Grief Is the Thing with Feathers 
by Max Porter.
Faber, 114 pp., £10, September 2015, 978 0 571 32376 0
Show More
Show More

Max Porter​ ’s compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, in which a being that resembles Ted Hughes’s Crow appears to a bereaved husband and his sons (the father happens to be writing a critical book about Hughes), qualifies as a novel by the familiar logic of its not fitting any other category. It is rich in hints about the place, or non-place, of death in our lives. People used to die, now they have end-of-life issues. The single person to have contributed most to this change is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving, who came up with the idea of grief’s having five stages. Originally she was concerned with the subjectivity of the dying person, making the case (contrary to Wittgenstein’s claim) for death being an event in life. It wasn’t a philosophical position but a matter of practical nursing. One of her tasks, when she was working as a psychiatrist in America in the unenlightened 1960s, was to persuade medical students to interact properly with the dying, who in those days were generally segregated and neglected – left to get on with it. Death wasn’t considered an event in the lives of medical professionals, perhaps seen instead as an indictment of their competence or an act of disloyalty.

We go to our deaths asymptotically, never getting there because ‘we’ and ‘there’ can’t exist at the same moment, even in the case of those who have chosen to die, like the painter Keith Vaughan in 1977, who continued to write his journal after taking the overdose:

I am ready for death though I fear it. Of course the whole thing may not work and I shall wake up. I don’t really mind either way. Once the decision seems inevitable the courage needed was less than I thought. I don’t quite believe anything has happened though the bottle is empty. At the moment I feel very much alive. P.W. rang and asked me to dine with him tonight. But I had already made the decision though not started the action. I can’t believe I have committed suicide since nothing has happened. No big bang or cut wrists. 65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure I did some [at this point the words lapse into illegibility and stop].

The five-stages idea soon migrated from the dying to the bereaved, and further afield again, as culture, particularly American culture, began to favour the notion of identity being constructed on the basis of wounds. David Kessler, who was Kübler-Ross’s co-author on her last two books, proposes that the same stages are present in every experience of loss, not just death but divorce, moving house and changing jobs. From here it’s not much of a stretch to the Onion story published under the headline Man with Friend with Cancer ‘Going through a rough Time’:

Three months ago, Mark Sennis received the news that everyone dreads: Ben Murphy, a friend and coworker with whom he ‘occasionally went out to lunch’, had been diagnosed with cancer.

‘You never think you’re going to be the one,’ Sennis said. ‘At first, I remember thinking, “How can this be happening to me? What have I done to deserve to have a friend with cancer?”’…

‘People ask how I’m doing and I say: “I’m scared and I’m angry,” Sennis said. “Unless you’ve personally experienced the pain and hardship that comes with having a coworker you’re fairly close to get cancer, you wouldn’t understand.”’

It’s understandable that Kessler is enthusiastic about his famous mentor and the thanatological work on which they collaborated, but he gets a little carried away when he says, about the reception given to On Death and Dying, that it was ‘as if the event of death had not occurred’ before the book was published in 1969.

Emerson, writing his journal in January 1842 as a newly bereaved father, seems fully engaged with the event:

What he looked upon is better; what he looked not upon is insignificant. The morning of Friday, I woke at three o’clock, and every cock in every barnyard was shrilling with the most unnecessary noise. The sun went up the morning sky with all his light, but the landscape was dishonoured by this loss. For this boy, in whose remembrance I have both slept and awaked so oft, decorated for me the morning star, the evening cloud, how much more all the particulars of daily economy; for he had touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact and circumstance in the household, the hard coal and the soft coal which I put into my stove; the wood, of which he brought his little quota for grandmother’s fire; the hammer, the pincers and file he was so eager to use; the microscope, the magnet, the little globe, and every trinket and instrument in the study; the loads of gravel on the meadow, the nests in the hen-house, and many and many a little visit to the dog-house and to the barn. – For everything he had his own name and way of thinking, his own pronunciation and manner. And every word came mended from that tongue …

It seems as if I ought to call upon the winds to describe my boy, my fast receding boy, a child of so large and generous a nature that I cannot paint him by specialties, as I might another … He named the parts of the toy house he was always building by fancy names which had a good sound, as ‘the interspeglium’ and ‘the corigada’, which names, he told Margaret, ‘the children could not understand.’

