Writing the Impossible Grief of Very Young Widowhood

Kelsey Ronan on Finding the Right Words

In The Last Station, a dying Tolstoy upbraids his wife, “You don’t need a husband; you need a Greek chorus.” I pinned the joke in my mind, recited it to myself on the walk home from the movie theater for Bryan, my fiancé. Coming in through the kitchen, I saw him asleep on the sofa in the next room—the top of his head over the cushion, one arm dangling. There was a silent moment before I noticed the skin, marbled white and blue. Then, as I stepped into the living room, the vomit caked in his nostrils, over his mouth and his unrising chest.

Bryan’s heroin addiction had seemed firmly past tense; all his stories of dealers in kicked-in houses, his overdose and rehab, were resolved, concluded chapters. In our years together he went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He worked at a bakery and read The New Yorker in the bathtub, a mirror for shaving and a portable CD player both arranged on a chair he dragged in from the kitchen. I’d turn my key in our door and be greeted by the sound of running water and Chet Baker. My nickname called over brass and piano. I had a white dress hanging in the closet and a playlist in progress for our backyard wedding. Heroin was an abstraction, a memory, and then, in the space of a Sunday matinee, it was not.

My mother drove me home from the hospital and put me in her bed. A deep ache settled into my joints and my muscles shivered, like I’d run too far without water. That night, in the dark beside me, my mother quietly pronounced, “You’re a widow now.” It was the first pronouncement of a new sense of myself, sudden and inarguable. I was 24.

I woke on the first morning of my widowhood to the sound of wailing. In the next room, my mother gripped the back of the couch with one hand, the other pressed to her mouth.

I didn’t go cry with her. I remember a peculiar calm. I left the house. I went to the bakery and cleaned out Bryan’s locker. With his father I made funeral arrangements, remembering “Alice,” his favorite Tom Waits song. In our apartment, I threw away his razor and shaving cream, his toothbrush, his prescriptions. I wrote his obituary and then his eulogy. From that night, I insisted on sleeping in our bed, alone.

*

The first time I saw this experience reflected back to me, I was watching The Souvenir at an arthouse cinema in Detroit this spring. In Joanna Hogg’s film, Julie, a film student, falls in love with an older man, Anthony, who says withering things about her art, commandeers her stereo, and wears monogrammed smoking slippers. Anthony is forever taking money from her and saying the cruel things insecure snobs are prone to say. Anthony bore no resemblance to Bryan, except that he, too, is a heroin addict.

After news that Anthony’s fatally overdosed in the bathroom stall of an art museum, Julie wakes to her mother in the space Anthony occupied, curled atop the bedclothes, shuddering with sobs. Julie doesn’t cry with her; she reaches a hand to her mother’s back.

That night, in the dark beside me, my mother quietly pronounced, “You’re a widow now.” It was the first pronouncement of a new sense of myself, sudden and inarguable. I was 24.

In the next scene Julie is on a film set, the young director alone in black, solemn but clear-eyed, observing. As the camera draws closer, Julie turns to it, head-on, unflinching.

The April Bryan died, I was in the year between my undergraduate degree in literature and my MFA in fiction. I had no representation of young grief; no fictional world in which I might find solace. Through the reverberations of shock, I stayed up for days at a time. I went for long walks, buried in my headphones. After days of not eating, I slathered heaps of horseradish on toast for the burn of it and baked banana bread at sleepless early morning hours.

I was resolutely alone: I didn’t want to be comforted, but to be smart enough to make sense of what was happening to me, and to have the grit to confront it. I sensed, too, that just as I had no model for this experience, neither did the people around me. Bryan’s death disrupted the order of things, gestured at a lawless void. Some friends sent apologies but didn’t come to the funeral. Others slipped away without excuse. I unnerved people. They didn’t know what to make of me.

In books and film, a dead partner in the approach to middle age lends itself to the poignancy of sad children drawing pictures and saying things about heaven, of wedding photos on mantles. Older, it’s the territory of cancer and heart attacks, the invariably failing body. In your twenties, though, the loss of a partner can only have happened by the most unnatural of causes. Young grief is rare and obscene.

A friend from college sent a Facebook message asking if there was anything she and her husband could do for me. After the offer, she added, You’re living my worst nightmare. I suppose the situation called for me to comfort her—oh don’t worry, I could’ve said, you’ll never be so unlucky—but I didn’t respond. A few weeks later, I noticed she’d unfriended me. My notifications pinged with another message from a high school classmate. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know what to say to you. I felt sorry for you, though, she said.

These messages were sent by people who liked me and who were doing what was polite, I think. I was meant to feel seen. Instead they reflected my image back to me through a funhouse mirror: distorted, a ghoulish spectacle. I don’t want to be rude, these messages said. But you terrify me.

*

When Bryan died, the only book I had that spoke to my experience was Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. In their last year of high school, Toru’s best friend, Kizuki, dies by suicide. In college, Toru reconnects with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, and falls in love with her. She’s pretty and frail and leads “a spare, simple life with hardly any friends.” She’s aloof and weeps after sex. Toru senses she is haunted by something she “could not grasp within herself and which therefore had no hope of ever turning into words,” a “word-searching sickness.”

After a breakdown, she’s taken to a rural health facility with specialists and a roommate who plays Beatles songs on the guitar and snuggles her when she cries. But friendship is futile. Grief like Naoko’s is an unhealable wound. What Naoko’s endured is inexpressible, rendering her catatonic. In treatment, she begins having episodes that are either psychotic or a communion with the beckoning dead. Then Naoko, too, kills herself.

For all that disconcerts me about Murakami’s Norwegian Wood—the well-read, emotionally reserved young man surviving because he can express what a weepy 20-year-old woman can’t—Toru draws closest to describing my experience of young grief’s isolation.

In mourning, Toru leaves his books and records and hitchhikes across Japan, sleeping in parks and train stations, subsisting on bread and whiskey. “I didn’t care where I slept as long as I was out of people’s way and could stay in my sack as long as I felt like it,” Toru articulates of his need for isolation and anonymity. “All I wanted was to put myself to sleep in towns I didn’t know.”

For all that disconcerts me about Norwegian Wood—the well-read, emotionally reserved young man surviving because he can express what a weepy 20-year-old woman can’t—Toru draws closest to describing my experience of young grief’s isolation. “Sometimes I feel like a caretaker of a museum,” Toru says. “A huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself.”

*

When I moved to Indiana for my MFA, a year after Bryan’s death, I could control what anyone knew of me. Bryan could never have existed. I could create fictional doppelgangers and write about grief as it kept reintroducing itself to me.

In my first semester, I workshopped a story about a piano teacher who came home to find her husband fatally overdosed. The story flashed back to a honeymoon in Morocco and then the widow gives away, via Craigslist, the zebra finches she and her husband adopted after they returned. Bryan and I had been to Morocco the fall before he died; we had zebra finches I gave away before I packed up our apartment. One of them died shortly after Bryan did, and I was paranoid the rest would soon follow: I gave the birds away before I lost them. In fiction, I gave Bryan and I new names and some middle-class niceties: marriage, a house, writing swapped for classical music.

After I turned the story in the professor called me to her office. With my stapled draft wilting in her hand, she pronounced, “I believe you are acquainted with the squalid side of life, but I don’t think you know anything about death or heroin.”

I could have retreated. I’d been learning how to volunteer less of myself, be quieter, save others from social discomfort. Instead, a laugh sputtered out of me. “Actually,” I began, and watched the professor fumble for the apology I felt owed, feeling a new stir of authority.

I would like to say that I forged on burning with self-righteous indignation, that I wrote more stories with more dead boyfriends and girls who looked like me. I tried once more, the next semester, in a creative nonfiction workshop. The essay told the same story—Morocco, the birds—without the veil. I appreciate you trying to write this, my instructor began the letter attached to my draft, then she outlined all the ways in which Bryan’s death made for an unsatisfying and incomplete read.

Through the remainder of the program, I wrote about people who didn’t look like me at all.

*

In Alan Warner’s 1996 novel Morvern Callar, the titular 21-year-old character wakes one December morning to find her boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor. His computer’s on, waiting with a note instructing her on what to do with the file of his completed novel. She hauls his body up to the attic for a while, then, when the weather breaks, she chops it into pieces and buries it on a camping trip. She sends his novel out with her name where his should be (she seems surprised he’d written a novel; she doesn’t read it). She heads to a Mediterranean resort.

Morvern is a relentlessly forward-moving narrator. She describes her actions, gives playlists of her mixtapes, but offers little insight to how she feels. There are sharp flashes of memories—colors that remind her of the corpse on her floor—but she tells us nothing about him and their relationship. Sometimes we see her slip away, leaving raves to cry on her hotel bed. The portrait of Morvern’s life is relentlessly grim: the bleak seaside town she lives in, the job she hates, no family but her foster father. You could praise her resilience or ache for her dissociation, painting her nails and mixing Miles Davis and Holger Czulkay on her Walkman.

The deceased in Morvern Callar never gets a name, but his pronoun is always capitalized—He—like God’s. This is perhaps a metaphor: grief as a larger force we are powerless against, or of the beloved made holy by death. It is also, perhaps evidence of its male author’s limitations.

Or perhaps you don’t need to sympathize with Morvern at all because she’s a vampire feeding off the dead without consequence, remorse, or ache of grief. She’s a graverobber hiking over the moors with her boyfriend’s severed head in a backpack, squandering his money on drugs.

The deceased never gets a name, but his pronoun is always capitalized—He—like God’s. This is perhaps a metaphor: grief as a larger force we are powerless against, or of the beloved made holy by death. It is also, perhaps—like when Morvern mentions how little she cares about feminine hygiene products, preferring to bleed freely over herself, which she does as she dismembers His body—evidence of its male author’s limitations; of a preference for bloody spectacle over empathy in depictions of young grief.

*

It’s a spectacle Black Mirror writer Charlie Booker is similarly preoccupied with. In the episode “Be Right Back,” Ash dies in a car accident. Martha, his pregnant artist widow, weeps alone in their old house, swallowed in drapey boho cardigans. Overwhelmed and alone, she resurrects Ash through a chat bot, then purchases a highest-of-techs, synthetic-skinned replica. She unpacks the body, following the directions to soak him in nutrient gel in her bathtub with the light off, and waits for him to emerge. As in Morvern Callar, this not-Ash is a fragmented body—a leg jutting out, a heavy hand.

Martha is first unnerved by this uncanny not-Ash, then, with the aid of wine, overwhelmed by relief to have his voice and his skin beside her again. He’s been programmed to understand sexual performance by pornography, and thus he’s also a very sophisticated vibrator. After sleeping with this Ash-bot once, Martha becomes black widow: she can’t live with this hideous thing. It’s not her husband, but a ghoulish toy limited to parroting phrases from his emails and social media history. She’s going to destroy it.

But Martha can’t kill him—she’s a sensitive, pretty artist in a cardigan—so she locks him in an attic. The episode flashes forward a decade to an icy, business suited Martha, allowing her daughter to climb up and visit her robot-ghost dad on weekends and holidays. Martha goes from a devastated young widow to a bitterly solitary woman with a monster in her attic, and thus you are relieved of the burden of compassion. Martha’s widowhood is a cheaply chilling exhibit in a haunted house.

Charlie Booker returns to the theme of grief a few seasons later in “Smithereens.” Chris’s fiancée dies in (another) car crash after his eyes drift to his phone on a late drive home, his intended asleep in the passenger seat. Perhaps because Chris is a man, he doesn’t cry alone in an old house. He attempts healing—support groups in which he doesn’t speak, a guided meditation recording he plays in his car. Then he becomes a rideshare driver with a gun and a plan to take a hostage from the offices of the social media company that distracted him that night. He’s going to speak to the social media platform’s creator, then kill himself. “This is my last day,” he chants, his hostage whimpering in the backseat. The police pull up his profile so the audience can know Chris is no unstable person pushed to the breaking point by guilt. He’s university-educated, works in IT, and has no criminal record. His neighbors like him. Women in his support group go to bed with him.

But there is no coming back from a trauma so great, not even for mentally sound, middle class white men. The only conceivable relief three years after his beloved’s death is death itself, and he’s going to take someone out with him. In grief, he’s a villain, separated from humanity by a line of squad cars and caution tape. He’s weeping in the driver’s seat with a gun in one hand and a wrinkled picture of his dead wife in the other. Stay back, the police warn the gathering onlookers.

*

Through my twenties, as friends moved in together, got engaged, they’d ponder the hypothetical worst-case scenario of till death do us part. If anything were to happen to him, I’d be alone a long time, they’d say. I don’t know what I’d do without him. I wondered what they thought of me, if they thought of me at all: if my OkCupid dates and general functioning in the world was a sign that I must not have loved Bryan as profoundly as they loved their intendeds. I never asked.

