"Getting Over It" and the Writing of Memoir
Contributor
Both my parents' deaths were very much an "unfinished business", without any real closure, and I am writing a memoir about my mother; this has left me, for the last two years of working on this book, to meditate almost daily on the nature of "getting over it"—that common place and common sense phrase that resonates as absurd, false and grotesque in my mind.

Being from a different language, I always find it interesting how unspecific English can be when dealing with feelings and actions—and this from a language that has so many different words to describe vaguely similar objects and their possible uses. 
A generic verb like "to get" is used to cover a multitude of sins, or possibilities; in Italian, as in French, or Spanish, or any other language I know a little about, there are very precise verbs, or elaborate turns of phrases, that describe the same actions or feelings covered by the English "to get" + various prepositions, adjectives or nouns. 
To get off, out, by, down, up, at, away, hot, cold, thirsty, hungry, even, into, on, it, over, real, somewhere, through, ahead, after, a life, a move on, away with, together, wind of, with it... The list is almost infinite.



When my mother died, I was living in Vancouver, BC, and had just started the first year of a PhD that I subsequently had to abandon for various reasons. One of these (not a reason any academic department would ever take into consideration) was the fact that I had not been allowed any real space and time to grieve. 
After spending a couple of traumatic weeks in Italy sorting through (now here's another "get-like" verb) legal documents and my mother's messy and filthy apartment and trying to sort out my own messy and not altogether pure feelings, I got (ha ha) back to university, where I was supposed to have had my allocated time to "deal with it" and was expected to get back to my work. Which I did, but not with the same degree of success, or enthusiasm, I had had in the first half of the year. And thereafter, the tormenting ghost of my mother, and the specter of my own guilt, have been a feature of my life.


In our contemporary Western cultures, death has so little room, we are not supposed to think about it, dwell on it, be absorbed in it. We are supposed to take a few days, a couple of weeks at the most, off work or school, and then "get right back to it" and "get on with it". 
In novelist Howard Norman's beautiful book "The Northern Ligths", one character says: 
"I never could stand that saying, Time Heals...It heals some thing, but makes the rest worse just because they've gone on longer." 
When I read this sentence, it stopped me in my tracks. As simply worded as it was, it was also absolutely, utterly true. And also runs contrary to the received notion that we can just "get over" anything and everything in time; that pain will disappear; that all manners of longings and yearnings and losses will simply fall away like dead leaves from an autumnal tree.
It ain't necessarily so, as the song used to go. Not for all of us, at least. So what do you do with those resistant longings and pains? You can turn them into art, of course, if you are so inclined. You can write about them. An artist whose name escapes me now, once said something like this: what's the use of pain if you can't sublimate it into art? 


In writing about my mother's death (she died alone and was found dead a long time after the fact), I was forced to delve into topics that are, to many contemporary people, distasteful at best, horrific at worst: the decomposition of the flesh; how to dispose of a dead body; funeral rites and the aftermath of whatever kind of disposal we choose—be it cremation or burial. One way I found to deal with these unimaginable horrors was to resort to my intellectual curiosity and find out as much as I could about the physiology of death and decomposition, and also to research various rituals of death in different cultures. 
We all have our methods for making sense of pain, and the cerebral way is my way—lest I should go crazy otherwise; and because I don't believe in any religion or form of spirituality taking the pain away. 
Some of the research I undertook for my memoir will make its way into the book, in different forms; some will not. But I always find it a useful underpinning to support an edifice that might otherwise crumble at any time under the weight of unbearable personal grief. Research puts everything into perspective—the perspective of realizing that we are not the center of everything (we are of our own small universes, but not of the universe); that a story needs to have some wider appeal and value to function.


But, going back to the "getting over" the grief: what I also find interesting, in the writing of memoir, is the commonplace idea that in order to write about something very painful, you have to have "processed" it first; yet it is never very clear what that processing would entail—because, not withstanding the "How To" psychobabble that is so fashionable in American discourse, no one really knows; and because a different kind of processing is required for each and every person. 
I have my own personal take on this "processing": I do believe that a certain amount of emotional distance is required to write about something personal and painful. However, too much distance can render the experience generic, the writing bland, the voice obfuscated. There is a hard balance between writing as a kind of therapy (I'd always advice to go through a lot of therapy first, and then start writing), and a kind of writing that incorporates the visceral aspect of a pain that is still present and raw, that makes it palpable for the reader, even to the point of discomfort—and who says that we always have to make our readers comfortable? Only the more commercial blandness that passes for art today. 
The artist of the past knew how to make waves, and how to turn those waves into tsunamis. I don't claim to have found that perfect balance yet, but it's something I'm grappling and working with, and that's the kind of writing I aim for. It's not for everybody, not for the faint of heart, it will never be a commercial success if it makes it into print, but it's the kind of stuff I myself like to read (call me a masochist), and I, too, am a reader— a part of the audience that one is supposed to think about when writing.


And, at the end of the day, if you are writing about it, you are not really "getting over" it: you are getting into it instead.

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