The Unthinkable

How do you put into words the boundless pain of losing a child?

David L. Ulin
Dandelion seeds attached to stem.
Becky Willoughby / Creative Commons

For many years—a generation, almost—I refused to read books in which children died. This was less an aesthetic stance than a survival strategy. Or no, not a strategy: that seems far too conscious. I was operating on more instinctive terms. My catalyst was the weightlessness I felt upon becoming a parent, a state for which I was (how could it be otherwise?) entirely unprepared. I had imagined family as the safest of harbors; it was the expected, the conventional choice. From the outside it appeared if not orderly than at least trackable, a series of quantifiable movements, bound by the rigidity of scheduling: feedings, naptime, baths, and bed. Then my wife got pregnant with our first child, and the illusion, projective as it was, began to grow increasingly complex. First there was the specter of my own upbringing, the polarities, the brittleness I did not wish to re-­create. “I fear,” I wrote in a journal entry a few weeks before our son was born, “that I’ll become the fragile, alienated parent I rebelled against.” After the baby arrived, I discovered more encompassing concerns. Such as: How do you protect a small, dependent creature? How do you teach him to protect himself? Have a second child and the stakes grow exponentially. “Please, please, let me keep them,” Marion Winik writes in The Lunch-­Box Chronicle: Notes from the Parenting Underground, recalling the horror of losing, temporarily, her young sons in a market. I offer a version of this prayer every day.

What Winik is addressing is the unspoken subtext at the heart of parenting: What if my children disappear? That she doesn’t quite put that fear into language only illustrates the depth of the conundrum. How do we reckon with a terror we are hesitant even to name? I don’t want to make the argument that discussing the death of a child is taboo, exactly; throughout human history, dead offspring have been an unavoidable currency of life. In Elizabethan England, as an example, 60 percent of children died before they turned sixteen. All the same, we no longer live in the sixteenth century, and in any case, such percentages have nothing to do with grief. Much like love, sorrow remains a private matter, a condition we have no choice but to face on its own terms. “It occurs to me,” Marisa Silver writes, “that a child is something that gets stolen bit by bit. A two-­year-­old dissolves into a five-­year-­old, and no picture can adequately bring back the feel of him, the sound of his voice, and all the intangible qualities that made him himself at that moment. A ten-­year-­old becomes fifteen, then seventeen. Then he slips out of your life altogether.” Even in the best of circumstances, in other words, we raise our children so they can move on. Here we see one reason I avoided works involving dead or dying children: perhaps by refusing to acknowledge such a possibility, I might also deflect the small daily erasures of parenthood, of family—or hold them in their place. Please, please, let me keep them: for me, these are the emotional stakes of raising kids.

As to why this is, in part it is my weakness. In part it is the certainty that I would be incapacitated by the claustrophobia of grief. “My brain burns,” Naja Marie Aidt mourns in When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back; “it cannot get these extreme opposites to fit together; it cannot get this information to form a sequence, one story, the story we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.” The author is referring to the death of her son Carl Emil, who jumped from a fifth-­story window while high on psilocybin; he was twenty-­five. My son—the child I was once so worried I might alienate—is also twenty-­five now, and when he was nineteen and twenty and twenty-­one and twenty-­two we almost lost him: not at once but incrementally, and in a variety of ways. If I decline to go into the particulars, chalk it up to my protective impulse. Or maybe, inasmuch as he remains among the living, his is not my story to tell. Aidt, on the other hand, is not so fortunate; her child can no longer speak for himself. Nor, however, is she able to speak for him, which fuels the tension at the center of her book. “So strange that you don’t exist,” she writes; “I still feel you.… My body still can’t understand that you don’t exist.” The lament is that of any parent who has undergone (or even contemplated) the unthinkable separation death represents.