If I go down to the bottom of the garden it seems as if some one had fallen into the brook.

How would you go about dividing Emerson’s grief into components? There seems to be no bargaining and no anger in this agony of perfect loss, and certainly no denial, though his mourning was still new. Waldo, aged five, had died of scarlet fever three days before. Emerson presumably didn’t need to be told that his grief was as unique as he was, though that’s the current reassurance offered by Kessler:

The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is as unique as you are.

In some ways this seems only common sense, but it’s odd to have the celebrated stages stripped at this late date of their strong underlying suggestion of discreteness and direction (and what might those additional stages reported by people in grief consist of?).

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers insists on its status as a literary artefact from the title onwards, with that nod to Emily Dickinson, both homage and correction, since in her poem feathers accompany and denote hope. To be explicitly literary in this context is to be secondhand, insistently, even aggressively secondhand, and to disavow the raw subjectivity, unshaped by previous expression, that is the assumed precondition for the conveying of personal emotion – and this is only the first of a series of formal and tonal decisions, none of them obvious, that build up a jarring new harmony. The epigraph cites a different Dickinson poem (numbered 1765), crucial nouns from which, ‘Love’, ‘freight’, ‘groove’, have been replaced – visibly superimposed rather than simply substituted – with the word ‘Crow’. There’s no doubt that Hughes is the tutelary deity of this book, or the king to be slain in its sacred grove, and Crow its totem animal.

Dickens had a raven called Grip, in fact a series of birds bearing that name, and was on friendly terms with Edgar Allan Poe, who had admired the depiction of the raven in Barnaby Rudge (also called Grip) and was pleased to learn he had a real-life model. Poe knew (at least this is Guy Davenport’s contention in ‘The Geography of the Imagination’) that the raven was the device figuring on the banner of Alaric the Visigoth, so that a raven settling on a bust of Athene, as it does in the poem – ‘Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door’ – is a highly compressed image for the overthrow of reason. (Athens surrendered to Alaric in 395.) Hughes’s Crow retains the connection with the genus Corvus and with death but mixes in characteristics from Loki, the trickster who sometimes helps the gods and sometimes acts against them. As taken over into Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Crow (his functions listed as ‘friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter’) has a little of the thanatologist about him, as well as a lot of the shaman.

The sensation of déjà vu or déjà lu is eerily reinforced by the image and typography on the cover of the book, which echoes though also contradicts the cover of the first edition of Hughes’s collection. Leonard Baskin’s 1970 image offered a distinctly full-frontal Crow, naked-seeming, with barely a suggestion of feathers, sporting something much more like a scrotum or stumpy genital than a cloaca, and supported by a pair of legs whose bulk would do credit to the beefiest emu; Eleanor Crow’s dark silhouette on Max Porter’s book (the designer surely self-selecting for the commission) is more muted and harmonious, with no delineation of an eye, not exactly comforting – beak open – but short on actual threat. The Crow of the text comes closer to the Hughesian archetype, smelling to human nostrils of decay, ‘a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast’. Crow has a nose of his own, and assesses the widower’s bouquet with a wine columnist’s precision and panache: ‘notes of rotten hedge, bluebottles’. His relationship to his victim/client has a number of strands, protective, predatory and even voluptuous: ‘I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him.’

Crow at one point retrieves the childhood memories of the dead woman, who is haunting not her family but (apparently this is something the dead do) her early life: ‘Playdates! Red Cross building, parquet floor, plimsolls. Brownies. Angel biscuits … Dance-offs. Fig Rolls. Patchwork for Beginners. Invisible ink … Trampolines/aniseed sweets/painted eggs. Pencil sharpenings? Magic Faraway, Robert the something, Robert the Rose Horse?’

The bereaved man is convinced by this performance, even marginally consoled:

‘Thank you Crow.’

‘All part of the service.’

‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

‘Lucky me.’

The apparition is somehow family-friendly, since the sons who have lost a mother also interact with Crow. The book starts with their finding black feathers on their beds, a discovery that makes them decide to sleep on the floor. This is characteristic of the dance Porter’s book does towards and away from various sets of convention, a sort of hesitation waltz or one-person tango.

