- Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve
Modern dying is a paradox: it is difficult, expensive, and prolonged but at the same time invisible. If asked how they would prefer to die, most people would answer, "die in my sleep" or "drop dead suddenly." In other words, quickly, painlessly, and unaware of death's approach. "I'm not afraid of death," they are likely to say. "It's just the process of dying I dread." Recently, I overheard an acquaintance say, "I can't imagine how depressing it would be to know that you are actually going to die."
But how can you not know? Since more than 90 percent of us will die from chronic progressive disease, we have ample time to prepare ourselves for death, should we wish to do so. However, in today's Western culture we sweep any evidence of death under the rug. As far as we can tell, death occurs by sleight of hand while our attention is directed elsewhere. This invisibility creates difficulties for those left behind: What does bereavement look like in a culture loath to acknowledge death? How can one grieve without being viewed as awkward, socially burdensome, or even "sick"? How should the bereaved behave in a world where an open discussion of death is deemed inappropriate?
In Death's Door, poet and literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert addresses just these questions. She explores "modern dying and the ways we grieve," to quote her subtitle, using her own bereavement as the starting point. Appropriately, her meditation begins on All Souls' Day, that ancient feast during which the membrane that separates the living and the dead ruptures, allowing for the commingling of grief and joy. Gilbert's husband died almost nine years earlier, just a few hours after a routine prostatectomy. She recalls her perception of a door to death through which she passionately wanted to pass and join her husband. She yearned "to enter [the] open doorway into death and be dead" (3, Gilbert's italics).
In the first several chapters, Gilbert meditates on the psychology of grief as a "here, but not here" phenomenon, quoting liberally from the work of bereaved poets, including Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Tess Gallagher, and Donald Hall. For example, during the first year after his wife, Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia, Hall describes himself as "'elsewhere,' in the eternal present (and eternal presence) of his wife's never-ending dying" (56). He visits her grave frequently that winter: "All winter / when ice and snow kept me away / I worried [End Page 561] that you missed me."1 Like Gilbert, Hall yearns to join his spouse, expressing his desire in an image drawn from the natural world: "I wish you were that birch / rising from the clump behind you, / and I the gray oak alongside."2
Because her husband's death may have been the result of surgical error, Gilbert initially writes about the event as a way of "writing wrong." Yet, she comes to acknowledge the deep sense in which we experience all death as wrong, as inevitably representing failure, and believe that someone should be held responsible. Is it possible, she asks, to right (or rectify) this wrong by writing about (or recording) the wrongness? Can a bereaved person ever obtain justice through writing? Gilbert concludes that this is not possible. "Writing wrong" in this sense is "a hopeless effort at a performative act that can never in fact be truly performed" (88). As Gilbert quotes the poet Ruth Stone writing about her own husband's mysterious death: "I am still at the same subject— / . . . / Tearing the milky curtain, / After something deeper / That did not occur."3 There is always the hope that a word, a phrase, or an image might explain or rectify the death, but this deeper understanding is, in the nature of things, inaccessible.
If grief cannot be assuaged by "writing wrong," is it possible for the bereaved person to restore wholeness by acting wrong? The culturally...