Good Grief

The best memoirs of loss and tragedy teach us universal truths. The worst just teach us suffering

  • Alexander Ho for TIME

    At what point does an individual's grief move from the chaos of misery to a vessel of wisdom worth passing along? In 1990, Jill Bialosky's half sister Kim committed suicide, asphyxiating herself in the garage of the Cleveland house where they'd grown up. She was 21, beautiful and tenderhearted, and Bialosky was left heartbroken and haunted by the riddle of Kim's inexplicable decision. A book editor, novelist and poet, Bialosky took nearly 20 years to process this history into something she felt ready to publish. The result is her searing memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life . In it, Bialosky serves as detective, analyzing police and autopsy reports, reading Kim's journals and developing a psychological profile of her. Pursued by the survivor's "fear of disgrace," Bialosky struggles to answer the unbearable question — Could I have stopped her? — and to illuminate the brief life of her sister, a girl cherished by her mother and siblings but broken by her father's absence.

    With Kim's story at its heart, History of a Suicide probes larger issues, like the possibility of a genetic susceptibility to suicide, and examines the question of how any young person can really know he or she wants to die. In an age when youth suicide is spoken of as an epidemic, Bialosky's memoir feels extraordinarily useful. Her language is plain ("Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. This is the reason I am writing this book") but enveloping.

    There is a remarkable lack of self-pity in these pages, even as the author recounts more tragedy on the heels of Kim's death: her loss of two infants at birth. Her hand is always skillful and deliberate, as attentive to the rhythms of storytelling as to conveying emotion. What did Kim write in the note she left behind? Bialosky withholds it until four pages from the end, a wise authorial decision that left me chagrined at my impatience to find out. To finally be privy to it is to be wrecked by the realization of this small, sweet life, lost too soon. "Each time I read it, I am still overcome," Bialosky writes. Me too.

    the careful, mature craft of Bialosky's memoir stands in stark contrast to Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story , which arrives three years to the month after the death of her beloved husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, at 77. Reeling from the loss, Joyce Smith — that is how she sees herself, not as the well-known author but as Ray's wife — falls apart, even contemplating suicide. The book reflects that: it is shockingly raw and messy, filled with weirdly exclamatory, heavily italicized writing and teeming with such fresh hysteria that one feels the urge to slip it a sedative. "I haven't been able to comprehend my experiences in any coherent way," Oates writes in early March, a month after Ray's death. In August, when the book ends, we still feel that incoherence. By then she had met a new man, to whom she is now married. The depth or length of someone's grief should never be judged — and few could begrudge Oates the joy of finding fresh love after 70 — but for the reader, still caught in her depression, such a quick turnaround is jarring.

    If only Oates had waited, if not on the writing then at least on the editing. Both memoirs are filled with truths of human suffering, but while Bialosky's offers a source of solace and understanding for the bereaved, Oates piles her grief onto the page and walks away — a reminder that sharing does not always mean giving.

    History of a Suicide By Jill Bialosky
    Atria; 272 pages

    A Widow's Story By Joyce Carol Oates
    Ecco; 432 pages