The book presents mourning as another thing that doesn’t qualify as an event in life, or at least takes place in a different dimension, a parallel world of loss. There’s a single reference to the funeral, well attended, another to the dead woman’s family helping with the service and with expenses. There’s an explicit acknowledgment of Dad’s brother’s helpfulness, but after the initial flurry of connectedness none of these people plays a part in the life after the death. They might as well all have died too, for all the benefit of their livingness.

As the dead woman is first evoked, she is not so much a person as a sustainer of a set of categories or symbolic properties, metaphysical sensations: ‘Soft./Slight./Like light, like a child’s foot talcum-dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse, like seeds, like everything grained, plaited, linked or numbered, like everything nature-made and violent and quiet./It is all completely missing. Nothing patient now.’ ‘Very romantic, how we first met’ is a statement applied to Dad and Crow, not Dad and his dead wife. Only a little later are specifics given of how she lived: ‘She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus)./She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)./And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ These curtailed, interrupted, suspended activities correspond to a present tense that has been abruptly abolished.

Mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement. It’s no small thing to call on the brain to model an absence, and not everyone can do it. In the 2014 Horizon documentary Living with Autism, Sarah Hendrickx discusses the workings of her emotional life. She says: ‘I don’t miss people. I don’t have the emotion of missing somebody when they’re not there. I might prefer them to be with me – but I don’t think it’s the same emotion that I understand other people have, of missing people.’

She asks her boyfriend, Keith, who has the same condition: ‘Do you miss me, when I’m not there? I don’t think you do – I think we’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?’

He thinks he does miss her. ‘When I interact with others, yes, because the interaction I have with them is never as satisfying as the interaction I have with you.’

She’s not persuaded. ‘Is that “missing”? You’ve always said “I prefer it when you’re there” … I think “missing” involves abstract imagination. It involves some ability to picture another reality apart from the one you’re in at the moment. I don’t think either of us are particularly capable of doing that.’ So missing someone, of which mourning is the fullest version, may feel like an affliction, but it’s also a skill. It’s not something that follows automatically from the knowledge that there are other people in the world.

The short sections of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers are centred on ‘Dad’, ‘Crow’ or ‘Boys’. No names are supplied, and the brothers, though explicitly not twins, aren’t explored separately, or contrasted much by way of age difference (not specified). They’re only identified as bigger or smaller, ‘one’ or ‘the other’, functioning as a unit or a balance of opposites. It might make sense to suggest that the boys are sealed into brotherhood by the loss of their mother, but the book’s prevailing weather is as much anti-psychological as psychological. Though the boys are supposed to need ‘time’ in fact they need ‘washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows’. Meanwhile their father, also supposed to be in need of time, stands in need of ‘Shakespeare, Ibn ’Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf’.

Bereavement is hardly a game, but in a family there will always be a certain amount of acting-out, symbolic negotiations that have their own wayward logic. So one of the Boys atones for having lost a note his mother once left in his lunchbox by breaking the glass on Dad’s John Coltrane poster, and Dad understands. The book’s emotional landscape may be desolate but it is fully energised. The sections flit from parable to skit to list, with sudden swerves, so that an odd dark fable about fraternal conflict ends as an exam question: ‘Does the rural setting of the story change the way you engage with the characters?’ An extra layer of unpredictability is provided by the point of view, which is bounced from place to place. Dad’s rather anticlimactic encounter with his hero Ted Hughes is recounted by the boys, though it happened long before they were born (‘Our Dad was quiet and shifty and romantic and you could smoke indoors then’). When Crow decides to get in on the act at the Birds of Prey Flying Display, it’s the ‘plump ginger guide with a radio mic’ who steps in as narrator: ‘HOW ABOUT THAT! That, ladies and gentlemen, is a brave little bastard. That is a crow, SURFIN’ A BALD EAGLE!’

What is surprising about the absence of specifics is how little they matter in this context, the crude markers of sincerity. It may be that mourning always has something abstract about it, for those not actually doing the mourning, the loss of a decorative tile, perhaps, but not a keystone suddenly gone missing. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is more a fantasy grammar of loss than a conventional narrative, as close to, say, A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes’s inventory of the rhetoric that underlies and also structures romantic feelings, as to the novelistic confrontation with slow-burning loss (‘I came to grief late in life’ are the opening words) of Paul Bailey’s Gabriel’s Lament.

