Naja Marie Aidt on Creating Meaning from the Meaninglessness of Grief

John Freeman in Conversation with the Author of When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back

Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back is a lamentation, it’s a dirge, it’s a celebration. It’s the story of the death of the author’s son Carl at age 25. It’s the story of his life and it’s the story of the aftermath, and reading it, I’ve never read anything close to how beautiful and terrifying this book is about grief and about befores and afters.

This conversation took place on stage in Helsinki in May last year during Helsinki Lit.

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John Freeman: Reading this book, I thought, surely, writing this prolongs to some degree the comforts of grief, which is about forgetting. So I wonder, why did you write this?

Naja Marie Aidt: Well, because I’m a writer, basically. I questioned myself many times: why would I take on the pain of writing this book––writing it in the middle of my raw grief, in the middle of my shock and my trauma? But I think, I’ve been a writer for many, many, many years, and this is my twenty-ninth book, so that’s what I do. I don’t know how to deal with anything in different ways, and also I had a very strong feeling that I had to write this book in order to be able to write anything else in the future. I didn’t want my son’s story to kind of meld into every book I would write in the future, and I also knew, most importantly, that, you know, I was completely changed as a human being, as a person, and maybe also as a writer. So I felt I had no choice but to find a way to express this, or explore this horrible moment in my life.

I always try to write about something that has importance to me or to the world, and I was in this dark, dark moment, and nothing in my life had had such importance ever since, and probably, and I hope, never again. So there was a deep need to find a way to create something meaningful out of the complete meaningless. But it was very tough—almost impossible in the beginning. I could hardly write. I had a feeling that I lost my language. I stopped reading, I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music. I stopped basically everything. And that state is so mysterious and weird; it’s like the world has changed in a single moment and you don’t understand anything at all. Everything you thought you understood––you don’t get it anymore. And the world keeps going and you’re just sitting there in darkness. So it was, in a way, my way of trying to find some survival, to crawl back into language, as slow as that movement was.

I could hardly write. I had a feeling that I lost my language. I stopped reading, I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music. I stopped basically everything.

JF: It feels very much like a reassembly. This is not a book with total perfect recall, forward momentum, or sequential time. This is a book in fragments. There are fragments of your journals, fragments of the past, fragments from other books that are about grief. When did it occur to you that it was OK to write in fragments?

NMA: You know, I was writing fragments; I would have notes on the back of an old envelope, on a napkin, on a bus ticket, so there would be maybe three words. And then at some point I started reading the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé; he wrote this beautiful book, although it wasn’t actually a book, but he wrote hundreds of fragments about his stepson who died back in the 1800s. And I found them in translation, and they totally made sense to me. That was actually the book that made the most sense at the time because I could see that I was doing the same thing; I could see that just like me he stopped using commas, no capital letters, no periods, and he would stop in the middle of a poem. He never published this work. He wanted to write a huge, big collection of poetry about his son, but he couldn’t. They found the fragments after his death. And I was totally struck by how the power of his fragments reached me in my dark moment in a completely different time.

At some point I started reading everything I could about grief and sorrow—nonfiction, poetry—anything I could get. So from that I would choose my fragments for the book, but Mallarmé was definitely most important to me. He showed me I could collect all my little envelopes and napkins and stuff, and he showed me the way, that it’s okay to write like this. It’s actually the only form that contains a grief this big. To lose a child: what can you do? There are no words. No form is enough, basically. And then I started collecting all these fragments from other writers and even from people around me. I asked people around me, my other kids, my son’s friends, his grandparents to write lines about him, or if they had anything like an old letter—and I would collect all this—and when I was ready, when my brain had recovered enough that I was able to edit, I would start picking and then compose the entire structure of the book.

JF: I’m sure people who have lost someone can relate to that reassembly, or holding onto things. There’s an extraordinary sentence in the book: “My body still can’t understand you don’t exist.” Reading this book, your first response as you describe it when the phone call comes is almost a howl, an animal howl. And as the book progresses and you learned what’s happened and then you go into the aftermath, your mind starts to work with the body. Can you talk a little bit about how the mind and body work together in shock and grief––if they pass the weight of what’s happened back and forth?

NMA: Well, what happens is that basically the brain shuts down, in a way. And I talked to a doctor and he told me, “your brain’s shut down and it’s going to take a while for you to recover.” And what happens is that, like when people come home from war, or rape victims—any violent experience will make your brain play over and over and over and over and over again, a thousand times, the same traumatic images. So I spent the first year basically going to the funeral, being at the hospital, again and again. And it comes out of nowhere, like, suddenly, and you’re just like, back, and your body will be back in that stressful condition.

To lose a child: what can you do? There are no words. No form is enough, basically.

Another thing I realized was that a lot happens to the body. The hair starts to grow really fast, the nails. It’s a state of survival. I remember I was afraid to get cancer because I thought there will be some impact on the body that I can’t control, and I felt that I was aging really fast. Even my younger kids’ faces looked aged. You get a certain gaze, a certain look in your face. It’s like you almost look dead yourself, in a way. It’s a long recovery phase, and it’s not only one year. I think it’s going to take forever; it’s not going to go away. But you have to learn how to live in the grief, so to speak. People say you have to know how to carry your grief forward into your future life. I’ve been thinking about that, and I think that actually, you have to learn how to live in your grief.

