Gilbert's disposition for poetry--and women's writing--defines her perspective on death in her newest book Death's Door, Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve. Gilbert splits her book into three sections: 1) "Arranging My Mourning: Five Meditations on the Psychology of Grief," 2) "History Makes Death: How the Twentieth Century Reshaped Dying and Mourning," and 3) "The Handbook of Heartbreak: Contemporary Elegy and Lamentation." Each section includes five chapters, totalling 580 pages. In her eight-page preface, "A Matter of Life and Death," she emphasizes one of her chapter's topics, Yahrzeit, the day that acknowledges the Jewish anniversary of the death of a parent, sibling, child or spouse. This is an important springboard for the reader's entrance into the book as Gilbert understands how troubling death is in our society; she therefore reminds us of the connections we make during those times of loss and grief.
Gilbert begins her book with an account of her husband's sudden--and unexpected--death in 1991. Elliot, her healthy husband, was supposed to be routinely discharged after his successful surgery on the removal of a malignant tumor. He died six hours after the surgery from internal bleeding before Gilbert or her daughters could see him.
My familiarity with Sandra Gilbert comes from reading her co-authored book Madwoman in the Attic while studying women's literature in college and her co-edited, landmark edition of The Norton Anthology, Literature by Women. It may have been the impressive teaching skills of my professor during that time of my life that attracted me so strongly to Gilbert's writing, but it was a situation completely different that intrigued me to read her most recent book. My healthy husband was diagnosed with cancer September 2006 and died January 2007. What drew me into the language of her book was right there on the first two pages: "And for the first six months after he died, death suddenly seemed plausible . . . as if the walls between this world and the 'other' had indeed become transparent or as if a door between the two realms had swung open. For the first six weeks after he died, death seemed not only rational but right, or at least appropriate. . ." (1-2). For, as Gilbert speaks, what was so natural when together and both alive, being together, going through everything together, seemed as though it should continue, and I was the one who must continue it. Here was someone speaking my thoughts, thoughts I would not share with others. My husband could not come back for me; I must naturally go to him. As Gilbert states, "Oh, I see, so that's what's next!" (2). As eerie and disconcerting as this may sound to someone who has not experienced it, it seems--at the time--quite normal.
Gilbert uses each of the first five chapters to frame her own grief and loss. She clearly states her purpose: "[M]y project throughout the rest of this book will be an attempt to study [the arrangements of mourning] in all their variety while seeking to understand how history and culture have shaped and reshaped them in our own time" (99). Her focus on what she calls the "continuity among the personal, the poetic, and the cultural" and her lens of literary and poetic critique present a unique outlook to a personal interpretation and impact of death on each of us. Her section titles belie the foundational undertone of poetic imagery, perspective, and voice within this book. Gilbert's 27-page bibliography testifies to the wealth of authorship from which she refers in using one of the few emotional languages 'allowed' to speak of death: poetry.
'Seeking to understand…' is a plausible reason why Gilbert deals with the next two sections of this book in such a way to distance herself, to a degree, from her own, personal grief while filtering it through the voices and thoughts of other writers. In Chapter 6, "Expiration/Termination," Gilbert presents a history of death, including a discussion on the terminology used to describe death, 'expired' and 'terminated.' The former is seen as positive. The latter is seen as negative: the hope associated with expiration that changes modern death into finality with no future, nothing but void.
As Gilbert moves on through her book, she becomes more and more objective, leaving off her personal musings even while she continues to contemplate 'modern death' and the 'technologies of death': "Human consciousness usually seeks to evade awareness of death even when modes of symbolic denial (elegy, ritual, theology) are largely unavailable" (157). Words seem wrong in times like the Holocaust, 911, and other communal visitations of death. Is this why Gilbert stares so hard at the words of others?
Gilbert follows her chapter on "Technologies of Death" with "Technologies of Dying," where she describes the workings and environs of hospitals, the 'presence' of doctors, the 'bearing' of cancer by individuals. As though leaving nothing untouched in her search for a meaning to death, Gilbert chronologically discusses the recording of death, again encouraging us to consent to the idea that we celebrate death more than life. For what are home movies but deliberate attempts to reincarnate future, lost loved ones? Here is another mode of preservation, similar to embalming, but one done by ourselves for others and by our loved ones for us.
Chapter 10, "Millenial Mourning," reintroduces the finality of death in our modern culture and the "leprosy of grief and the embarrassment of compassion" (250). Reverberations from Gilbert herself are heard in C.S. Lewis' words about his deceased wife who had become "like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable" (qtd. in Gilbert, 252). The euphemisms of death: (death as) trouble, passed away, etc. increasingly echo a fear of contamination by the onlooker, a fear seen by Gilbert herself after her loss of a child: a "horror . . . and an embarrassment so grave that in order to cope with loss, [my mother-in-law] had to convert a real (dead) baby into a nonbaby" (254). In this chapter, Gilbert addresses an important and strongly ignored issue, that of seeing grief as a pathological illness rather than a natural experience, where the mourner is comforted by friends, given time and space to grieve. An almost universal feeling of embarrassment during grieving is expressed through Gilbert's own loss of her child. Yet again, Gilbert resorts to a logical address, how neither the griever nor the onlooker/friends "are able to draw upon any culturally agreed-upon procedures for grieving…" (257). Our society's blind attempt to distance ourselves from any pain associated with death underscores this lack of 'agreed-upon procedures for grieving' and the embarrassing-embarrassment felt by those who grieve.
Perhaps by considering others' language, words, and musings on such uncertainties as death, Gilbert is able to face her own feelings, work through her own ideas, especially by considering 'this' perspective, 'that' perspective, mine, yours, the man's on the street, who supposedly speaks for all of us. Because it is the poets who usually speak for Gilbert she addresses and interrogates them, struggling--it seems--as Jacob wrestled with the angel and would not let go; how even though the angel had crippled him, Jacob held fast until he received what he asked for: a blessing. For within Gilbert's newest book we see her wrestling with herself, with a multitude of authors, in order to receive a blessing of understanding about death.
© 2007 Jo Doran
Jo Doran, M.F.A., is a second-year Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University, where she teaches composition, professional writing, and works as a tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab. Her main research is in the area of language and grief. She has also published poetry in various journals.