“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” So wrote a Miss Strickland in 1832. Surely this is one of the most widely recognized and understood proverbs in our language. We all know what it’s like to miss someone.
But what about when the absence is permanent? Or deliberate?
Grief is, among other things, the way in which we cope with our evolving awareness that no matter how fond our heart may grow, the absent party is never coming back. Grief, as anybody who has experienced it has learned, is inherently contradictory: if we are to heal, we must continue to cherish that former presence—that face, that gesture, those loving words—while also agreeing that it can never again be. It is the difficulty of finding a solution to this puzzle that often prolongs the painful experience far beyond what appear to be reasonable bounds.
When a loved one chooses to remain apart we experience a different kind of pain, called by a different name—“heartbreak”, perhaps, or “abandonment”—that is related to grief, often feeling quite like it, but distinct, not least in that we know mutual presence remains possible, no matter how firmly, how permanently the absent one has committed themselves to separation. And when it is our choice to stay away, we wrestle with yet another inherent contradiction, between our hope that we are doing what’s best and the attachment we still feel.
The bottom line, of course, is that loss is loss; there is no working around it, no talking around it, no option at all but to accept and, ideally, embrace it. But it is in the journey to that end that the particulars of the absence and the character of the sufferer are manifested in their own unique fashion.
The Vanished is an exploration of absence—absence by death, absence by choice, all the absences that inevitably become part of our lives—and the hoops it makes us jump through, the paces it puts us through, its inescapable demands and ultimately its kindness in providing its own antidote. To say the book’s characters pine, more or less desperately, for lost and absent family members only scratches the surface; much more to the point is that for each, the way forward is defined by the idiosyncratic manner in which they pine, their own special and inimitable approach to grief. Grief is a journey, but it is also a destination and a starting place; grief is an antagonist, a willing companion, a fraud and a promise. Without grief we would not be human, but no human will ever welcome it.
This book began as a personal fantasy, an extended empathetic exercise, at a different time, one in which our appreciation of both the deaths of strangers and the lives of previous generations now seems, from our current perspective, astoundingly naïve. Our world is so beset by shared trouble—trouble that seems always immediate, that we never allow each other to forget—that individual losses, individual lives can begin to seem, if not insignificant, at least not important enough to take the time to describe. But these troubles, global though they may be, are made up entirely of those lives and losses, one by one. Who are we when the impossible to tolerate comes knocking at our door? The answer will do much to assist us, and we can learn a good deal of it from stories fictional and real.
It seems to me that, despite or because of our woes, our collective appreciation of the preciousness of life, of security, of mutual aid has been steadily increasing. I grew up in a society that was rapidly atomizing, and while that trend has not been reversed, we are also knitting together in entirely new ways. What is precious can be lost, and while we can overcome the immediate effects, we will always be diminished by every loss we experience. The better we appreciate the value of what we have before we lose it and our own capacity for healing afterwards, and the more we share these with each other, the more tolerable our lives will be, the greater our capacity for contentment, meaning, accomplishment, and joy.
The only thing harder for us to confront than the loss of others is the loss of ourselves. To watch your own death approach is a special form of grief that none of us can prepare for, but that we all hope to accept with tranquility and dignity. In The Vanished, Catherine Millet says of her dying husband, “He was happy to greet the people of Barbizon and his special friends from Paris, savoring their pride in him and grateful for their presence. All the rest, he declared, could ‘blow away’.” Surely this is to be envied. Our own end is something we can only hope to live up to. The grace of death, after all, is that it is the last loss we will experience, after which we will grieve no more.