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back is one of what feels to me like a cluster of recent books about the deaths of children that push back against grief’s silence, its isolation, not by dismissing it, or trying to write a way out from under it, but by sitting with its stifling intractability. Such complications drive not only Aidt’s examination of her son’s death but also Han Kang’s The White Book, in which an adult narrator imagines a shadow life for an older sister who died within the first few hours of her birth, and Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End, a sequence of fictional dialogues between the author and her son, who committed suicide at age sixteen. Each of these writers is confronting a circumstance bigger than language’s ability to express it, yet what other mechanism is available to them? “Words fall short,” Li acknowledges, “yes, but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable.” She is addressing both the necessity of narrative and its insubstantiality. Even as the weight of loss makes us yearn for reconciliation or at least a sort of reckoning, we find nothing with which to reckon, no means by which to be reconciled. This highlights a divide between writing as a formal construct—literature, for want of a better label—and the rawness of emotions that are uncontainable and unrestrained. How do we write about grief, these authors ask, when there is no consolation, no resolution, no way to work things out? How do we make narrative out of a situation so all-­encompassing and static that the only response is to scream? “I sit in the dark,” Aidt cries, “I don’t write I don’t listen to music I think with contempt about people who write about death as though flirting with death… I hate art I hate everything I have written about death in the past.” At the end of the passage, she cycles back and begins again, using the same language. The implication is that there is no way out, no place to move, nothing to mitigate the weight of her loss. And yet the book exists, as do Kang’s and Li’s. What I want to think about is the fact of that existence, with its apparent contradiction between the unyielding desolation of experience and the impulse to record or represent it, even as each author understands that doing so can never be enough.

Such a divide is most unrelenting in When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back because Aidt has no interest in soothing herself. Of these books, hers is the most deliberately artless, in the sense that it eschews (or aspires to eschew) the consoling shape of art. At the same time, a book requires a form, a structure, if it is to be a book. It is from inside this divide and these contradictions that Aidt offers a beating of the breast, a lamentation, revealing her grief in fragments, replaying memories and moments as if she cannot escape their gravitational pull. Initially we have no idea what has happened beyond a late-­night phone call: “Who could be calling so late on a Saturday evening?” In part, this is an attempt to echo the slow unfolding of the tragedy with the pattern of language on the page. The phone rings on a peaceful evening. On the other end? The confirmation of all that Aidt has feared. These fears have to do with her position as a parent; she has long since set them down in words. The book’s title comes from a poem she composed when Carl Emil was sixteen: “When death takes something from you / give it back / give back what you got / from the dead one / when he was alive / when he was your heart.” Still, if these lines, by their very existence, appear to represent a prefiguring or omen—and as such to approach some of the requirements of narrative—they also serve to highlight Aidt’s inability to process, to frame any sort of coherent meaning or movement out of the circumstance into which she has been cast.

“The widow doesn’t want change,” Joyce Carol Oates tells us in her memoir A Widow’s Story, which unfolds in the wake of her first husband’s sudden death. “The widow wants the world—time—to have ended.” The widow, and the parent, too. For both writers, grief is constant and consuming, not a state that can be pushed through but rather one in which we are condemned to dwell. The result is writing that embodies stasis, that develops, or slips forward, almost in spite of itself. Eventually, Aidt does give us the necessary details: the consumption of the psychedelic mushrooms, the psychotic episode they induce. The point, though, is that it doesn’t matter, that none of this, remembering or writing, adds up to anything more than random bits of information, which cannot mitigate her grief. “The idea of sorrow as a project,” she declares, “disgusts me. The idea of sorrow as a project to complete in order to be well again makes me furious.” The dichotomy takes root in her structure, which keeps returning to certain moments—the phone call, the image of her son in his hospital bed, “the pitch-­black swollen eyes, the forehead hidden by a cloth so we won’t have to see his broken head”—in a series of repetitions, with details emerging incrementally at every pass. Meanwhile, Aidt’s insistence on addressing Carl Emil directly, in the second person, reinforces her refusal to accept his death. “My body still can’t understand that you don’t exist”: her grief is physical, an aching of the body as opposed to an abstraction of aesthetics—or, for that matter, of the heart.

Like Aidt, Kang pushes back against abstraction by addressing directly, in places, the object of her grieving, although her purposes are more elusive, fluid even; she is not, after all, writing The White Book as a mother but as a sibling, reflecting on the death of a sister she never met. This means she has no choice but to work around the edges of narrative, to create a text in which loss is as much a matter of conjecture as it is of lived experience. Echoing Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior, she begins by imagining a troubled labor in an isolated rural village, an incident that bears the texture of a parable. “Eventually, she gave birth,” Kang writes of her mother:

Still alone, she cut the umbilical cord. She dressed the bloodied little body in the gown she’d just made, and held the whimpering scrap in her arms. For God’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice over and over like a mantra.… Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually enter the flesh, sinking through to the bone.

