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  • Companionship in Grief: Love and Loss in the Memoirs of C. S. Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin
  • Tara Hyland-Russell (bio)
Jeffrey Berman . Companionship in Grief: Love and Loss in the Memoirs of C. S. Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin. Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 2010. 284 pp. ISBN 978-1558498037, $26.95.

Jeffrey Berman furthers his exploration of the relationship between writing and grief through a detailed reading of the memoirs and fictive writings of five literary couples. He excavates the spousal loss memoirs of C. S. Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin, reading them through the lenses of their fiction and their partners' fiction to illuminate the intimate relationships each held with their partners and with their beliefs about life and death. Berman reveals that, like Scheherazade, he felt compelled to write about grief in order to remain alive after the death of his wife in 2004. Companionship in Grief follows Berman's Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning (2007), that charts his personal terrain of grief, while Death in the Classroom: Writing About Love and Loss (2009) recounts his efforts to bring loss and death into the undergraduate classroom in an empathic and productive way. Conceding that "most of my experiences with death have come through literature" (Dying to Teach 3), in Companionship in Grief Berman surveys spousal loss memoirs for what they reveal about "love, loss, and bereavement" and as guides to lead him—and the reader—through the uneven terrain of grief and mourning. He asks of the memoirs: how can they help us cope with our own losses and what role does writing play in bereavement?

Berryman situates his reading of spousal loss memoirs through the most frequently recommended grief memoir: C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed (1961). Revealing his unruly emotions and the religious crisis he faced after Joy Davidman's death, Lewis's memoir reminded Berman to "avoid the Victorian process of mummification," but to honor the dead by "affirming our companionship in joy with them" (9). The necessity for a dual process of mourning through remembrance and walking in companionship with grief is affirmed throughout Berman's text. Donald Hall's The Best Day the Worst Day (2005), a memoir about his life with poet Jane Kenyon, gives Berman his title and thesis. Taking up Hall's attitude toward the function of writing in response to loss, Berman suggests that spousal loss memoirs "offer companionship in grief" (2), a grief which encompasses the deceased, the survivor, and the reader empathizing with the memoirist's grief. As he read these memoirs, Berman found their authors to be "allies, friends, and teachers" (2) pointing the way toward what thanatologists term anticipatory grief and anticipatory recovery.

John Bayley's three memoirs about his wife, celebrated novelist Iris Murdoch, whose career was interrupted by Alzheimer's disease, help him work through the increasingly difficult task of losing a spouse through progressive [End Page 405] disease. Despite his and Murdoch's skepticism about autobiographical writing, Bayley's trilogy of memoirs is humorous and life-affirming. Elegy for Iris (1999), Iris and her Friends (2000), and Widower's House (2001) chart his journey as care-giver, chronicler, and mourner throughout the losses associated with his wife's increasing dementia and death. Freud's theory of mourning finds its way into several of Berman's chapters, first to provide some theoretical grounding for bereavement studies, and then through the memoirists who consulted Freud's theory in their attempt to navigate the uncertain terrain of grief. Berman notes Freud's centrality in early concepts of grief and mourning but ultimately disagrees with Freud's stance that mourners need to shatter their relational bonds with the deceased. A more contemporary view of grief, based on attachment theory, frames mourning as a relational process that maintains an emotional or spiritual connection with the dead.

Berman clearly views the memoirs he reads in Companionship in Grief as practical and emotional guides to maintaining such a relationship: "I can imagine no better way to maintain our attachment to the dead, our continuing...