Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve

Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve by Sandra M. Gilbert. W.W. Norton, 2006; $29.95; 580 pages


Prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship to death through literature, history, poetry, and societal practices. Does death change -- and if it does, how has it changed in the last century? And how have our experiences and expressions of grief changed? Did the traumas of Hiroshima and the Holocaust transform our thinking about mortality? More recently, did the catastrophe of 9/11 alter our modes of mourning? And are there at the same time aspects of grief that barely change from age to age?

Seneca wrote, "Anyone can stop a man's life but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it." This inevitability has left varying marks on all human cultures. Exploring expressions of faith, burial customs, photographs, poems, and memoirs, Gilbert brings to the topic of death the critical skill that won her fame for The Madwoman in the Attic and other books, as she examines both the changelessness of grief and the changing customs that mark contemporary mourning.


From Publishers Weekly : Many readers will relate to Gilbert's grief following the unexpected loss of her husband in 1991: "Death suddenly seemed...urgently close, as if the walls between this world and the 'other' had indeed become transparent." In the process of mourning, the acclaimed coauthor of The Madwoman in the Attic returned to a project she had abandoned in the early 1970s and invested it with the candor of recent loss.

From the Boston Globe : Drawing on history, literature, and contemporary culture, Death's Door is far more than a memoir. It is a sprawling, sophisticated, and somber meditation on mortality and mourning in America.


Sandra M. Gilbert, born in 1936, is the author of seven books of poetry and the co-editor of Norton Anthology of Literature by Women). A professor of English at the University of California, Davis, she lives in Berkeley. On the afternoon that we talked, each from the desks in our California homes, I said to Ms. Gilbert, "This is a massive undertaking. What a huge book."

"Yes, it got to be so much bigger than it was supposed to be. It surprises me. I started out to write a book called The Fate of the Elegy that was going to be a work of fairly pure literary criticism. But I found that, following my husband's death in 1991, I couldn't write literary criticism the way I used to. I had to write in a new way.

"Everything got bigger because of that. I had to speak about myself, I had to be personal, I had to be memoiristic or testimonial, but I also had to be historical and think about the culture I was living in."

"You write that after great sorrow that one's reading of poems that one has read early in one's life often changes."

"Absolutely. There were so many things that I discovered that other poets were doing that I hadn't read in the way that I now read them. Quite early in the book I remark on ways in which Lawrence talked about looking at the body of his dead mother. I wrote a pretty good analysis of the poem in my dissertation, but I don't think I understood it in my own body.

"Grief is physical. I was talking with a group of people about the physical symptoms of grief, the ache, the sore throat, the inability to breathe, the fluttering pulse. All of those are things that happen to me, and I think they happen in such a wrenching way that they change you permanently."

I suggested, "They change your interpretation of what life is."

"Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In one sense you treasure life more, but in another sense, life gets scarier, you feel you've looked through a superficial shimmer and seen something dark and frightening and painful. You have to write about that, too, if you're a writer."

"And," I said, "for people to whom great suffering comes, the construct of the future changes."

"Absolutely. The first six months after my husband died, I didn't believe there was a future. The future died with him. I didn't believe that there could be a future. And this, despite the fact that I was surrounded by wonderful children and, at that time, one grandchild -- all incarnations of the future. But for me, it seemed there was no future. I had to be remade myself."

"Your husband, in a sense, in his life carried your life forward."

"We went forward together. He was the other half of me, he was bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, and how then if I had lost this part of myself could I have a self? How could I have a future? It's interesting that you ask that question because I haven't thought about it or talked about it, and that's probably a kind of a failure in the book. I had forgotten that sense of losing the future. But it was very powerful at the time.

"I think maybe all these efforts at writing, writing the book how he died, Wrongful Death, which was my memoir, or his death through him and about him and for him, and finally writing this book, were ways of trying to recuperate some sort of future."

"What you wrote after your husband's death were stones, markers set on his grave."

"I think it's true that they were all things that I was doing, to begin with, for him, tributes and markers, grave markers in a way. This last book,

Death's Door, I was doing to explain the whole process to myself. For years he had been my first reader. He was the ear that heard, he was the eye that saw, and I had to keep on speaking to him until I learned to speak to him and for myself in a more solitary way."

"Do you think that this grief undoes widowers as fully as it undoes widows?"

"Well, if you think about C.S. Lewis, I think that seems to happen very powerfully, or if you think about Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters: Poems. It's very moving. In all those years when Hughes was being vilified by feminists, he was keeping silence and suffering but was also angry at the way he was being treated. He was also raising children and having another disastrous relationship with a woman who also took her own life and took the life of their child. All that time he was writing these poems to his first wife, who clearly was the ear that heard him, the eye that saw, and he was that for her. So she was, in some sense, in some strange ghostly way, still his first reader."

"And," I said, "although Hughes called them 'the birthday letters,' they're also 'death day letters.'"

