The Give and Take of Grief

(updated 16 May 2016)

This is the lie I told myself.

A dozen years ago, I took the job Lucy Grealy wanted, perhaps needed.  Lucy Grealy, with her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, applied for teaching positions sometime—probably several times—after the success of her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, published in 1994. She appeared on the Today show, NPR’s Fresh Air, Oprah, and CNN. By these accounts, she was a success, and any creative writing program would have been lucky to hire her. By December 2002, she was dead, a drug overdose.

The teaching job she didn’t get and I did was at a comprehensive college in the Midwest. I’d been on the job market several times; I’d taught in full-time positions. I applied for jobs again in the fall of 2001. In the fall of 2001, she was teaching at Bennington and had another surgery on her face, which had been damaged by childhood cancer. According to her friend Ann Patchett, Lucy Grealy was fired from her teaching job at Bennington in the spring of 2002, around the time when that Midwestern college decided to hire me. In fact, her demise at Bennington would have coincided with the realization that her job search hadn’t landed something permanent for the fall. I started the job in the fall of 2002, only months before Lucy Grealy’s death.

Of course, I didn’t know then that Lucy Grealy and I might have applied and interviewed for the same job. I didn’t know that we’d likely both been on the market at the same time. In fact, even though I remember vaguely hearing from friends that her book was beautifully written, I didn’t know who Lucy Grealy was until recently. When I was applying for teaching jobs, I figured that there were better-published candidates in the pool—I hadn’t published a book yet. Later, I heard that I wasn’t the search committee’s first choice, but I didn’t know anyone else in the pool specifically. I still don’t. Had I known that she was roughly my age and a poet, I might have surmised that Lucy Grealy and I were applying for the same jobs, along with a couple hundred others.

I thought of job candidates as the pool. I didn’t think of them as individuals.

Lucy Grealy wrote of her nine-year-old self facing cancer, “Every day I’d have some test, and it never occurred to me to ask what was going on, what the tests were for, what the results were.” We all get caught up in systematic processes, like medical diagnoses or job searches, and neglect to stop to think about what’s really going on and what the results will mean in the long run. We’re swept along by a lot of life’s goings-on. But when I applied for and accepted that job, I hadn’t yet read that passage from Autobiography of a Face. I didn’t know then that she’d had cancer as a kid and then a lifetime of facial surgeries, that, at one point, she’d had a metal rod in her face. I didn’t think about who else might be searching for a job or what had happened in their lives, whether any of them were floundering at the time or might need the job in a different way than I did. I didn’t make the connection between Lucy Grealy and me until I read Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty a few months ago.

I read Truth and Beauty because I was looking for cancer stories as part of research for a project with one of my current colleagues. In that book, Ann Patchett recounts Lucy Grealy’s life from when the two of them met in college through to the end. Some of it is a vaguely familiar story for those of us who went through graduate programs in creative writing a couple of decades or so ago and who continue to try to write and publish. The details and voice of Truth & Beauty are captivating. It wasn’t really about cancer at all, though it led me to read Autobiography of a Face, which is.

In a couple of places in her book, Patchett talks about Lucy Grealy’s need for a teaching job. Patchett writes, “‘I need the structure,’ Lucy said, ‘It will force me to organize time. I don’t think all this free time is good for me.’ She was right, of course. She had taught before and she liked a routine and she liked having people around […].” As I read Patchett’s book, I realized—because I remembered something else, something a colleague had said about a woman who’d interviewed for a job with a rod sticking out of her face—that I had likely taken Lucy Grealy’s job and, with it, the structure she’d needed in her life.

I had reason to believe I’d taken the job she might have had. I considered that I might have the wrong year or the wrong job description. As I wrote, these thoughts got edited out. Only later did I understand that I had the wrong woman in mind because the woman in my mind was Lucy Grealy.