There’s no mention in Porter’s book of those five stages, and the idea of ‘moving on’ from grief doesn’t get much of a look in. When friends (those unreal people, murmuring soothing advice into a smoking crater) propose the notion, the response emerges through a fixed grin. ‘Oh, I said, we move. WE FUCKING HURTLE THROUGH SPACE LIKE THREE MAGNIFICENT BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS, thank you, Geoffrey, and send my love to Jean.’ The ability to function at some level shouldn’t be confused with the acceptance posited as the final stage by the Kübler-Ross model. Emerson could hardly be more emotionally present in his journal entries for January 1842, in a way that makes his earlier comments on loss and making good (in ‘Compensation’, from the first series of his essays) seem callow: ‘the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life.’ But when he refers to the loss of Waldo in the essay ‘Experience’, from the second series, the break with the tone of the journals is absolute:

The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is … In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, – no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, – neither better nor worse.

In those two years Emerson seems to have unlearned a lot. The public sage has reconstituted himself, and the boy has not just receded but disappeared. He takes his sweetly pretentious interspeglium and corigada with him. There’s something almost wilfully horrible about Emerson’s choice of a mercantile register, a ledger of transactions with no column for the unquantifiables of lost intimacy and found pain. It’s as if he was consciously trivialising the depth of his sorrow and dismissing two people, the person who had brought him to it and the person it briefly made him become. Wasn’t he closer to wholeness when his loss was unbearable than in the confident lay-preaching before and after it?

The problem​ with a book about the impact of death, like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, is that closure isn’t something the bereaved can expect, but it’s a reasonable hope for readers. Death translated into a body of words is no longer death. The idea of progress in the grief-work keeps coming back. There’s a sort of final session of analysis between Crow and Dad, where they look back on how far they’ve come. ‘You’ll remember with some of my early work with you,’ Crow says, ‘that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery.’ It’s agreed between the species that grief is complex and changeable. ‘It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.’ Crow again – he’s doing most of the talking. Grief shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms. Such as? ‘Oh, feathers. Turds? Waves? Honeycomb? String? Intestines? Bones? Feathers, said that, cat-flaps, wait, no, wait, hats, maps, traps, books, rooks, creeks, peek in my beaks …’ Absurdism heads off solemnity just in time.

Yet the need for resolution never goes away. In the last section of the book the conventions start to be reinstated. Dad and the boys scatter the dead woman’s ashes, though there’s been no previous mention either of cremation as an event nor the urn (actually a tin) as an object. After the scornful dismissal by Dad of the idea of moving on, it turns out that narrative – and even quasi-narrative – has an atavistic need for resolution, however much the writer may try to resist it. This shift towards closure in the dying pages of the book is less like an atheist’s last-breath conversion to novelistic orthodoxy than a terminally ill patient’s weary concession, faced with family pressure, that the forms be followed if it makes everybody happy. A few hymns and a blessing, where’s the harm? Anything for a quiet death. But a rite of passage of some description seems to be a requirement in this context.

The other end of her dying, not the disposal of remains but their creation from a living body, is an event kept in the far background by Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, though Crow, in his curious channelling of both id and superego, raises the subject more than once in his conversations with Dad. Dad’s attitude is that ‘she was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.’ At first Crow holds back on the ‘sour bulletins’ about ‘the true one-hour dying of his wife’, then begins to press him a little. ‘This is the story of how your wife died … She banged her head.’ Dad refuses the approach, saying with some ambiguity: ‘Crow, really, it’s fine. I know. I don’t need to know.’ Only in his poetic leave-taking does Crow go into any detail: ‘Accident in the home./She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell,/Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.’

A death entirely without meaning – just one of those things, ‘total waste’, no farewell, no last words. Except that Crow steps back from this brink when he describes the corpse: ‘Lifeless cheek, lifeless shin, foot and toe. Wedding ring. Smile.’ A last expression, then, filling in for last words, and a dead body that continues to send messages to the living. When even an imaginary crow can’t abide by the logic of a meaningless death, it’s clear that the need to find significance at the moment life ends runs deep.