"Oh, they're death day letters, and they're also what I call 'e-mail to the dead letters,' to whatever the other side might be. They're letters to an imagined listener who seems so close and yet is so far away. Absolutely. The other person who, of course, also has done that is Donald Hall in his book about his late wife Jane Kenyon. There he's writing letters, he literally imagines them again as letters to the dead."

"In the fashion press," I said, "they speak nowadays of pink being the new black. I was thinking the other day how, in terms of subjects about which people are writing, that death is the new sex."

"Oh, that's true. Death was the old sex for a long time; in the middle of the 20th Century, death replaced sex as a subject that was regarded as nearly pornographic. C.S. Lewis talked about embarrassment, his sense that he is an embarrassment to people because people don't know what to say to or about death, they don't know how to comfort a mourner. I think that what's been happening now is that more and more people, perhaps people the baby boomers' age, are suffering losses, that more of these people who are suffering losses refuse to be silent and insist on testifying in specific detail to what they have witnessed or what they have felt.

"We see that with Hughes, who talked about looking at his dead wife's body. We see it with Hall, who talks about the details of Jane Kenyon's dying. We see it again of course in the new Joan Didion book. So, there's a sense in which death has come out of the closet.

"We live in a culture that keeps trying to slam the door on death, that keeps trying to tell us that we should seek for closure, but we can't, we can't close the door without talking about what we saw when it opened."

Among aspects of Ms. Gilbert's book I find valuable is what I think of as her jolly contempt for pop psychology.

She laughed. "I try to understand what it is that's going on in the minds of people, of people who insist on closure, for example, who insist instead of a funeral 'a celebration of the life.'"

"With tea sandwiches."

"Yes, that's right. Those are all ways of denying death, of trying to close a door that is uncloseable. And what happens when people are told that they can't mourn?"

"Or that mourning is embarrassing to non-mourners?"

"They're probably not told that, but they have the feeling that they can't mourn. What happens is that people get sick in a lot of ways and feel a kind of ache that's still intractable. It's better, as Toni Morrison says in Sula , to scream. Even though screaming doesn't necessarily bring anything to an end either."

"The expectation of late 20th-century psychology is that there's closure for everything," I said.

"That's right, and if you haven't achieved closure, you're not managing things right. Somebody asked me at a reading the other day, 'When did the word "closure" start getting used?' I didn't know, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it's a business term. 'Can we have closure on this deal?' It's a very American, commercial, late 20th-century business term that then gets carried over into pop psychology. And so we might have closure on the deal, we may have sold the house or whatever, but do we have closure on the mourning? We're supposed to have closure. Closure on childhood, closure on pain, closure on suffering. This is all another reason that we're embarrassed when somebody is suffering, whether because they're dying or they're mourning, is because we feel that they should have managed things better.

"We think that death is a kind of personal flaw, and if you're dying, for example, if you have an illness, well we all know that you shouldn't have it because you should have exercised more or you should have eaten a better diet. And if your husband has died, and this is what happened to me, you feel it must be your fault because you didn't take him to the right doctor, or you didn't see to it that he exercised more, or you didn't prepare the right diet for him.

"Of course, as long as it's your fault, as long as you feel that either your mourning or your illness are your fault, then on the one hand you want to achieve closure, and on the other hand, you're embarrassed. Your friends are embarrassed because they probably secretly agree with you that it's somehow your fault.

"Another reason why it's easier to agree is that we believe in causality. We think if somebody is sick, or somebody is mourning, or somebody has had a terrible loss, there must be a reason for it. And the reason must have something to do with that person. This goes back to one of my favorite lines from Robert Browning, from 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.' This was a line that was one of my husband's favorite lines. A child well into his journeying en route to the dark tower, over a devastated landscape and in a field sees a sick, skinny, bony, awful-looking horse, and he says, 'He must be wicked to deserve such pain.'

"And that is the way we think. You can't win. It's a lose/lose situation."

"Who is it that said, 'Man is the animal who knows he must die'?"

"Just about everybody; Yeats talks about it, Heidegger talks about it. The difference between us and the animals is, according to this theory, that we have a consciousness of the limitation to our life and to our times, precisely because we have a concept future. Animals don't have that concept. It was interesting to me when I was reading J.M. Coetzee's book, Disgrace, which I talk about in one of the chapters.

"Disgrace is a marvelous book. Remember in that book, he ends up being in this room where dogs are euthanized, and the narrator or authorial voice says that they, the animals, know; he can tell that there's a way in which the dogs know that they're about to die, they become frightened."

"Why," I asked, "do you think that people deny to themselves, to the very end, that they are going to die?"

"I don't find that difficult to understand. I think that the mind can't take it in. I think even when people do understand they're going to die that what they imagine is a fantasy. I don't think that the mind is capable of imagining its own annihilation, so that even when people decide upon suicide, they're fantasizing a kind of retrospective look at themselves. They imagine the soul detaching itself from the body and looking down at the funeral."

"What do you think happens to you when you die?"