In the fall of 2002, the academic term started, for me, in September. I was excited to be back at that school and felt as if my life had fallen into its proper order. My weeks were organized around my teaching schedule, and the ten-week terms kept me focused. Because it was a tenure-line position, I didn’t have to go back on the academic job market in October and could focus on teaching and writing. At least in the beginning, this job was indeed what Lucy had told her friend Ann she needed.

At that time, according to Ann Patchett, Lucy Grealy was doing a lot of socializing, some of it involving painkillers and heroin. Her writing looks to have been moving in fits and starts for a long while. She died on December 18, 2002, shortly after I wrapped up my first academic term in the job she didn’t get.

When this coincidence of 2002 struck me a dozen years later, I felt something lodged in my esophagus under my sternum. It might have been my breath caught there, or my heart. I might be wrong about the original coincidence, I know, but this moment of presumed realization made me think about those degrees of separation we supposedly have and the ways our lives bump into each other.

It came to matter to me that it was Lucy Grealy’s job, and it also didn’t matter whether it was her in particular. I got the job and many other writers, about whom I’d previously given little thought, didn’t get that job—and the one after it, the one I have now.

Had she won out instead of me, Lucy Grealy probably wouldn’t have lasted long in the job, given how Ann Patchett describes that time. I stayed several years. I can’t help thinking, though, that Lucy Grealy might have lasted longer in life, maybe through the end of the academic year, just to see that through. Or maybe by then, having made it through that first year in a permanent job, she’d have seen past some of her struggles in ways that could allow her to sustain herself.

In her book, Patchett recounts a conversation in which Lucy referred to herself in the hoped-for future: “‘We thought she was gone for good,’ Lucy said, ‘but then something happened, no one ever knew what it was, but one day she straightened back up. When you look at how wonderful her life is now, you can hardly even believe it was really her.’” Had she secured the job instead of me, that event in her life might have been the something that happened that no one ever knew what it was.

Haven’t many of us had an event like that, a small or large shift after which we could tell ourselves, Whew—now I can try to get back on track? Haven’t we thought about how the effort and luck of past decisions and occurrences added up, for better or worse, to the present now? This full-time academic job would have offered Lucy Grealy a chance to leave bustling New York City and the patterns into which she’d fallen, the habits of doing heroin and not writing steadily. By uprooting herself, she might have been able to focus and breathe, at least temporarily and even if she still weren’t writing much. She might not have felt alone, with students right there in class and visiting office hours and emailing at odd hours, with department and committee meetings, groups to which she would have belonged and could be useful. She might have been able to busy herself and organize her life. She might have reset for a while or for longer.

As far as I know now, Lucy Grealy didn’t even apply for the job I landed. I made an assumption based on a loose connection and let my mind run with it. Apophenia is the finding of pattern amidst random data, like seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or a person’s face in a photograph of the surface of Mars. I told myself a story.

In Truth & Beauty, Patchett includes part of what Lucy Grealy wrote to explain a notebook of doodling: “In any event, the simple presence, here, of pages which must be leafed through consecutively, necessarily creates an active narrative, a narrative as decipherable or indecipherable as the reader may choose. All narratives, even the confusing, are implicitly hopeful; they speak of a world that can be ordered, and thus understood.” [italics original] Leafing through my thoughts about Ann Patchett’s book and tidbits from colleagues and putting them into their original sequence in real time, which is different than the sequence by which I came to know them, I’ve chosen, at least for a moment in my melancholy heart, a decipherable story that suggests the possibility that the world is ordered and, therefore, that it might have been ordered differently.

Lucy Grealy’s drug overdose may not have been intentional, but she was doing drugs frequently enough and in enough quantity that death had been a lingering risk. Ann Patchett wasn’t surprised by her friend’s death but seemed to suggest that there might have been ways to stave it off, perhaps long enough for Lucy Grealy to figure things out instead of just getting by. A reset button. In Patchett’s imagined version of staving off Grealy’s death, Lucy “thinks she’ll put the heroin off a little while because, after all, I’m around, and so she lives for another week, and because she is feeling stronger, she lives for the week after that as well. She goes on for a month, and then a year.” That’s what I imagine would have happened had Grealy, not I, landed the job. But that is wishful—or magical—thinking.

