Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Epilogue: A Memoir" and the universality of grief

Reading today's New York Times Book Review, I found a review for a new book by Anne Roiphe, called "Epilogue: A Memoir." I haven't read the book yet (it's not out until next week, apparently), but I'm going to have to look for it (although I still haven't read "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion yet either).

Just reading the review, however, reminded me how universal the experience and emotions of the bereavement experience can be. There are differences, to be sure... but at a very basic level, so much is the same. Substitute "grief" for "loneliness," "child" or "baby" for "husband" and "wife" for "mother," etc., and there's not a whole lot of difference. I've boldfaced some of the passages that really hit home for me -- being left out of the conversation, for one!

The last line, in particular, about most likely never having another soulmate (baby) -- but being OK regardless -- I found particularly relevant, as I continue down the road of childless/free living after loss & infertility.

See what you think:

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The Unmerry Widow
Anne Roiphe describes her life after the death of her husband

Published: August 22, 2008

In a little-known essay called “Loneliness,” the psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann once remarked that it’s difficult for most people to retain vivid recollections of times when they were very lonely. This isn’t because the experience isn’t striking; it’s because it’s almost unbearably so. Loneliness presents a threat to a person’s integrity and well-being, to the very sense of who one is. “Loneliness is so awful an experience,” Fromm-­Reichmann observed, that “most people will do practically anything to avoid it.” But loneliness makes up a large and unavoidable part of a newly widowed woman’s life. So, paradoxically, does the wish to be left alone with one’s grief, as Anne Roiphe tells us in this raw, painful and yet occasionally comic memoir of the year and a half following the sudden death of her husband.

Herman Roiphe, a psychoanalyst, suffered a fatal heart attack in December 2005, when he was 81. “Epilogue” is Anne Roiphe’s description of the aftermath of their happy, 39-year marriage. As readers of her novels and her previous memoirs will expect, she isn’t reticent about taking off the bandages and showing us the extent and depth of her injuries.

Roiphe is now the extra woman in the coupled world she and H. (as she calls him throughout) formerly inhabited. While her old friends talk about travels they have planned or just returned from, she’s left out of the conversation. She isn’t going anywhere. She doesn’t feel fully present in the group. She’d rather return home and get under the covers, with the cat lying beside her in the space H. used to occupy.

The pressing need is always to retreat to her safe base, even though that’s where the silence of her single status awaits her: “If I am at dinner with a friend I keep glancing at my watch, how soon can I leave, how long till I am back in my apartment. If I am in my apartment I am anxious. I should go out. I need to be out. I need to go somewhere. If I am downtown I worry about the subway on the way home. Will it come? Will I be safe? I go to the theater with friends. I want to leave at intermission. I can’t concentrate. I am worried about how I am going to get home. . . . This anxiety, anxiety about nothing, no reason or sense to it, flows in and out of my mind all day.”

In a much earlier book, the novel “Torch Song,” inspired by her disastrous first marriage to the playwright Jack Richardson, Roiphe informed the reader that she had learned something important about disasters: They had their rhythms. They built, they rose to a peak and then they subsided as “adjustments” were made — as discarded partners found new people to love. But the situation of a woman nearing 70, alone and mourning a long-term mate, is a calamity not easily resolved.

After some months had passed, Roiphe’s daughters placed a personal ad in The New York Review of Books. It described her as an attractive writer, someone who loved the ocean and books. This ad flattered her, even if she found it somewhat embarrassing. It did, however, prove effective, hauling in the first of the many fish (some of them distinctly peculiar) she was to encounter as she tried to get on with her life in a way H. would have wished — to find new love and new pleasures in the years she has left.

The writer’s first “date” — a short, thin man with a white mustache — joins her at a bistro a few blocks from her apartment. The man turns out to be a lover of Proust, Stendhal and Thomas Mann. He loves Melville too, and they fall into a discussion of “Billy Budd.” As the conversation moves along, they talk about the fighting in Iraq and discover that their political views are comfortably similar. Yet all the while the stranger keeps moving closer, his hand approaching Roiphe’s left breast. She keeps shifting backward, staying out of reach. This dance continues until finally the man calls for the check. Then they stand and — in full view of the other patrons — he grabs her and kisses her so hard she can barely breathe, rubbing his hands along her spine and down the front of her blouse: “Then he stops. ‘Was that good for you?’ he says. ‘It was good for me,’ he adds. I laugh. This was not a nervous laugh. ‘Are you laughing at me?’ he said. ‘I am,’ I said, and that was that.”

As this and a series of future disappointments are to demonstrate, “adjustments” to the loss of a beloved partner are far more difficult later in life.

At the outset, we’re told that “Epilogue” isn’t meant to focus solely on the grief and loss associated with becoming widowed. Rather, Roiphe’s goal is to detail the bereaved person’s efforts to restore the rhythms of a normal, everyday existence after the loss of a spouse. Time is said to be the widow’s friend, as Roiphe notes (adding wryly that she isn’t so sure that’s the case). Yet it’s true that as the days and months pass, the worst symptoms of her shock and panic recede — the crazed insomnia, in particular. There are even moments of great fullness and joy, when love for her daughters and their families seems to banish her numbness, fragility and fear. But at other times suicidal reveries come to preoccupy her, and she broods over possible strategies for ending her life.

Roiphe wants to avoid the trap of self-pity — “the graffiti,” as she puts it, “of the heart” — and yet her thoughts keep trekking back to the happier times when her husband was alive. She thinks longingly of a period of young parenthood during which they and their little daughters spent each Saturday afternoon at the zoo. “I thought I would spend every Saturday of my life at the zoo,” she writes. “But that phase passed, and other phases passed, and now I am looking at the hours of the day as if they were endless dunes in an endless desert. There is nothing to do but start forward.”

In other words, she’s going on simply to keep going on. Intended to be the story of the remaking of a survivor’s life after a cherished partner’s death, “Epilogue” is instead the moving, immeasurably sad story of the aftermath of an irreplaceable relationship. “I do not have my soul mate,” Roiphe realizes, “and most likely will never have another but I will be fine. . . . I will be sad often but not always.”

Maggie Scarf is the author of the forthcoming “September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years” and an updated edition of “Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 24, 2008, on page BR18 of the New York edition.


  1. thanks for sharing this. the passages are very interesting on the universality of grief, I agree. I loved joan didion's book for the same reason, along with her lovely prose. thanks for the review.

  2. I too found this a very interesting read.

    I identified with many of the passages you boldfaced as well - particularly this one:

    "she tried to get on with her life in a way H. would have wished — to find new love and new pleasures in the years she has left."

    After the initial phases of coping with loss (sadness, anger, depression, etc), there came a point where I wanted to live again, but not just live, actually enjoy living. The thought of that being what your loved one would have wanted there as well.

    Thanks for some thoughts to contemplate. :0)

  3. I'm going to read the review later...looks interesting. But in the meantime wanted to THANK YOU SO MUCH for your comments and the website you recommended. I read the description on the homepage and cried with relief really that I wasn't alone. Thank you for taking the time.


  4. The part about disasters was striking: I feel as if we go through the rising crescendo of disaster and adjust to it over and over again in the IF experience.