Famous last words​ need an audience. Someone must hear what is said, and must write it down – it would be embarrassing to admit that you weren’t certain of the phrasing. Someone needed to transcribe Keith Vaughan’s last words, and to decide at what point exactly they became illegible. The deathbed scene is a highly literary artefact, with editorial interventions both at the time and subsequently, when it is written down. Adam Phillips in Darwin’s Worms (1999) looks at the way Freud’s death is narrated in biographies by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. There are plenty of differences, but both biographers need to see Freud as ‘the master of self-mastery’. Jones in particular, flying in the face of all the psychoanalytic evidence, presents him as ‘a remarkably consistent, heroically unified subject’. But it’s not just cultural titans who are reshaped by those who witness their deaths. We seem to have a need to imagine dying as a plenary session of consciousness, and to forget that the boundary between life and death is porous, full of intermediate states and no-man’s-lands.

A letter to the Guardian from Rab MacWilliam, 6 October 2007:

Further to David McKie’s piece on famous last words, I remember reading about the last words of the US writer O. Henry. He was lying motionless on his deathbed and nobody around knew if he was still alive. ‘I know,’ said one of the group, ‘touch his feet – no one ever died with warm feet.’ O. Henry slowly raised his head from the pillow, commented ‘Joan of Arc did,’ and promptly expired.

The promptness of expiry is typical of the genre, eliding the gap of time between last words and last breath. It’s an exemplary piece of narrative, with the master of the short-story surprise ending providing one, off the cuff, for his own life. But it has nothing to do with O. Henry, whose actual (or alleged) last words are recorded in C. Alphonso Smith’s biography of 1916:

‘He was perfectly conscious until within two minutes of his death Sunday morning,’ said Doctor Hancock, ‘and knew that the end was approaching. I never saw a man pluckier in facing it or in bearing pain. Nothing appeared to worry him at the last.’ There was no pain now and just before sunrise he said with a smile to those about him [quoting a popular song of 1907]: ‘Turn up the lights; I don’t want to go home in the dark.’ He died as he had lived. His last words touched with a new beauty and with new hope the refrain of a concert-hall song, the catch-word of the street, the jest of the department store. He did not go home in the dark. The sunlight was upon his face when he passed.

This is also an elaborate piece of construction, but far less good a fit, with its slightly grating piety, for a writer of lightweight short stories. The Joan-of-Arc’s-feet story is better attested for Samuel Upham, a professor at Drew Theological Seminary, in whose life it fits less well, being jocular rather than professionally engaged with eternity. So a suitable transfer is brokered from the pastor to the wag. After all, the scenario of pluckiness, sunlight on face, redeemed prostitute keeping vigil, was a hard sell in the case of Henry, a hardened drinker whose wife had left him the previous year and who was succumbing to cirrhosis at the age of 47. Anecdotes know better, and swim upstream to more hospitable waters.

Everything is tidied up, made flattering. You can announce more or less consistently across an illustrious career that your attitude to death is one of cringing terror and indignity, and still your deathbed will turn out to be a place of stoical reflection: ‘Larkin had died at 1.24 a.m., turning to the nurse who was with him, squeezing her hand, and saying faintly: “I am going to the inevitable.”’ Of course there are advantages to setting the bar low, with a previous insistence on cowardice making it relatively likely that you will outperform your dignity targets, but these particular dying words seem to have strayed from the Life of some eminent Victorian, in the period before Lytton Strachey made that category ridiculous in itself. It’s ripe for replacement by something more in keeping.

The fetish for last moments and last words corresponds in some rather downmarket way to the Ciceronian description of philosophy as learning how to die. Clearly there are cases (Christ, Socrates) where the construction of an exemplary death is indispensable. A Christ who died on the cross without speaking would fall below full human standing let alone divinity, and a Socrates who displayed less than the full range of his character, dropping the jokes and ironies as the hemlock cup came near, would leave no sort of legacy. But for most of us the crafting of ‘a good death’ is a grotesque aspiration.

Montaigne took the Ciceronian tag as the title of an essay, but his interpretation of it is typically undoctrinaire. Modern medicine has made near-death experiences relatively common, but Montaigne had the privilege of a dress rehearsal in 1569 or so, after a fall from a horse. He had been riding on a slow mount, so as to be able to think his own thoughts in an agreeable rhythm, when one of his servants, who was riding a more powerful animal, decided to see how fast it could go, like a rebellious teenager putting Dad’s Ferrari through its paces. He lost control and cannoned into the seigneur, who was thrown and lost consciousness. In the days that followed, Montaigne passed through a number of states of mind, none of them corresponding to his expectations of confronting mortality. He might easily have died, but if so he would have dropped off to death as people fall asleep, and all the mental preparation he had imposed on himself over the years would have gone for nothing.

