Much of Akhil Sharma’s recently published second novel Family Life, entered my life before the book itself did. Excerpted chapters, pre-release interviews and rave reviews had flooded the Internet before the book arrived on Indian shores. I knew the story of Ajay, the book’s protagonist, followed Sharma’s own life story, of an immigrant family in America, struggling with the permanent brain and body damage of their eldest son who’d hit his head on a pool’s floor and lain three minutes underwater, unreached. What I was unprepared for was the palpable grief that permeated this book’s pages. “I could feel my unhappiness walking beside me,” the book reads, “waiting for my breath to return so that it could climb back inside me.”
A week later, on Mother’s Day, Israeli writer Ruth Margalit published The Unmothered an essay on grieving her mother’s loss. Margalit finds hope in Cheryl Strayed, whose decade-old essay ‘The Love of my Life’, and later, bestseller book Wild, recount confronting her mother’s demise. Strayed questions a culture that listed to her the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and expected her to chug methodically through them. “We act as if all loses are equal,” she writes. “We live in a democracy of sorrow.” It is this ribbon-tied, pre-packaged definition of grief that Sharma, Margalit and Strayed overthrow.
They do it best by unveiling the selfishness behind grief. In his nightly chats with god, Ajay wishes for better math marks, not his brother’s healing; after a Christmas day spent at the nursing home, he weeps for having received no gift. He spends life swinging between guilt for this selfish grief and remorse. Ajay balances the seesaw first by blatant untruths about his brother’s greatness (“the lies cultivated rage at the loss”) and later brutal honesty about the “physical horrors” of his brother’s life (“to say the horrible truth...made me feel that I was strong”). Margalit states outright that her sorrow fit no schedule. Much after her mother’s death, her days seemed littered with dates that remembered her. But of her grief, she says: “I was thinking...about myself. That my mother would never see me marry. That she would not know my children. That the following summer I would turn 28... and she might not be there.”
Comfort comes, not from those with anecdotal references to their own moments of grief, but from what Margalit calls “grief buddies”. From C.S. Lewis, to Joan Didion, she collected words that spoke her indescribable hurt. Sharma found solace reading Hemingway who valued “suffering in silence”. The reading led into writing his way out of grief, “As I wrote I felt proud at my toughness, for taking whatever was happening to me and turning it into something else.” The stories born of this process rarely whitewash grief as compassion or empathy. Craft turns the ‘plotlessness’ of unmitigated sorrow into hugely empowering life stories of tiding over mountainous challenges through everyday moments of conquer. They’re much-needed lessons in navigated an honest terrain of grief.