When Achilles’ beloved Patroclus is killed on the battlefield of Troy, his grief is ruinous. He receives news of the death back at the soldiers’ camp on the beach:
Taking with bare hands the fire-blackened ashes,
he poured them down upon his head, and defiled his handsome face;
on his fragrant tunic the black ash settled;
and he lay outstretched in the dust,
a great man in his greatness, and with his own hands he defiled his hair, tearing at it.
Achilles has been sitting out of the battle like a petulant child, but Patroclus’s death draws him back in, full of the wrath. He kills Hector, prince of Troy, and then goes on to participate in the sacking of the city. His grief is sublime; it is city-destroying.
That kind of primordial howl echoes throughout Natasha Sholl’s “grief memoir”, Found, Wanting, even when she is dealing with the banal, human drudgery of it: the friends, relatives and strangers who say and do the wrong things; the way life keeps going on. People say: sorry for your loss, as if the dead have been misplaced. Loss, Sholl writes, means “failure to hold, keep or preserve what was in one’s possession”, but the word has become much neutered compared to the Old English word it is derived from, meaning “ruin or destruction”. Sholl’s achievement is holding these two states of grief up to the light simultaneously, inspecting them intimately, but also with a forensic eye for their specificities and absurdities.
The book opens mid-scene, the morning after she wakes in the middle of the night to find her boyfriend Rob dead beside her when she is 22. In the daze afterwards she finds time “propelled by movement”, that of the paramedics who arrive to declare Rob dead, the horrified parents and then relatives who come to take care. In short, fragmentary chapters that follow grief’s own logic of time she builds a portrait of her life before and after Rob’s death, how they met and fell in love, her relationships with her family and friends. Eventually she loves again. It is gripping and exhausting, funny and despairing, and completely compelling.
“My body knew before my brain did,” Sholl writes. She conceives of grief as a misalignment of time, describing lapses of memory, the feeling of living parallel lives. Even more improbable are the coincidences that stack up: the story she wrote at uni about a man dying in bed next to his wife (“First years always write about the worst thing they can think of,” a tutor laughs); another, unrelated, Rob who died on his honeymoon; odd alignments of numbers and dates and good luck charms that go missing. Omens and auguries that feel like fate and prophecies fulfilled. Faced with something as ruinous as grief, the mind latches onto whatever it can to restore reason and logic. Towards the end she addresses the stages of grief, but finds to her consternation that another has been added to the original five! The sixth stage is meaning, and Found, Wanting is a book length search for it.
The stages of grief were never meant to describe a linear process, and in Found, Wanting they come all once. Sholl is diagnosed with PTSD and complex grief, battles disordered eating and recklessness, tries yoga and medication and falling in love again. There are the ironies of the Jewish rituals of grief, which shut her out because her and Rob weren’t married, providing structure but excluding at the same time. Along the way she learns ways of making grief manageable, making room for it. Found, Wanting is a tribute to the carers: the mothers, best-friends, good therapists and yoga instructors who lighten the burden of grief.
Such a book could all too easily be mawkish or too depressing to go on (although can a book about death really be too sentimental, too grim?). But in Sholl’s writing it is sharp and tactile, its facets gleaming. One small example is a chapter titled “Another List”, in which Sholl goes through old notes on her iPhone:
I didn’t know what I wrote this about. It could be many things.
The cheese and eggs appeared again. I wondered if I forgot to buy them the first time, or maybe this was a restock.
How very undignified
Our greatest human need is to be seen
Falling in loss
Pain of another vs pain for oneself.
You “can only ever experience grief first hand,” she writes in the same list. Found, Wanting is brilliant window into the subjectivity of grief, a perfect microcosm of life and death, and how we navigate the blurry line in between.
Gay rating: not gay.