JF: You just talked about the repetitions of trauma, and this book is full of repetitions. The first scene of the phone call is repeated several times and then expanded, and then you go to the hospital—that scene is repeated is expanded. And in a way it’s terrifying, because it is trauma, but on the other hand, it forms a kind of song. These are kind of like choruses within your book, and your book also addresses your son directly. It’s spoken to “you.” “You” did this, “you,” were like this. And I wonder, what is it like to write to a nonexistent “you?” What does it mean to do that as a writer? Because you’re not inventing someone, or you might be, because you’re inventing the person who was.

NMA: I hope I’ll never have to do it again. He was 25 years old so I didn’t live with him for quite a few years, and he lived in Copenhagen and I live in New York so I didn’t get to see him very often. So what I started to do was dig into what I had, like his emails to me, his letters, and my old diaries. I would mark everything I ever wrote about him ever since I had him in my diaries, and start to see—can I use this? can I use that? But how can I—and that was actually a huge, big question for me—how can I, in a way, bring him back to life in literature? And it’s very complicated and a very, in a way, scary thing to do because my book is not who he was, obviously. It’s a poetic or lyrical way to place him in the story of his death.

JF: Grief is an act of imagination because you have to replace the physical person with the imagined person.

NMA: It also raises a lot of questions. I can tell you how he died. He was a young man, he took magic mushrooms, and he jumped out his window from the fifth floor in Copenhagen. So it was a very violent and horrible accident. He was not a drug addict, he didn’t even drink. He was just experimenting with his friend, a Saturday night. Now what did you ask me?

JF: Just that throughout the book it seems like you’re recreating your son through an imaginary context.

NMA: Yes, because what happens when something like this happens is that you raise so many questions. How could this happen? Did he jump? Did he fall? Was it suicide? Was he psychotic? What happened? Was he sad? Did I do something wrong in his childhood? You know, all these questions of guilt basically, all the unknown, is what you think about all the time. So in order to address that for myself as a mother, I think, and as a writer, I would start to look into his notes, his poems, everything he left behind, to try to unlock the secret of who he was. And at least include his own voice in my writing to give him a place to be.

JF: What was he like? You describe him in some scenes.

NMA: He was a wonderful young man. Very poetic, he played music, he wanted to be a film editor, he worked as a chef. But most of all he was very good-hearted. I have four sons and he was definitely the most good-hearted. When he was alive, I always worried that he would set himself aside for other people. He would always be there to help in the first place, and his own needs—he was a middle child—so he was always used to taking care of his younger siblings and being under the command of his older brother. But he was full of life, basically. A young, beautiful man.

JF: And quite spiritual. The last year of his life he’s reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Quran, the Bible. And one of the things that’s quite fascinating to me about your book is that it’s about a spiritual space without being religious. And I wonder if you can talk about this experience and whether or not it changed whether you believe in the soul, or God, or heaven.

NMA: My grandparents lost a child just after the second world war, and they were religious, but they lost their religion that day and never went to church again. I’m not religious, but I think no matter what you are when something like this happens to you, you will start searching because you want to know, where is he, right? How can he just disappear? I saw him the other day and now he’s gone. Right? Is it really so that he’s gone? I think the need for his presence raises the question of, is there a soul? Is there an afterlife? What does it mean to live on? I was seeing a healer; I would read about shamanism and all kinds of things to try to answer a question that there is no answer to. But I can see now that it’s been three years and I’m not searching for him anymore the way I did. I found a way to have him with me. I can always, almost, as we sit here, feel him just next to me. And I think that entered my search that I can, with my imagination, probably, call him back.

I think the need for his presence raises the question of, is there a soul? Is there an afterlife? What does it mean to live on?

JF: Throughout the book, you have passages describing Carl with his cousin and friends, and it seems that children have a better appreciation for the meaning of death because they’re a lot closer to the cognitive experience of having someone in front of them, and suddenly them being gone. And I wonder if you can talk about why you might think children are better at handling or imagining death than we are as adults.

NMA: Don’t you remember the day that you realized as a child that someday you’ll die?

JF: Absolutely.

NMA: And it’s a huge day in your life, basically. So I found this tiny little dialogue in one of my old, old diaries with my sons Carl and his brother Johann and their cousin, and they’re maybe three, four, and five, at that point, and they’re talking about what they want to happen when they die. And that was just perfect for my purpose, so I just picked it. And that’s actually, talking about the method of writing this book, it’s a good example.

JF: One of them says he wants to be roasted.

NMA: Yeah, and it’s so funny in a way. It’s like, because the little one doesn’t really understand the concept. He’s only three and he’s like, “I… I… I want to be roasted.”  But I think, when you’re a child, you see your mom and then your mom walks out the door, and you think she’ll never come back again. So you have a completely different perspective of coming and going, so to speak. And I have a friend who lost her husband, and they have a little boy and he’s five now, and he doesn’t understand the concept of death yet at all. But he just realizes he’s not here anymore. He’s not coming back.

JF: In your book, one of the things that’s described quite well is how as adults, when we experience death, time is rearranged. Our entire temporal space is changed, and you write about that quite well later in the book. To me that rung very true about the uncanniness that you experience in that moment when you realize time will always be, now, before and after.

NMA: Exactly. And also that you are stuck in time. You are like, in a no-time. You find yourself in a no-time, which is so weird and unknown.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on California, featuring work by Tommy Orange, Rabih Alameddine, Rachel Kushner, Mai Der Vang, Reyna Grande, and more, is available now.

John Freeman
John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.





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