“It is a complicated grief,” Edwidge Danticat, the multiple award–winning author of fiction and nonfiction, says of the passing of her mother in 2014 due to ovarian cancer. “We had a complex story, because we spent a lot of our lives apart.” When she was only four, her mother moved from Haiti to the United States to be with Danticat’s father, who had moved earlier. Danticat stayed back in Haiti with an aunt and uncle. She didn’t move to Brooklyn to rejoin her parents until she was 12.
After her mother’s death, Danticat found that many people don’t understand grief, thinking of it as something to “get over.” “In a fast-paced society, people really want you to get past this. But grief is peaks and valleys,” she says. And she found that we, as a society, are sorely lacking in the language and rituals of death. “People don’t know what to do or say,” she adds. “And for the record, please don’t ever say, ‘Heaven must have needed an angel.’ Just don’t.”
Her ongoing process of grieving led her back to the page, where she initially found solace in the works of others, such as C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. “I have fellowship with these people. When I couldn’t speak to people, because grief is often lonely, I would go to these books and know I was with people who knew exactly what I was going through,” she says.
Then she started writing, to explore death in all it permutations. The result is The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, published this past summer. In a sense, she has always had a fascination with the topic, she says. “My uncle was a minister and presided over a lot of funerals. We were expected to be there out of respect. I would sit through a lot of funerals as a little girl, contemplating what it means.”
The Art of Death looks at how other authors, such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, write about the final bow. “Those two especially have so many layers to their work. It is so nuanced, and you are not protected from the topic. You understand the singularity, individuality of death. How deaths are mirrored by the way you live, and what death means to communities. They deal with it in such a powerful way, it gets us a little closer to understanding what it is and what we would like it to be,” Danticat says.
Danticat discovered that by writing about death, she learned how to live, which is what she hopes readers will take away from her book: “Live now, live well, and make the best of that. My mother had that insight too at the end. Before you are facing this, you are of this moment, and live the best life you can.”