"We all have beliefs. We believe that the dead go into some place; we believe that they're near, even though they're far. They're far and near at the same time. We believe in ghosts. We try to talk to them. We also believe that we have to tend the body, the remains, that are left behind, because we somehow, in some part of ourselves, still think that the dead are there in that form because we've never known them in any other form. So, it's the most impossible thing to imagine.

"Wealthy people are more likely to have extraordinary last-minute interventions that leave them suffering, entangled in technology. This is another of our problems -- we believe we can beat it. There's this society called The Cryonics Institute. They freeze you, and when the technology is going great, then they'll resuscitate you and you'll see what things are going to be like in the 21st Century."

Ms. Gilbert laughed a laugh that reminded me of cocoa and puffy marshmallows. "Yes. The 21st century. Where you find out whether your books have all been trashed and shredded. A friend was waiting on death's door, and she called me to say, 'Oh my God, I read about this cryogenics.' That is exactly what her husband's son, from his first marriage, had proposed to her husband. He was insisting that her husband pay this, I don't know, $200,000 fee, which you give to the Cryonics Institute so that he could be frozen. The son was going to do that himself, and the son believed that this would be a way that he and his father would be able to come back to life, in 500 years or something, with this new, amazing technology."

"So many poems," I said, "are poems that mourn the death of a loved one or face the fear the poet feels at his own death."

"I think that's true in one way or another. But, particularly, and now in the last 100 years, there have been poems that have insisted on talking in such an incredibly specific and testimonial way."

"Sharon Olds," I suggested.

To which Ms. Gilbert added the late Thom Gunn. "But," she said, "you can trace that back to the First World War poets. And even beyond that to people like Whitman and Dickinson who seem to be so out of step with their time because they didn't want to talk about dead babies turning into angels. They questioned the pieties of their culture."

Ms. Gilbert mentioned her mother. "My mother was very amusing on this subject the last year of her life -- she died at 97 -- and I wrote a lot of poems about that. That's another one of the deaths that shaped my thinking as I worked on this book. She said to the doctor, 'You know that Woody Allen joke,' she said, 'where Woody Allen says, "I've dealt with my dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens."' She said, 'It's not the way I feel, it's the opposite way, I just don't want to die. I don't mind if I have to suffer a lot and be sick, but I want to go on living.'

"She wanted to know how the story was going to end; what was going to happen to this grandchild. Was that other grandchild going to have a child of her own? She wanted to see how everybody was going to keep on living. And that's another thing we can't stand contemplating, that we won't know."

I agreed. "It's awful to know the narrative will be torn from you."

"Yes. The narrative goes on and you don't get to go on finding out about it. I think that's another reason why cross-culturally and trans-historically we have these visions of the dead as being somehow still with us. We imagine that they're with us because they can't stand being excluded from our lives; they're angry at the thought of being excluded from our lives so they hover at the edge of our lives. But also, they're with us because they want to know how it's going to happen. How in the hell is it going to go on?"

"Who wins the card game?"

"That's right. That's right. I remember trying to encourage my mother, who was at the end suffering from a kind of dementia, to pay attention to the 2000 election, because I knew what she was like, and I knew that would get her hooked on the narrative. But she couldn't focus on the television set. That's an interesting metaphor, isn't it? She couldn't focus on the speeches and on the television set, and she was no longer that interested in the narrative. So."

"What do you think she was interested in?"

"She was interested in staying alive. She knew she was being torn away from herself. She had strange hallucinations. She was interested in trying to tell us that they were real, and that was about it."

"She was trying to provide you with a narrative of her own that would write 'The End' to her life."

"I think that's probably true. I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes. Although, every once in a while she would wake up from this fantasy world that she was being increasingly drawn into, and she would see who she was talking to, and it seemed as though she would predict the future. She looked at one of my daughters who hadn't yet had a baby and said, 'Now, where is that baby? Why haven't you brought that baby to see me?'

"And the next year my daughter did have a baby, and she said, 'Aw, maybe Grandma knew I was going to have a baby.' My mother's last months were spooky that way; everybody found her fantasies quite unnerving. The friend of another daughter said, 'I think that these people that she thinks she sees are probably the dead that she knows have come for her.' It's amazing the things that everybody believes."

"Do you think," I asked Ms. Gilbert, "that poems have always in a sense had death as their background or impulse?"

"Poets are always haunted by the peril of life, I think. And any act of language is a way of trying to go on. There's some sense in which poets always believe that they're going to be reincarnated as their poems. So, a poet is always sort of defying death. Lamentation, ritual lamentation, is one of the sources for poetry."

"And rhythm."

"Yes, right. Poetry itself begins with on the one hand an attempt to memorialize everything, to say, 'There was this, and then there was this, and this man -- and then there was that, and this empire was here. Mourning rituals were a source of poetry. I think people feel that way, because in the presence of death, and because of the neediness of the dead, you have to have a special way of talking to and about them."

"Also," I said, "nothing is as intimate, nothing speaks as closely to the soul as does poetry."

"This is what defines us; we are called mortals. Of course, as you were saying before, we know we're mortals, and as mortals we have to talk about our mortality and perhaps by doing so, try to immortalize ourselves."

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