For a year or so, I pieced together a story of possibilities much like the way Ann Patchett did, and then I realized the narrative was piecemeal. The story was could-have-been thinking.

This staving off is something I’ve thought about a lot, too, after my father died from cancer decades ago and more recently after others’ deaths from cancer. To read Patchett’s version reminded me of my own magical thinking about those I’ve loved who’ve died. I saw death coming, but why that day? If a person survives one day, why not the next day too? Why not just a few more days? Why not an endless decline that never peters out completely? Cancer and time work like a radioactive material’s half-life, the person’s energy halved over a certain period of time, then halved again and again, until there’s not enough left to halve. Incremental halvings until there’s too little left to give, to lose.

This imagined happenstance connection between Lucy Grealy and me occurred the year she died. A dozen years later, I understood this connection existed. My mother died in 2012, days before the tenth anniversary of Lucy Grealy’s death, and that left me primed to find this connection less than two years later.

Within two years of finding the connection, I discovered that it had never really existed at all.

By connecting all this in my mind, I am probably what Lucy Grealy’s sister calls a “grief thief.” Grealy’s sister accused Patchett of using Lucy’s death for her own purposes, for claiming it as her own and not acknowledging it belonged to, say, her sisters. And here I am shouting, Me, too! I have a connection to the famous dead woman!

To appropriate is to take possession of, to make grief one’s own. The implication is that Patchett, and now I, have made grief over Lucy Grealy’s death our own when it belonged to someone else. To appropriate is to set aside for a specific purpose, as Congress sets aside money for certain projects through the Appropriations Committee. There’s only so much in the federal budget, and not everyone can get as much money as they want or need. The implication is that we’ve used grief for a purpose for which it was not intended, that the grief was approved for someone else’s purpose, not ours. What if someone else had written about his or her grief over my father’s death before I could claim that subject matter for myself? What if someone had written something I do not want the world to know about him? The word appropriate builds on the word proper, and we’ve been improper for feeling great (in Patchett’s case) and small (in my case) grief over Lucy Grealy—or, rather, for expressing that grief in writing publicly. Proper is related to private.

That’s not the way it feels to me, of course. I don’t need to steal grief. I have plenty of my own grief. Really, that’s what I think has happened here, with Lucy Grealy and me. My sweeping grief—for my father, who died of cancer when I was in college; for my mother, who died of cancer two years ago; for three friends my age who’ve died of cancer since then; for a poet I got to know these last few years who died of cancer a couple of weeks ago—isn’t well enough contained. This grief sweeps things of the world in so that, with Patchett’s book and then Grealy’s book, I felt a pull and, therefore, felt more of my own grief—or I was already feeling my own grief and, therefore, found a tiny connection, a thread the color and twist of my grief. Spread out, grief feels less heavy—the word grief comes from the Latin meaning to make heavy—and there’s some room to breathe and speak. I’m not stealing anyone else’s grief, but I’m letting my own spread or reach further than I’d expected it could.

I suppose that this is a problem: I don’t want my grief to subside. C. S. Lewis wrote about this problem in A Grief Observed. Perhaps, he sensed the same distinction between feeling pain and suffering from pain that Lucy Grealy described in her book. Perhaps, the DSM-5 should have looked to Lewis and Grealy for a more complex understanding of the relationship between bereavement and depression, instead of overlooking the relationship between feeling and suffering. C. S. Lewis decided to end his journal about his response to his wife’s death because he felt tempted to remain immersed in his grief for the sake of being immersed in his grief. “Sorrow, however,” he wrote, “turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.” He warned against finding pleasure in grief, against turning the excruciating pain into its own strange gratification.

