For the Death-Obsessed Searching for Ways to Grieve
I have found my answer — reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It was cathartic.
For me, Hamnet was the perfect COVID read. I had been avoiding it because I knew it would be incredibly sad and it is but it is also lovely and kind of what I needed in the middle of the mind-numbing number of COVID deaths we have experienced over the past two years. We have to find ways to deal with the trauma of the loss. We have to find ways to grief the loss of millions to this pandemic. Art has always been an important vehicle for my own personal processing of emotions, especially the process of reading. We read our past into the present and future and my past is filled with death and grieving.
Every parent dreads the death of a child. O’Farrell captures grief so well. I had been putting off reading this book because of the death. I’m the oldest of four children and my father died when I was 17, leaving a permanent and devastating impact on our family. Understandably, each of us is obsessed with death in our own unique way. Part of the trauma of dealing with death at such a young age is this strange process of imagining those you love most dying, preparing yourself emotionally for their eventual death.
So, of course, I read my own losses through Hamnet but I also read our collective losses due to COVID and I needed it in December 2021, nearly two years after the first known death of COVID-19.
Reading books where I know that one of the main characters is going to die is not something I typically choose to do. In fact, I started The Song of Achilles and put it down because I just didn’t want to live through his death. I had been avoiding Hamnet for similar reasons. However, I had read so many great things about the book that I eventually gave in and I have no regrets.
First, it is not really about Hamnet. It is about Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. When reading it, I didn’t really fall in love with Hamnet as much as I fell in love with his mother’s version of him which was really a beautiful way for me to enter into her grief and grieving. Second, his death does not wait until the end of the book. We build up to his death, he dies, and we grieve his death. It’s a nice narrative arc and it is therapeutic to move through the process. You are not left hanging. The author takes you through the emotional process and provides an ending with closure.
It is also very much about a woman’s experience and is an emotionally and psychologically internal novel. The main character, Agnes, is incredibly likable and the author does a great job of making her the main character. It is easy to become an Agnes fangirl. While Shakespeare is an important character, the book centers on Agnes and Shakespeare is brought into play in relation to Agnes. That’s always nice. The prose is beautiful. The images of the homes and the marketplace and the farms and woods are still with me. It was my final book of 2021 and a great way to end the year.
I highly recommend it even for those who are not death-obsessed or searching for outlets to facilitate our collective grieving.