhere along the way, he realizes will never come. He seems lost, and his lostness, more than anything else, identifies him as a bereaved person. In the end, rather than finding a remedy for his incurable condition, he seems intent on drawing it out. “By searching for solutions, I got to keep my grief close,” he admits.

The impulse to reject the terrible finality of a loved one’s death by assigning oneself a series of tasks to complete, therapies to try, or mementos to sort through is a classic and thoroughly human response. In his slim and searing collection of essays on mortality, Imagining the End, the philosopher Jonathan Lear writes that we “come to life when a loved one dies”; that “we get busy emotionally, imaginatively, and cognitively” as we try to keep the memory of the lost person (or pet) alive. It is a response that Freud, in “Mourning and Melancholia,” described as a “revolt in [people’s] minds against mourning,” the refusal to accept the awful fact that everyone will eventually die.

[Read: The defining emotion of modern life]

Delistraty seems to reject the idea that his mother’s death has made him a lifetime member of the world’s population of mourners. He is more interested in grief as an object, a thing that can be dealt with, investigated, analyzed, and held in one’s hand, than he is in the indeterminate, ambivalent, and far more interesting process of grieving. He is so busy giving himself tasks to complete and “grief cures” to try that he at times seems to sidestep the true nature of his experience, treading lightly wherever he considers the profound emotional toll of his loss. He is hardly the first writer to fall into this trap, to discover that you cannot report your way past grief, that treating your own pain as an assignment to be completed and triumphantly handed in to one’s editor will do nothing to assuage the sense of abiding loss. (I know because I, too, have tried.)

Reading The Grief Cure brought to mind advice that Mary Gaitskill once offered to her students: that, when writing about the hardest things in life, “they should not be surprised if they failed the first or second or third time.” Although Delistraty name-checks a handful of authors and philosophers who have managed to write about loss and death well—Proust, Schopenhauer, Didion, and Berger all merit mentions—he does not meaningfully reflect on what makes their works serve as enduring guides to grief, nor model the artfulness of their prose.

“Grief is the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all,” Cormac McCarthy wrote in one of his last novels. We are born bereft, birthed into a cascade of past and future losses. The process of acquiring language is also, in part, the process of learning how to describe this condition: Children hungrily expand their vocabularies only to turn into adults (and in some cases writers) who realize that they still haven’t found the right words. We are, as Delistraty puts it, “inundated” with loss, swimming in news of death and dying, all members of the same macabre club. “Mourning reveals itself as a basic mode of human being,” Jonathan Lear advises. “When we mourn well, it is a peculiarly human way of flourishing.” Figuring out how to “mourn well” is the task of life, an assignment that by its very nature cannot be completed.


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