An excited young Lucy Grealy shared her thrilling cancer news at school: “I told my teachers and all of my friends, probably with pride: I had a malignancy.” She didn’t understand what was going to happen, that she had a life-threatening illness, that her condition—not the cancer but the having had cancer—could last forever. In some ways, she thrived on her condition for years in the way C. S. Lewis was afraid he might thrive on grief. “Sometimes,” he wrote of grief, “[…] you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago.”

Like a child with thrilling news and a new word as well, we get caught up in the drama of tragedy. Who we think we are becomes reshaped by what’s happened and continues to happen. Lucy Grealy couldn’t stop trying to fix her face. She had a face that couldn’t be fixed—in the sense of making it permanent—for it would always keep changing, either by its own sinking or surgeons’ reworking. She wrote, “Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them.” Why shouldn’t we align ourselves with certain moments, events that reshape our lives?

I mistook Lucy Grealy for someone who might have had my job—my life—because I’ve aligned myself with certain moments: those years before my father died, those weeks before my mother died, the days before the bad thing happens, when you are pretty certain that the bad thing will not occur in the next moment and, therefore, it still seems possible that it will not happen at all.

I’m not living my life in reference to my imagined connection with Lucy Grealy, loose and late as it is. In fact, I may be putting the connection into words in an effort to let go of it more quickly. But that moment of supposed realization captivated me—I couldn’t help myself. As C. S. Lewis put it, “There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.” Grief is about the person grieving as much as about the dead.

If grief is a competition, it is a competition with yourself. If you’re thinking, My grief is deeper that hers, you’re probably already unknowingly feeling lighter, bobbing up for air, maybe even missing the compression of its depths. You can’t really steal anyone’s grief, but perhaps you can use some external event to fuel your internal grief, rev the engine or at least keep it idling a while longer because sorrow feels better than the silence you envision and the likelihood that, once cut, the engine will never restart. Still, it’s a competition with yourself that you can’t win even though you want to keep going. Losing, in fact, was the competition’s raison d’être all along. Competition’s another inadequate metaphor.

When I run the thought experiment that I took the job that might have been a reset button for Lucy Grealy to push, I’m grappling with my inability to change the fact of anyone’s death. Hers, my father’s, my mother’s. The would-have, should-have, could-have is a device of my memory not an actual wish, a reminder of reality not a whitewash.

No wonder some scientists believe in the many worlds interpretation in which all possibilities happen, spinning various effects out from each cause, probabilities running their courses in all directions. In one of those worlds, Lucy Grealy got a job when it mattered, and I didn’t. In that other world, in that other probability, people are saying what she wanted them to say about her: “When you look at how wonderful her life is now, you can hardly even believe it was really her.” Or, in still another scenario, she lived at least a little longer.

It wasn’t her, and we’re not in any other world following a different probability. We live—and die—with the way this world works. One thing happens, then another, perhaps a choice, then another occurence. There’s no going back, only memory and its strange companion, grief, in this moment and the next. We make of it what we are able at any given time.

About Anna Leahy

ANNA LEAHY's book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University. This piece was written during a residency at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony.
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4 Responses to The Give and Take of Grief

  1. Bethany Anderson says:

    Thank you Ms. Leahy, for giving an eloquent voice to so many questions I’ve been asking myself lately, and for the reminder that we live—and die—with the way this world works.

  2. Mildred says:

    Not only does this shed light on Grieg. It also clarifies the often muddied distinction between grief, guilt and conviction. Add a side helping of clarity on the vagaries of academic life and — poof! — a winner. Thanks for this.

  3. Barbara O'Connor says:

    Anna-what a wonderful article-you are not only a great poet but a wonderful
    pros writer also
    Will i see you in April?

  4. Rhonda Pickett says:

    Anna, I thoroughly enjoyed this and found many points that hit home personally as well as professionally as a nurse.

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