It’s a harrowing scene, not least because of its sparseness, the distance with which it re-­creates her mother’s deep and awful grieving, the despair that emerges in the hopeless syllables of her plea to God. The White Book, however, is less about Kang’s mother’s grief than her sister’s legacy, which not only informs but also necessitates Kang’s life. First there is her wish to bring back the dead, to restore her, if only in these pages. Then comes the necessity to withdraw that resurrection, to consign the dead girl to her fate again. “This life needed only one of us to live it,” Kang asserts in The White Book’s most pitiless passage. “If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.”

Kang is recognizing that she was a replacement, that her very presence grew out of the absence engendered by her sister’s death. This is the burden, almost unspeakable, that weighs down both Kang’s desire to reanimate the dead girl and the existential danger inherent in imagining this double vision, this double life. “I think of her coming here instead of me,” Kang writes, referring to the European city where she is living temporarily on a fellowship. In so doing, Kang is not merely thinking theoretically, but framing a more fundamental query: What if? What if I had not been born? What if this life I am leading belonged instead to her? When Kang repeats the thought, with greater resolution—“No longer will I question / Whether I should give this life to you”—the blurring of identity is reflected by the blurring of genre, from prose into the line breaks of verse. Kang’s grief (if we can call it that) is similarly blurry, neither cathartic nor encompassing but rather the expression of a soul pondering the extent to which its presence is at risk. “Only in the gap between darkness and light,” she observes, “only in that blue-­tinged breach, do we manage to make out each ­other’s faces.” Or, in a stunning expression of the confluence she is addressing: “I saw differently when I looked with your eyes.”

For Kang, language is where imagination takes shape; it must be, for it is the only place her sister can be found. But imagination is incomplete, conditional; it promises more than it can deliver, especially in the presence of death. “When I am at my weakest, when I am most in need of help, / You will turn your back on me, cold and irrevocable. / And that is something perfectly clear to me. / And I cannot now return to the time before that knowledge.” The observation resonates with the impossibilities faced by the bereaved. We want to change events, or at least to understand them; this is what narrative promises. The explanations, however, the harbingers, the signs and symbols—they are little more than lies we tell ourselves: stories that cannot mitigate our grief. “Had I not for years been preparing myself for losing him,” Li writes in Where Reasons End, “pre-­living the pain even?” In attempting to restore her child (or at any rate his voice), Li yields to the ultimate temptation of the mourning parent: to pretend, on whatever terms present themselves, that death is not really the end. She recognizes the fallacy even as she gives in to it; her book is called a novel, is it not? Regardless, we find in these imagined conversations a desire for…not denial, exactly (Li never once rejects the reality of her child’s physical disappearance), but rather a kind of postponement. The tension of the novel is that like all postponements, this one too must come to some sort of resolution; it is at best a temporary, or even an imaginary, reprieve.

Time, though, is the only place we live, it has to be; outside of fiction, there is no way to become unstuck from its relentless urgency.

“Am I presumptuous,” Li wonders, “to think that our conversation has not been interrupted by life’s finickiness? What we have is finickier than life. Any disturbance would disperse this—and what is this in any case?” Still, even as she insists on asking, she is backing away. Consider her language, her word choices, how they diverge from the realities of life. Finickiness? Her son’s death is not finicky, it is tragic, made more so, perhaps, by Li’s intimacy with suicidal depression, detailed in her 2017 memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. (“This,” she argues there, “is the cruelty of melodrama—like suicide, it neither doubts nor justifies its right to be.”) Why frame that work as nonfiction and this as fiction? It is a distinction of more than ontological concern. I think it has to do with wish fulfillment, the desire to erase her child’s death. That can happen only in the realm of fiction since the fact of it remains immutable beyond the pages of the book. For this reason, perhaps, Li needs more than anything to be careful. She is writing a novel, not an exposé. We never learn, for instance, how her son died, nor should we; it would pierce the illusion she is trying to project. We don’t even learn his real name, except in the dedication; he is referred to throughout as Nikolai: a character as much as he is, or was, a son. In that sense, Li’s book resists the weight of homage, of memorial, except in her refusal to let him go. This is different from remembering, unfolding as it does in the present tense, where, as long as she can keep the dialogue going, death may be forestalled. I’m reminded of Joan Didion, who wrote about the decline and death of her daughter Quintana in a memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and its sequel, Blue Nights. In the sequel, she recalls working on the stage adaptation of the former: “I liked the fact that although the play was entirely focused on Quintana there were, five evenings and two afternoons a week, these ninety full minutes, the run time of the play, during which she did not need to be dead.” For Li, Where Reasons End fulfills something of a similar function, to build a firewall against loss, both its inevitability and its stasis, by asserting that “time is not the only place where we live.”

