It is no accident that during the pandemic – this extended, unstable period of losses – many books about grief are being published. Grief is a spur to a writer: a means of working through mourning and, in some cases, of continuing a person’s life on the page. There can be no prescription for grief, no “how to” wisdom, although psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed, in 1969, that it tends to evolve through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She was also, later, at pains to point out that grief is personal: “There is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.” Now, three books on the subject of losing a partner coincide and they are fascinating partly because each is as individual as grief itself.
Jill Hopper’s The Mahogany Pod is a work of literature: beautifully written, meticulously structured and heart-rending. Hopper, in her early 50s, reaps the benefit of recollecting emotion in tranquillity. What she describes happened more than half a lifetime ago: aged 23, she fell in love with Arif – they lived on the island of Osney, in Oxford, in a Victorian terraced house – their life an ordinary idyll. Arif planted herbs outside their back door and there was happiness within. But although also in his early 20s, Arif had terminal lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system. As their love affair began, it was already ending. Like a poet, Hopper employs the mahogany seed pod of her title symbolically. Arif’s pod was a Zimbabwean souvenir, which survived him to become a symbol of continuing life. And for all its sorrow, this memoir is as much a flourishing homage as a lament. Hopper’s achievement is in making the reader share her love for gentle Arif by skilfully harvesting her diaries so that the distance in time barely signifies. After his death, people kept saying to her: “You’ll get over it.” She felt: “I don’t want to get over it!” The Mahogany Pod explores a grief that will never vanish but which has changed through the ongoing years and in the writing. It is a reminder that time does something more complicated than heal.
One Thousand Days and One Cup of Tea is a more embattled book – its virtue is its honesty. Vanessa Moore is a clinical psychologist, now retired, and this is a plucky account of needing to seek therapy herself after the sudden death of her husband. She and Paul were regular swimmers at their local pool and she begins by describing the Sunday morning on which he died of heart failure. Her hesitation about rushing to see him in the “nondescript changing cubicle in an ageing leisure centre” rings true, revealing her understandable wish to postpone confirmation of what she dreaded.
Moore never goes easy on herself – or on anyone else. Throughout, she is an intriguing combination of defensive and exposed. It is no surprise to learn that her mother was judgmental. She is astonishingly critical of several of the therapists she consults (puzzlingly rude about their shoes). And she is mercilessly – often entertainingly – dismissive of the Mr Wrongs initially encountered online. It is as though fundamental lack – the loss of Paul – has led her to a sense that life is wanting in every aspect.
“The thing I miss more than anything is being the central person in someone’s life,” she writes – a line sure to resonate. Her startling book offers no easy help for grief (though CBT comes closest). And she remains outlandishly convinced (in spite of an audience with Julian Barnes, who tries to keep the conversation rational) that the white feathers she keeps seeing are communications from beyond. In her case, grief really does seem to be (as Emily Dickinson and Max Porter would have it) the “thing with feathers”.
The driving force behind Good Grief is a resolve to help others. Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird, mother and daughter, each lost a husband on the eve of the pandemic. Mayer’s husband, Andy Gill, lead guitarist of the band Gang of Four, had been touring in China and was, it now seems likely, an early Covid victim. Mayer Bird’s husband, John, an amateur artist, died of obstructive pulmonary disease and of blood cancer.
“Grief, like love, is a form of madness, a coup de foudre,” writes Mayer, “the lightning strike that changes everything.” Yet she notes people’s bemusement when she continues to behave like herself, not obviously felled by that lightning. Both women show how robustness and vulnerability can coexist. Mayer’s writing is forthright and Mayer Bird’s letters to her husband, written after his death, are a touching mix of devotion, desolation and domestic news.
Their argument is that most of us are unprepared for bereavement. They offer tips on the “sadmin” following a death. They are great on black humour too. They acknowledge the kindness of strangers, of friends and of each other. And they compile a valuable list of things not to say to the grieving. Most persuasive is their resistance to “How are you?” Don’t ask, although if you would like to know how bereavement is for the Mayers, their book – smart, upbeat and brimming with fortitude – tells all.
• The Mahogany Pod: A Memoir of Endings and Beginnings by Jill Hopper is published by Saraband (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• One Thousand Days and One Cup of Tea by Vanessa Moore is published by Kyle Books (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death by Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird is published by HQ (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply