The unique banality of loss

Three things last week made me contemplate loss and what it means to me as a human being and as a writer. They didn’t seem all that related when I first read them, but by the end of the week, they had coalesced into these thoughts.

The first was an extremely well written interview in Esquire magazine with Liam Neeson (thanks, C), who many of you know, lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident in 2009. I’m not a huge fan of the celebrity interview, but I am a fan of Neeson’s and I was extremely impressed by Tom Chiarella’s thoughtful and well-written piece.

In it, Neeson does speak of his wife’s death and of his life since. The passage that stuck with me the most was his story of going to the hospital where his wife was being treated and, for the first time in a long time, no one recognized him. He wasn’t a celebrity or an actor, he was simply a frustrated man who couldn’t get an answer about where his loved one was being kept.

Chiarella writes:

 “He’s too smart to feel singled out by what happened to his wife. Her death, with its painfully curious timeline — the simple fall, her apparent clearheadedness, followed by the swift, merciless brain hemorrhage? Brutal and extraordinary. Neeson’s experience at the hospital — the mix-up at reception, the chaos of the ER, the arrival of the security guard? Vivid and, at the same time, banal. Just another hospital story; everyone has them.”

“Brutal and extraordinary.”

“Vivid and … banal.”

This, to me, encapsulates the essence of loss.

The second thing, of course, was the hideous news out of Norway. Loss again, but this time on a grand and terrible scale. How to wrap your mind around it? You cannot. Seventy-six people? Heartbreaking and tragic.

When young people are lost, I think society feels not only the horrid grip of their loss, but also of their potential. What scientist or poet, what peacemaker or genius did we lose in this stunning decimation of young life? We will never know. And in tragedies such as this we are reminded again of the precious nature of individual life.

In the quiet of their homes, the families that lost sons, daughters, brothers or sisters in this horrible bombing and shooting are not the survivors of a mass terror attack, they are individuals ripped apart by the loss of a single loved one.

“Brutal and extraordinary.”

“Vivid and … banal.”

The last piece of writing I wanted to share was Russell Brand’s touching and sensitive tribute to Amy Winehouse, who died last week. The media spent a lot of time talking about Winehouse’s tabloid life, the age at which she died, and the addictions she battled. But Brand, who has battled his own addictions openly, writes about her genius and the challenge and heartbreak of caring for someone on such a self-destructive path.

Brand writes:

 “Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease.”

And when I read his piece, I was reminded again about the unique banality of loss. Winehouse died. In some sense, she was just another person who lost her battle with addiction. There are so many every day. (See also, Seastarr’s piece, On Indifference) Some were outraged that Winehouse was trending on twitter when the country of Norway was beginning its slow climb out of terror.

I am not going to get into that debate today. I mention her death because, though it was international tabloid fodder for some, for Amy Winehouse’s friends and family, it was not. They do not mourn the loss of her genius or her celebrity, they mourn the loss of her presence and relationship.

“Brutal and extraordinary.”

“Vivid and … banal.”

As writers, we try to capture the essence of this. What is universal? What is unique? What emotion ties us to our readers and makes them feel, not an observer of the worlds we create, but a participant, a common resident of our universe? Perhaps nothing captures this challenge better than expressing loss. Because, at its core, every death is common.

And every death is extraordinary.

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