Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve: A Cultural Study by Sandra M. Gilbert is one of those remarkable books that leave me feeling inadequate to respond appropriately. Gilbert, known for her academic approach to common literary themes, was inspired to write about the elegy, how poets write through grief and mourn on the page. After some research and some disillusionment, she set the project aside. But life and loss have a way of infusing past inspiration with new life and Gilbert’s own grief drove her to return to this project.
The result is this remarkable book that works on a myriad of levels. With the death of a child and later of her husband, Gilbert infuses a traditionally academic text with a personal empathy that elevates this above and beyond a dry resource. Drawing not only on the works of poets and novelists, Gilbert alludes to artwork, photography, even experimental works from the AIDS quilt to internet memorials. Anyone familiar with Plath or Eliot, with Yeats, Keats, or Hardy will be comfortable with the sections that compare and contrast the way each writer approaches death and loss. I found myself setting the book down frequently, doing my own research and rediscovery as I contemplated not only what Gilbert shared but remembered poems and writers to which she makes no reference at all.
In trying to approach the shifts in how we, as a society and individuals, grieve, Gilbert repeatedly confronts the impossibility of not only avoiding death but the inevitability of how change has affected not only the process of mourning but of death itself. Progress in medicine has moved death from being in the home to somewhere sterile and removed. “Progress” in warfare also has an impact as those who survived World War I are confronted with not merely the loss of a single family member but the death of a whole generation of young men. How long do you wear widow’s weeds when you are mourning the death of a husband, a brother, a son, and more? The implication on faith is also addressed for how does one embrace a bodily resurrection when only parts of a loved one’s body ever make it home?
I find myself, even as I write this review, wanting to list the many points Gilbert makes about the spontaneous memorials–those clusters of flowers, stuffed animals, etc. that manifest on the side of the road where someone has died–to how art has evolved from showing the suffering of saints to exploring the agony of a parent dying from Alzheimer’s on film. Rather than reinforce the idea that death is sacrosanct, Gilbert suggests that the modern and post-modern era has realized that there is nothing sacred about death and dying and that sterilizing death by removing it to hospices or hospitals leaves those who survive at a loss. With the process of death changing, mourning too becomes something that we no longer know how to express. From women ripping their hair and clothing in grief, from keening and wailing, we now offer antidepressants and the impossibility of closure.
If nothing else, Gilbert offers the promise that death is not only inevitable but it is not something from which we ever fully recover. For this reader, knowing that some pain can never be left behind and bearing the burden of grief is the inevitable grace of living, is a profound comfort. Possibly because I fully believe that compassion, that feeling with someone that can only come from empathy, I can appreciate the despairing message of Gilbert’s exploration and it is not surprising to know that she could not approach the subject of death and grief until she herself had been fully immersed in the experience of loss. While not an easy book to read, it is one I would encourage anyone who loves literature and art to read, especially if you are comfortable with questions and not seeking answers because, when it comes right down to it, for death there really are no answers–only the inevitably endlessly open door.
PS: I recommended this book to my mother and she immediately ordered it. When she received her paperback copy, she called me up. "This book is heavy." Yes. In many ways this is a heavy book, not an easy one to carry or to read. I can't even imagine how Sandra M Gilbert lived through the writing of this book without feeling some sadness and I can't thank her enough for her bravery in facing death day after day as she chose to do in writing this book.
PPS: Another story about this book. When Rob went to the hospital, I stayed behind only long enough to get things organized at home, just in case. Just in case what, I could not say. After all, Rob had gone to the hospital before and been sent home after only a few hours. Still, I sent Marc to the store to get some things and I gathered myself and my things, including the inevitable pile of books that I simply must take with me everywhere I go. Death's Door was in that pile. It was not until I got in the car that I realized that this was not an appropriate book to carry with me to a hospital emergency room. It isn't like it is a small book, one that I could easily tuck away. But then I thought that if I chose to leave it behind then I would be showing some superstitious fear, denying death somehow. It was silly of me, of course, to sit there worrying about the worst that could happen and somehow connect it with my not bringing the book with me.
Then the doctor explained that the CT scan did, indeed, show an enflamed appendix which would have to be removed. I held onto Gilbert's book, in which she shares her own experience of her husband's death due to complications stemming from a routine surgery, as if it were a shield. I didn't open it, couldn't dare read it, but I wouldn't leave it in my bag. At this point it became a sort of talisman, a refusal to believe that the worst could happen, that other husbands die due to complications but mine would not. Period.
Of course, we all know how that story ends; Rob came through the surgery well enough. I did not, however, begin reading the book again until he started turning cranky, annoying everyone from the staff to me, his sleep deprived wife. (What the hell are hospitals thinking with those impossibly uncomfortable chairs that unfold into still more uncomfortable cots? Insane and torturous.)
I think that once I really knew Rob was safe, I no longer had to just carry the book around but could return to reading it for the research I was doing. Superstition and irrational thinking aside, I wanted to share this part of my experience with this book as well.