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Culture & Religion

Joyce Carol Oates’s Meditation on Loss

Milan Kundera wrote that “we can never really know what to want because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, nor perfect it in our lives to come.” This is true of loss, uniquely; the extent to which we are willing to suffer can only be gauged in retrospect, if ever. In the new Atlantic, Joyce Carol Oates—a novelist known more for prolific production than for public personal reflection—writes about life after losing her spouse, a man with whom she shared not only the intimacy of marriage but also a literary publishing partnership that lasted for forty-eight years. In the annals of personal communication, this relationship deserves notice.

The piece is titled “I Am Sorry To Inform You,” a reference to rejection slips sent subsequently from the quarterly she ran with her husband. 

Oates notes the irony of receiving sympathy: we want it; it remains the socially acceptable response to the pain of others, but the “this too shall pass” pressure on the mourner can be suffocating. Sometimes suffering is necessary–and slow. Sometimes we deserve the chance to feel the depth of loss. She writes about her close friend Gail; Gail understood:

Gail has offered me sympathy, counsel. I am so very broken, I have trouble speaking. Rarely do I speak to anyone on the telephone but I am able to speak with Gail and to tell Gail that I wish we lived closer together. We might commiserate together, but neither of us is likely to move. Who but Gail Godwin would tell me: “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.”

This is so. This is true. But the test is: Am I strong enough to suffer? And for how long?

Is this grief?—such exhaustion, melancholy? A feeling of dazed dizzy not-rightness, like the sensation you feel before acute nausea? A sensation of being off-balance—both spiritually and physically—as if something has worked its way loose inside my head?

Grief is a kind of physical disability, like losing a limb, or chronic flu. But also an indifference to illness, or a sense that, being a widow, having outlived your husband, you deserve ill health, you deserve to be punished.

Ray would reject this as ridiculous. Ray would put his arms around me and say Now you don’t mean that, honey. You don’t really mean that.

Oates describes an amazing moment when, confronted by students expressing their concern, she closes herself in her office, shocked that “they know.” Her words remind us that the courage to suffer is the confidence to respect the magnitude of the loss.


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