How reading so many books about grief helped me through my own

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

She was so tiny, our daughter. As she took a bottle, her feathery body got sleepy. Her dark eyes fluttered, then closed. When she slept, she took on weight, became heavier, more substantive, and as I held her, my arm grew warm and tired. I could have put her down anywhere, even a blanket on the floor, but I didn’t. In the early hours when everyone else slept, I cradled my last baby in my arms. I wanted to savor every moment of her, yes. Really, though, I was afraid to let her go. While I held her, I read. If I fear looming loss, I find a book about, in the broadest of terms, grief. Fear of loss is really an anticipation of grief—and how to possibly endure it, I think. To sit with that tangle of fear and grief, I have become a well-versed grief reader. 

At the time, we were in the process of an open adoption her birth mom chose. Because we weren’t sure whether the birth father would assent to or contest this plan, which he threatened to do repeatedly during those first months, she hadn’t signed adoption papers immediately. As a result, we were in legal limbo. We were caring for a baby we intended to parent. We remained very connected to her birth mom, who retained her legal rights until the potential contestation of the adoption was resolved. We all waited for the necessary legal process to occur before we could complete the adoption.

The first indication the birth father might object came through a phone call to the adoption agency’s lawyer. He apparently yelled at the lawyer about the baby being his. “I told him he could get a DNA test and submit the paperwork to contest,” the lawyer told me he’d said to the irate man. I felt my stomach twist into a knot. We’d never met; he’d never tried to see the baby, who was asleep in her cradle in our house. “I don’t think he’s going to do this,” the lawyer added. I was aching with fear. I barely said anything in response, because terror choked my entire body, including my vocal cords.

The next morning, early, the baby gripped my finger with her slender fingers. I wished I could grasp back. So, I held her not only while she fed, but while she slept. It was terrifying to keep loving her and our family as it was configured while we feared losing her—and our fragile, new family constellation. During early mornings, holding her, I read memoirs, a habit I’d developed over time when grappling with loss or uncertainty.

To read about grief offers a portal to lean into what is hardest for another person. By extension, when I read about grief, I gain room to imagine where I might find some ability to press on if or when the thing I fear happens, to me. In the space of someone else’s suffering and discovery, I can imagine what could be hard for me, and what might be possible, too. I read in hopes I will learn, through the examples of how other people integrate and endure losses. I look less for formulas or patterns than potential camaraderie in the precarious and lonely endeavor of being human and being sad. I do not think our society holds a lot of respect or room for sadness.

More generally, I find other people’s stories often help me anticipate or reflect upon experiences more directly than theory or guidebooks. Before having our first child I’d clung to Anne Lamott’s iconic book on parenting Operating Instructions as a primer not on how to parent, but how to embrace the vulnerability and messiness of becoming a parent. She chronicled the first year of her son’s life as a single mother. She wondered, often, where the manual was, the one that explained what to do step-by-step. Truth was, she muddled through. When my turn came, I trusted muddling that much more than I would have, had I not read Lamott’s memoir.

Contemplating adoption, although I amassed many psychological or sociological books about race and about adult adoptees’ experiences, I repeatedly got stuck trying to read them. I don’t know if my response was information overload, or whether I simply bristled at pedantic tones, or I was preoccupied with plain old anxiety about whether we’d get to adopt a child in the first place. Memoir, though offered a way to envision myself as an adoptive parent, whether it was Cindy Champnella’s The Waiting Child, about adopting older children from China or Dan Savage’s, The Kid, which was undoubtedly what swayed us toward open adoption. Savage and his partner adopted DJ when open adoption was a very novel concept. Today, almost sixty to seventy percent of domestic adoptions are open.

During those months when we awaited the arcane legal machinations to grind along, excruciatingly slowly and painfully, my subject area shifted from adoption to loss. Meredith Hall’s Without a Map retraced her long-buried wound at having been forced to surrender a child to adoption as a pregnant teenager in the pre-Roe years when an unanticipated pregnancy often led to this. Suzanne Finnamore’s Split described her process of self-discovery and healing in the aftermath of her divorce. Ann Hood’s Comfort was about losing her daughter to sudden illness, and how she slowly made her way back into the world of the living. Vicki Forman’s This Lovely Life chronicled her very premature delivery of twins, one of whom died within days, the other who lived a decade and was profoundly disabled. Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination focused upon about the stillbirth she experienced at full term.

I was so terrified about the possibility we’d endure a shattering loss. I cried my way through these beautiful, aching books, with my baby’s head sweaty in the crook of my elbow. There was nothing subtle about my reading; I wanted to learn how people managed to survive the unthinkable, while I grappled with how I’d ever go on if my unthinkable occurred. We remained in limbo, the potential of the worst to us or best to us outcome lingered, neither closer nor farther away, just hung there for seven months.

When people write about the times during which they must dig the deepest, the writing itself is often stunning. Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour, for example, veers toward poetry in its cadence and precision. This is true of Elizabeth Alexander’s, The Light of the World. Riggs writes about dying of cancer; Alexander writes about surviving the sudden loss of her husband. Both writers chronicle where the mundane lifts up exquisitely, as if our most trodden emotions and experiences are also the ones where we find the most bittersweet beauty. Who knew? 

If I were to draw one single conclusion from all my grief reading, it would be this: the only way to fully experience feeling alive is to slow down enough to notice what it feels like. Loss—or even the potential of loss—somehow manages to offer us opportunity to fall into endlessness and light, a row knit, an ache endured, tears burning, showing up or being shown up for, and really, truly noticing how much meaning takes place in the smallest moments. It’s less in the wash of a lifetime, and more in the granular, specific and gorgeous mundanity that is being present.

Eventually, it became clear the birth father did not intend to obtain a DNA test or any other task indicating he might actually attempt to gain custody and a judge terminated his parental rights. The birth mother was free to sign papers. After that, we filed for adoption. When our baby was ten months, our family of six—two parents, four kids—sat with a judge, who finalized the adoption. I carried the trauma from all that fear into the court building and I carried a Polaroid of us with the judge in a plexiglass frame. The fear and grief, conjoined as they’d become, even though nothing had, in the end, engineered a different outcome, lingered inside me. Anyone who has immersed themselves in grief, an experience that isn’t exactly ever of one’s choosing, knows we don’t get over a loss, we carry it forward.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser’s work has appeared on TueNight, Motherwell, Full Grown People and other publications, including the 2021 anthology Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40. A graduate of Hampshire College and Warren Wilson College MFA program, she lives in Northampton, MA, where she is a community organizer.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter.