Berman, Jeffrey. 2010. Companionship in Grief: Love and Loss in the Memoirs of C. S. Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin. University of Massachusetts Press.
Berman’s book is about what happens in the life of a remaining spouse when the wife or husband dies. There are five chapters, each Berman’s examination of the writings of the grieving partner and the therapeutic value of the authors’ stories.
Although Berman is a “secular Jew” and certainly a non-believer as far as Christian doctrine is concerned, in Chapter one he gives a balanced and, indeed, favorable exploration of the writings of Joy Davidman (Lewis) and C.S. Lewis.
Berman has read the books of Davidman and Lewis carefully and even taught a course called “Love and Loss” based on A Grief Observed. He believes that Lewis’s book has “exerted…a profound influence on later memoirists who write about spousal loss” (21).
To begin, Berman examines Davidman’s books Anya, Weeping Bay and Smoke on the Mountain before turning to Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed, and his letters. He finds in A Grief Observed “a consummate work of art: the writing is intimate, spontaneous, conversational, and eloquent, as if the words poured out of him, uncensored and unedited—like a Mozart score” (52). Even within Lewis’s theological doubt there is “a sign of intellectual honesty” (58) and that Lewis’s book is “essential reading in grief counseling and bereavement studies” (59).
Chapter two is on John Bayley and Iris Murdoch, a husband and wife team of literary distinction. Bayley wrote three books about his wife: Elegy for Iris (1999), Iris and Her Friends (2000) and Widower’s House (2001). Iris loses her memory to Alzheimer’s and Bayley eventually does too, but not until years after he has been the caregiver for Iris. Berman contends that Bayley offers “us insight into the richness and beauty of their lives, and emphasize[s] the importance of memory, which serves as one of the few consolations for the caregiver” (64). Unlike Lewis, Bayley was a freethinker and “never experienced a crisis of faith during or after his wife’s protracted illness” (67). Bayley’s survival strategy was writing and humor and his writing of Elegy for Iris became a best seller in the UK and the United States (90). “Writing was for him nothing less than rescue work, an essential part of his life support system during and immediately following his wife’s death” (102).
Chapter three is about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Hall was a poet and professor at the University of Michigan and Kenyon had been one of his students—he was 43 and she was 24 when they married. Both eventually had cancer and “[e]ach became the other’s caregiver, writing poems and, in Hall’s case, several essays and a stunning memoir about the other” (114).
The Best Day and the Worst Day by Hall pays tribute to Jane, as well as to himself. Berman comments “It is inconceivable that he could have written such a profound meditation had he not experienced love and loss in his own life” (141).
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who are the subjects of Chapter four, were married nearly forty years before he “suffered a massive heart attack and died literally in the middle of a sentence” (157). Berman writes that “what we learn about Didion’s marriage suggest the opposite of a warm, intimate union” (158).
Dunne “was a prolific novelist, memoirist, literary critic and screenwriter, the author of thirteen books” (161). In her book The Year of Magical Thinking she “lists the concrete ways in which his [Dunne’s] obsession with death manifested itself. He sees reminders of his mortality everywhere” (163). Death is, in fact, a “familiar story” in both of their worlds (170)
Dunne writes as both a patient and an author, telling of his “cardiac issues” in a number of his books. His last novel, Nothing Lost, was published a year after his death. Didion comments in detail about her husband’s works and, although she herself suffered debilitating illnesses, including severe migraine headaches, she still wrote about her psychiatric problems. She mentions Lewis’s book A Grief Observed but, unlike Lewis “her spouse’s death did not precipitate a religious crisis—she had lost her religious faith decades earlier” (209). Finally, Berman maintains, “[u]nable to prevent her husband from dying, Didion writes a memoir that affirms the haunting title of his last novel, Nothing Lost, and in doing so, she becomes one of those writers on whom nothing is lost” (213).
Chapter five is about Calvin Trillin and Alice Stewart Trillin. His account of spousal loss, About Alice appeared in March, 2006. Both were “staunch social and political liberal[s]” (216) and Calvin claims that everything he ever wrote was “about Alice.” Alice, Let’s Eat was published a year after Alice’s lung cancer diagnosis and Trillin refers to her in several books after her lung cancer surgery (219). It “offers companionship in grief only for those readers who label themselves as moderate on the reveal-o-meter of self-disclosure” who don’t expect a graphic portrait of a spouse’s suffering (249).
In his Conclusion to the book, Berman notes “I can’t imagine anyone choosing to be grief-stricken…and yet grief can be good…” (251). By means of it we show appreciation for the life that was lived and honor that person. Berman further claims that the authors he cites “would all have been stunned to hear that late in their lives they would author memoirs honoring their beloved deceased spouses” (256). However, this genre demonstrates “by word and deed that the remaining hours of the day are still worth living” (261).
Waco, September 2017