Skip to main content


May 12, 2011

Leah Hager Cohen: Grief as an Inspiration

Posted by Stephen

Author Leah Hager Cohen talks about turning tragedy into personal, and literary, triumph in this personal essay. Her novel The Grief of Others is due this fall, but you can win an advance copy now by entering here.

When, between the births of my second and third children, I had a miscarriage, the sadness I felt was much greater than I would have imagined. With two healthy children already, and an understanding of how common miscarriages are, I rebuked myself: The cause of my suffering was nothing, a trifle, compared to what millions of people around the world endured. I felt almost ashamed of being so sad, and the shame as well as the sadness was isolating.

Something my mother said then was meaningful to me. She talked about the women all over the world who were at that moment sharing the same hard circumstance of loss. Also she talked about women back through time, all the generations of ancestors who, too, must have known this pain. Her words put me in good company. They dissolved my notion of a hierarchy of grief, made me see instead that both geographically and temporally, I was in community with people who, though we would never meet, never learn one another’s names, were yet connected through our common sorrow. This was unexpectedly comforting.

So often we feel lonely in our grief. So often we are in grief over our loneliness. The characters in this book all start out rather lonely. I imagine them revolving on separate, meager floes of ice, variously aware or ignorant of just how much they’re cut adrift, yet each one, whether by design or blind instinct, seeking, striving to feel more whole.

Some of that striving leads to ignoble behavior: We see cheating and lying, blame and betrayal, acts of incivility that, however strenuously and elaborately rationalized, alienate the members of this little family not only from one another but from their own better selves. Yet each of them possesses, crucially, the willingness to grow. How bravely and messily they refuse to succumb to the muddle they’ve made of things; how hard they fight to come back together --- not only back to themselves but back to one another.

And isn’t it a funny and fine thing to realize: that being whole nearly always requires not just the tending of ourselves, but the tending of our bonds with others? This is an ensemble novel in a formal sense --- the chapters alternate among the experiences of six central characters --- and in a deeper sense, too, ensemble being precisely what promises to redeem them from their most obdurate grief.

© Copyright 2011 by Leah Hager Cohen. Reprinted with permission by Riverhead. All rights reserved.