Leaning on the Episodic Arms: The Fiction That Helped Me Process Grief
Sometimes, a fictional death is exactly what we need to work through a real one.
On the morning of the 21st of June, Caroline Wall, one of my dearest friends and one of the best journalists I’ve ever known, died suddenly. Caroline was too many things to encompass in a single article, or a book, for that matter: she was a journalist, a feminist, a North Carolinian, a whiskey connoisseur, a fangirl, a fashionista and a million-and-one things besides. In her 25 years, she touched lives in a way a lot of people who make it three times as far never do; over the next several days, the hashtag #kissesforcaroline took off on Instagram among old classmates from her alma mater, Salem College, as they took selfies in her signature bright lipstick.
Before Caroline, the only person I’d lost who’d played a major role in my life was my grandmother, six years ago. It was painful, but my family and I had, to some extent, made our peace with the idea long before it became reality. I’d made no such preparations to lose Caroline. We had braced ourselves for a world without Caroline about as much as we had for a world without water, and we felt about as well-equipped to survive in one. No one tells you, for instance, about how baffling and frustrating it is to see the world at large still functioning as though nothing has happened; things that don’t involve any malice, or any human element at all—like my work email continuing to prompt me to add her to threads—feel like intentional cruelties.
My comfortable position in the cheap seats of the autism spectrum, as I’ve written about before, leaves me driven to prepare for the worst, but there was no preparing for this, either in terms of likelihood or emotions. In the absence of my own frame of reference, I tend to process big, complex emotions through the prism of popular culture, and as it turns out, grief is one of those emotions. In the time since we lost Caroline I’ve found that a lot of fiction, some of it from unlikely sources, truly gets what mourning feels like and evokes within us, and there’s some comfort in that. Here’s some of the fiction that’s helped me weather this particular storm and—who knows?—may do the same for you, should you need it.
“The Body,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer (5×16)
One of this series’ finest achievements contains (almost) none of the supernatural elements or quippy banter that put the show on the map. Instead, the plot is straightforward: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) arrives home to find her mother Joyce has died of an aneurysm.
While much of the episode’s most jarring scenes naturally focus on the grief of Buffy and her younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), such as the devastating sequence when Dawn hears the news, the moment that really hits home for me involves neither of them. Rather, it’s the moment when ex-demon Anya Jenkins (Emma Caulfield), whose lack of social skills has made her something of an icon in the autism community, innocently asks an insensitive question. Scolded for it, Anya responds with a heartrending speech about how little sense this all makes that kept flashing in my mind. “I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever,” she says through tears, “and no one will explain to me why.”
“Advances, None Miraculous”/ “The Whores Can Come”, Deadwood (2×11/2×12)
HBO’s history-based Western ran during the same mid-aughts creative golden age for the network that gave us The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, but its fandom love, while intense, is somewhat more concentrated. That’s a shame, because one of the truly special things about the show was its theme of community and, in a mini-arc comprising two of its saddest episodes, how the lack of just one person can disrupt it. The main plot of season two—the machinations of a vicious agent of mining tycoon George Hearst—took a backseat when Sheriff Seth Bullock’s (Timothy Olyphant) stepson and nephew William was killed after being trampled by a runaway stallion. Even a town as rough as the titular mining camp is profoundly affected, with even irascible brothel owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) giving his employees permission to attend the funeral (hence the latter episode’s title).
The most succinct expression of collective mourning as an experience, and one that all of us who loved Caroline have come to know, comes in the second episode. “I will be so grateful if you will trust me with your sadness, and I will trust you with mine,” Bullock’s former lover Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) tells her adopted daughter Sofia, “so that even when we are sad we will be grateful for how much we love each other, and know that we are in the world as much in our pain as in our happiness.” As if to prove Alma’s point, the next episode, the second season finale, ends with a joyous wedding as a counterpoint to the sadness of the previous two, creating a sense of emotional respite my wife and I felt as well when we attended a friend’s wedding that very weekend.
“Visitation Street,” Ivy Pochoda
In this severely underrated 2013 novel, two 15-year-old girls, Val and June, go rafting on a whim in the bay on a hot summer night in Brooklyn. The next morning, only Val remains, with neither June nor the raft anywhere to be found. Cree James, a local boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, finds himself a suspect in the disappearance as he himself copes with the recent murder of his father. Pochoda performs a frankly stunning bait and switch, turning what appears to be a fairly straight mystery into an examination of loss and, in a way I’ve not encountered in any other book, zeroes in on the unique, indescribable devastation of the kind of grief that affects those young enough to still believe, on some level, that the people they love will be with them forever.
“’Round Springfield,” The Simpsons (6×22)
It’s easy to forget that in addition to its trademark dense, idiosyncratic humor, The Simpsons is also capable of deeply moving writing, even when it tackles the heaviest subject of all. Visiting Bart in the hospital after a shard of metal in a cereal box leads to him getting an appendectomy, Lisa reunites with her mentor and hero, the forgotten jazz phenom “Bleeding Gums” Murphy (Ron Taylor). Later, eager to tell Murphy about her triumph at her school music recital, Lisa is crushed to find he’s died. The story, of course, doesn’t end there, as the episode emphasizes the therapeutic power of honoring a loved one’s memory as Lisa hunts for Murphy’s rare studio album to broadcast it to the town. And just as I’ve found in the wake of Caroline’s death, family—biological or otherwise—will be there when it counts: in one of the most unironically heartwarming moments in the show’s history, Bart spends the entirety of his settlement from the cereal to procure the album for Lisa.
The 1969 John Wayne-starring film of Charles Portis’ novel is a fine movie in its own right, but tonally it’s very much an optimistic mid-century Western. Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 adaptation, while following the same plot beats, explicitly positions itself as a film about loss from its beautiful opening shot of snow softly falling on the body of protagonist and narrator Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) father. In its epilogue (true to the book but omitted from the Wayne film), an adult Mattie, her adventure bringing the killer to justice 25 years in the past, learns Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the marshal with whom she made the journey, has died before they can reconnect. “Time just gets away from us,” she narrates, walking away from his grave to Carter Burwell’s gentle piano score, adapted from the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I’ve found myself frequently listening to that score these past few weeks. Like the rest of this list, it doesn’t make things better, but it tells me that other people have felt something like what I’m feeling and survived.
Zack Budryk is a Washington, DC-based journalist and the author of Judith, out October 11 from Inkshares. He blogs at autistic-bobsaginowski.tumblr.com and tweets as ZackBudryk. Those wishing to send gifts or well wishes to the Wall family are encouraged to do so at the link in the lede of this article.
Have a tip we should know? firstname.lastname@example.org