Time, though, is the only place we live, it has to be; outside of fiction, there is no way to become unstuck from its relentless urgency. This is what makes the arena of grief so difficult, especially for a parent, for whom at least part of the mourning process has to do with displaced time. We know our children will die, but we hope that it will be after we do—that is the bargain, or the wishful thinking, inherent in raising them. In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps offers a pointed example of the principle in a koan called “Real Prosperity,” which begins with a rich man asking a Buddhist priest for a prosperity prayer. “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies,” the priest writes, angering his patron, who believes he is being mocked. “No joke is intended,” the priest responds. “If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly. If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be brokenhearted. If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life. I call this real prosperity.” This is my favorite koan: it encapsulates both hope and inevitability, creating a lens, a balance, through which loss, while still unrecoverable, at least makes sense. It imagines a counterpoint to parental grief, from which, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, there is no way to come back. Where Reasons End also seeks to restore the order, but finally the book falters under its own impossibility. Li’s son is dead, and his presence in the narrative cannot mitigate or obviate her loss. That this is part of the book’s intention—to defy, or at least to re-­imagine, the grief that occupies its center—only makes us feel that impossibility more directly, as if we were watching, too late after the denouement, Li in the act of trying to construct her own prosperity prayer.

I gave up my resistance to books with dead and dying children when I was forced to reckon with my own parental grief. Those uncertain years, those years with no defenses… I felt as if I were becoming porous, as if there were no boundaries anymore. I wanted to know what others had experienced, not because I thought it would console me but because I understood that it could not. “I will not forgive you / Sun of emptiness / Sky of blank clouds // I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son,” Edward Hirsch rages at the end of his long poem Gabriel, written in response to the death of his twenty-­two-­year-­old son. My son was twenty when I read it for the first time; I did not know if he would make it to twenty-­two. What I responded to in Hirsch was his anger, the way his loss, his immersion in it, gave him permission to say anything. “No more pretending for him!” Denis Johnson has written. “He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” That is how I felt also—exposed but also exposing. Dangerous. An open wound. My grief inserted itself everywhere, into every piece of work I was reading, into every conversation I had. I have a friend, a book critic, who when her marriage was imploding, tracked the progress of her divorce, of her sadness and her fury, in between the lines of her reviews. Porousness again, porousness of a different sort, like water finding its own levels, like literature discovering its own ineluctable and fragile forms. “Grief broke down in phrases,” Hirsch avers, “And extrapolated lines / From me without myself.” What he means is that grief has severed him from not only his son but also his voice, his identity. He has been sundered from everything he knows.

In such a context, why do we assume that literature should sustain us? Perhaps the secret answer is that it cannot. Perhaps the point is to engage with language not to salve or re-­create but to clear a space, a path for the disrupted heart. It feels to me like tempting fate to read these works, as if by acknowledging their degree of danger, I were inviting it inside. But danger has a habit of finding us, regardless of how (or whether) we try to push it away. “When you turned twenty-­five years old,” Aidt writes to her child, “your grandfather made a speech for you.…That was November 21, 2014. Your grandfather was seventy-­nine years old. It was about four months before you died.” Just this week, two months past his twenty-­fifth birthday, I sat in a room with my son and his grandfather as they visited and spoke. On the one hand, such an overlap of read and lived experience appears to illustrate the empathy we seek from literature, but in fact it is, it must be, pure projection; Aidt’s grief, like Kang’s and Li’s, is hers alone. It resists the shape, the structure, of story—the form it finds, its memory and textures, belong to it alone. “What if we accept suffering as we do our hair or eye colors?” Li asks. “What if, having lived through a dark and bleak time, a parent can convince a child that what we need is not a light that will lead us somewhere, but the resolution to be nowhere, even if it’s ever and forever.” The resolution to be nowhere. This is where our grief unfolds. Or, as Aidt would have it: “It’s not possible to write artistically about raw grief. No form fits.…Words sit inadequate and silly on the lines.…I have to accept that I will never see him again, and I have to accept that I must live with that acknowledgment so that it doesn’t kill me.…When your death is done. I shall be dead.”

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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