Looking at Death from Both Sides


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Looking at Death from Both Sides
By Bobby Neal Winters

The subject of death is not one that often comes up in casual conversation, yet it is certainly an experience each of us will share in one day. Likely as not, each of us has experienced the death of a friend or a family member and know the bitterness of grief firsthand, so it is not surprising we don't want to spend our leisure hours reading about it. However, through no design of my own, I've recently read a pair of books each of which takes a look at death, and each looks from an opposite angle.

The first of these is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I was introduced to this book while judging dramatic interpretation, DI for short, at the local forensics meet. For those of you who are unfamiliar with DI, think of spending an hour-and-a-half in a room with half-a-dozen talented high school students, mostly female, who are trying desperately to make you cry. I point out the gender imbalance because it is so apparent. These young ladies have taken emoting to a level their male peers may never attain. On the other hand, I am a father of daughters and have been conditioned to respond to such emotion. In short, I was an emotional basket case by the time the session was over, the room having been filled death, rape, AIDS, drunk driving, and revenge.

One of the pieces was a short extract from The Lovely Bones, which was so well written I was inspired to buy the book and read all of it.

The main character in the book is a fourteen-year-old girl named Susie who is raped and murdered in the first chapter. If you can make it through that first chapter of this book with any part of your face below the eyes dry, then I take off my hat to you, but on the other hand, I might be a little afraid of you. Sebold knows where all of our natural emotional connecting points are, and she manipulates them as a master pianist presses the keys on a piano. There is something in this book to extract tears from anyone regardless of age or gender.

The story itself is told through the eyes of the murder victim herself, in first person. She views the world from her own personal heaven, and through her eyes we see how her family is shattered by her violent removal from their midst, how her father, in particular, is driven to near madness by his grief, but how there time does ultimately provide healing.

I found Sebold's exposition of the effect of grief on the father to be particularly insightful. When stripped of the ancient role of protecting the family from violence, the father sinks into crazed helplessness.

From the opposite side, there is Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which was recommended to me by a former mentor of mine.

Albom, who is a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, chronicles the death of his mentor Morris Schwartz who died from ALS. This is the true story of a man who discovered that he had Lou Gerhig's while in his seventies. Upon learning of his professor's looming demise, Albom seeks his once and future teacher out and begins visiting him each Tuesday. In this way, we see frames from Morrie's life as he progresses inevitably toward its end.

It is difficult to imagine how two books could be more different. Sebold's artfully written, ornamented fiction extracts our emotions with force, while Albom's clear, pure nonfiction allows them emerge on their own. In Sebold's telling of the grief of a family from the point of view of a teenager in the afterlife, we recede from the moment of death, while Albom's narrative of a mature man who loves life reconciling himself with the inevitability of its end draws us closer to the moment of death.

One thing the books have in common, other than the subject, is they are quick reads. The Lovely Bones reads quickly because Sebold has the talent of enticing you to turn just one more page, read just one more chapter. Her ability in this area is so strong, I am tempted to use violent adjectives to describe it, yet her language is so beautiful I cannot. One flows along on the river of prose.

Tuesdays with Morrie is a short book, and Albom's clear prose is transparent to the reader. He writes entirely without ornament, but that is exactly what is required by his task.

Sebold is a genius, and I will never be able to write at her level, while Albom is a master craftsman and if I work hard enough and live to be a thousand, I might write a tenth as well as he does. Having said that, I should tell you I would recommend Tuesdays with Morrie above The Lovely Bones for the simple reason the second left me in a heap of emotional exhaustion while the first was uplifting, even hopeful.
Both of those books have been recently showcased on "Richard and Judy", a rather popular presenter couple on UK TV.

Death as a subject - yes, my nana died last month. We only have a very small family nucleus, so it was an event - though she had been terribly ill with emphysema for a many years. I was able to go see the body lying in state, and finally got to face death. Got to write up something about that still.
I've been surprised in the degree to which certain members of the family are the glue that holds the family together. My sympathies which you on your nana's passing.