Before the accident Montaigne had been gloomy almost on principle, but in later life he became much more cheerful. He had been at risk of sacrificing the prospect of a good life to the mirage of a good death. The person who did the dying was only atypically the same person who had prepared for death, and the two things needed to be considered separately, the good life and the good death (in which chance necessarily plays a part). Dying in this century is a different experience, since at least in the developed world we are likely to approach death along a corridor of lesser oblivions, leaving the feast not just dazed but consensually sozzled with everything that medical science can introduce into our bloodstreams. But the same principle holds true, even if the few bad moments at the end of the life envisioned by Montaigne can now be very many.

In fact the only person more or less required to have an old-fashioned ‘good death’ is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004. As Kessler puts it, ‘for some who idolised her, there was an electric anticipation that something amazing might happen around her death – that the death and dying expert would have an unsurpassed experience. I don’t know what their expectations were, whether it would be music from on high or mysterious rainbows appearing, but none of that happened. Her death was quite normal.’ That seems to misrepresent the curiosity of outsiders. It’s not an irrelevant question to ask if Kübler-Ross practised what she preached, any more than it would be to reassure yourself that Delia Smith doesn’t give her dinner guests food poisoning. It’s not like asking what her favourite film was – though this Kessler does tell us (it’s E.T.)

The scene as he paints it is resolutely soft-focus: ‘Elisabeth’s death included all the ordinary pleasures that she had so passionately advocated for over the years – her room with lots of flowers, a large picture window, loved ones, her grandkids and my kids playing at the foot of her bed. The ordinary nature of her death exemplified that the radical change she created had by then become a reality.’ After his piece appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, the magazine published a letter from Eugen Bannerman, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University, Ontario, drawing attention to a very different portrait of Kübler-Ross’s late life, in Paula Todd’s A Quiet Courage. Todd had interviewed Kübler-Ross in March 2002, hoping for material for her inspirational book about people who have thrived despite adversity. Instead of encountering a pool of reflective calm she found herself interviewing ‘one of the angriest, most difficult people I have ever met’. Kübler-Ross, who had suffered a series of strokes, was living in disorder, surrounded by ashtrays full of cigarette butts, dirty dishes, empty food containers. Her greeting was ‘Life is shit. Go away. Shit, shit, shit.’ Todd was as tactful as she knew how, saying how much Kübler-Ross’s work meant to the world, and how valuable her insights would be. ‘It’s all bullshit,’ she yelled, and reached out to hit Todd’s arm. ‘I give you a karate chop. Chop, chop, chop.’ Eventually Kübler-Ross agreed to talk to Todd as long as she cooked potatoes for her, and then made soup. She talked about the fifty ‘spirits’ who now lived in the house with her, the lingering souls of dead loved ones or strangers who kept her company. ‘She confides that she thinks God is angry with her, punishing her by keeping her on earth when she lacks the mobility to enjoy anything, especially the outdoors and her garden.’ Todd was instructed to prepare a cheese board before she left, ‘a good one’, and was rewarded with Kübler-Ross stretching out her index finger in farewell, saying ‘E.T., E.T.’ Her last words to Todd were: ‘Don’t live past seventy. It’s hell.’

As she put it in her 2001 book, Life Lessons, which Todd duly quotes: ‘So many people have told me how much they appreciate my stages on death and dying, of which anger is one. But now, so many people in my life disappeared when I became angry myself … It’s as if they loved my stages but didn’t like me being in one of them.’ That doesn’t quite seem to cover it. As Bannerman put it in his letter, ‘Kübler-Ross had entered the sixth and final stage of dying: anger at God for NOT letting her die. Not her books, patients or students, but her own experience of illness had brought her to this final stage. She could only rage against the “staying” of the light.’ It seems ominous that Kübler-Ross should be on better terms with death than with life, but on the whole this prickly, ornery person, the raging granny in the attic of the good-death movement, seems a preferable figure to the trader in vacuous serenity who in The Wheel of Life (1997) claimed that ‘as I pass from this world to the next, I know that heaven and hell is determined by the way people live their lives in the present’ and that ‘there is no problem that is not actually a gift.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences