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  • Bruno George

Life Writing About Death

Wait until the grief is healed, personal historians advise. You can’t write someone’s life story if they are still deep in the throes of mourning. This is what I was taught about the profession of the personal historian (or paid memoirist, as I prefer).

There are good reasons to abide by this standard of the profession. Telling the story of a death can bring back experiences that the memoirist is no position to help with. When the memoirist packs up their tape recorder or turns off the video call, the mourner is once again alone, only now they are wracked anew by a grief that can find no expression and no witness.

I would flout this rule in the right circumstances, would interview someone in the midst of a mourning they had only just begun. If I, as a memoirist, could be just one among a throng of supporters—family, friends, therapists, death doulas—then I would gladly hear out the mourner’s raw story and write it for them, or with them. And there are people creating the conditions for that kind community right now; among them, the death doulas and educators at A Sacred Passing, a Seattle death care organization.

Until I meet with such a client, or until we have such a community, we have Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, begun the day after the death of his beloved eighty-four-year-old mother, Henriette. Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a French literary theorist who examined nuances of meaning. My favorite book by him is How to Live Together, not really a book at all, just the published notes from one of his last lecture courses at the College de France. He spoke about discovering utopian social formations, ways to live together that were not formed around coupledom or family or gurus or nations. But Barthes’s mourning diary might have been called How to Live Apart. As he notes in the entry for November 11, 1977, just two weeks after his mother’s death:

Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say, I’ll be back at a specific time, or whom you can call to say (or to whom you can just say), Voilà, I’m home now.

(Let me note in passing that what Barthes describes here as an aspect of deepest grief is the condition of my everyday life, as a confirmed bachelor and solitary. We are fast becoming a society of isolates, I believe.)

What Barthes gives us, by writing in the grip of mourning, by starting his diary the day after his mother’s death, is testimony to what he called “mourning’s discontinuous character.” By this he meant the ways that life surges up in the midst of mourning. On the trip to his hometown, accompanying the undertaker and his mother’s body, Barthes notices “the sweet smell of rain” and “something of the savor of life.” These moments are not compensation for his mother’s death; Barthes would never have weighed the pain of losing Henriette against the smell of raindrops. On the contrary, Barthes called mourning’s discontinuous character “terrifying.” Terrifying because the force of forgetting is already there from the start, in mourning’s gaps. On October 29, just three days after his mother’s death:

How strange: her voice, which I knew so well, and which is said to be the very texture of memory (“the dear inflection . . .”), I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness . . .

Against such forgetting, or rather, in witnessing it, Barthes’s Mourning Diary displays one of the powers of narrative: if something can be told, it can have meaning. This is so, even when the story we have to tell is that the loss we endured was untellable and it still escapes all meaning.

--Seattle, October 16, 2020

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