It wasn’t that I thought they didn’t believe this about themselves, or that I thought it was a flawed concept. The ideal is to be swept off your feet, register for kitchenware at a department store, and mate for a long monogamous lifetime aided by good fortune and ever-advancing medical technology.

In dreams sometimes, Bryan walks into a room smiling and healthy. Where have you been? I demand to know. Oh, nowhere, he grins—buying cigarettes. Once, he told me he’d been at a timeshare in Florida. We resume our till death do us part until I wake up. Sometimes I get to hug him, feel the familiar shape of his shoulders. Sometimes, he shows up with a sulky quiet that makes me impatient, and I have to dismiss him. It’s been too long. I can’t anymore.

I never interrupted my friends’ thought experiments to provide my anecdotal evidence to the contrary. I never said, You’d be consumed by a sadness that feels like sensory deprivation, a black nothing for a while, but then your appetite would return, your circadian rhythms would reset. First you’d want primal things again—eight hours of sleep, the saag paneer from your favorite Indian place—then you’d want more abstract things, like love and creative fulfillment.

I did not explain—and couldn’t until so recently—how grief is both a burden and a precious thing.

I could have taken this further: You might be proud of how much more sensitive to the grief of others you become while seeing in yourself a gritty resilience, like a spiritual callus you developed. You might find yourself moving into adulthood with a kind of bulletproofing, having survived a pain that renders everything else trivial. In the conscious daily choice to be happy, you might find yourself more attuned to joy, quicker to laugh. You might find that when good things happen to you, your gratitude has a new depth. The most trivial things might someday glow with significance: a pack of his brand of cigarettes crumpled on the sidewalk, the Dusty Springfield song he used to sing in the car playing in a coffee shop, a passing stranger who, from the corner of your eye, has the sharpness of his jaw, the slouch of his broad shoulders.

I did not explain—and couldn’t until so recently—how grief is both a burden and a precious thing. Pieces of Bryan appear in my fiction, made manageable by narrative arc and literary device: his wit, his beat-up Chuck Taylors and long fingers, his unabashed love of cheesy pop. Over the years, I’ve become freer in bringing up Bryan to friends and in volunteering the fact of him to new acquaintances. In certain moods, I offer it in solidarity, one mourner recognizing another. Sometimes I use it for effect, like a party trick—a false limb to remove, a glass eye to pop out. I hope it upends expectations of what the survivors of addiction and trauma look like. I flatter myself to think of this as radical candor, a chipping away at stigma and taboo.

I like best when people don’t offer a flustered apology. I prefer to be asked about him after an “Oh.”

*

The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg has explained in interviews, is autobiographical: in film school, her older boyfriend died of a heroin overdose. To craft experience into art, she meticulously recreated her apartment in an airplane hangar, bringing in her own furniture and personal effects. Lines from the real-life Anthony’s letters are threaded into the dialogue, as well as recordings of her therapy sessions and passages from her diary. Julie wears Hogg’s own clothes and a costume designer recreated pieces of the deceased’s wardrobe, like the ankle-sweeping blue coat in which he sweeps through the rooms of Julie’s flat like a 19th-century general. Memoir and fiction blur.

The film holds its audience at arm’s length. Anthony is unlikeable, and wholly characterized by his addiction. Julie is shyly remote, her desires ambiguous. We observe her, but never see this experience through her. Scenes skip ahead without resolution and time fuzzes. And after Anthony dies, there are neither grandiose speeches about love and death, nor does Julie invite us into her grief. If she is inconsolably weeping, or if she is unraveling, throwing herself headlong into self-destruction or communing with her lover’s ghost, the film doesn’t tell us. We wait to be signaled to feel sympathy or pity or fear. Instead, it’s as if it is none of our business.

Early in the film, Anthony delivers one of several indictments to Julie: “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost.” As in many such scenes, it ends without Julie’s response: it’s unclear if she believes this of herself, if she thinks he has some rare insight into who she is. But at the end of The Souvenir, after she’s lost him, Julie is at work. The doors of the studio roll open to a field, wind rippling through trees. It is serenely quiet. There is so much space ahead of her, and she steps out into it, quite capably alone.

Kelsey Ronan
Kelsey Ronan
Born and raised in Flint, Michigan, Kelsey Ronan's work has been published in Kenyon Review, McSweeney's, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Ohio Review, Utne Reader, and elsewhere. Her essay on the Flint water crisis was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2017. She lives in Detroit.





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