Home / Fashion & Style / Erin Lee Carr, Jayson Greene, and Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard’s Spring Books on Grief and Survival

Erin Lee Carr, Jayson Greene, and Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard’s Spring Books on Grief and Survival

On New Year’s Day, 2013, Danish scientist Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard felt unnaturally cold. Less than 24 hours later, as the 38-year-old was ambushed by a deadly strain of bacterial meningitis, her heart stopped. And then began again. Her husband and three children circled her hospital bed as she slipped into a coma.

Kjaergaard’s new book, The Blink of an Eye: A Memoir of Dying—and Learning How to Live Again, begins at the point when her life nearly ended. Two weeks later, she emerges from her coma, her mind a foggy, slippery thing. As soon as she’s able to grasp her situation—her body is paralyzed, her family is in mourning—she succumbs to slumber again. Kjaergaard relives this horror of realization over and over, remembering and then forgetting. Doctors say her chances of survival are bleak. But over time, her memory sharpens, and blinking becomes her most useful tool of communication (much as it was for former ELLE France editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of 1997’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). “I felt alone in the world, abandoned, let down, desperate and frightened,” she writes about her inability to communicate. The book records her months-long recovery and rehabilitation, but ultimately, Kjaergaard survived and began creating a new life with her family.

The Blink of an Eye: A Memoir of Dying―and Learning How to Live Again

The Experiment
amazon.com

In May, the publishing community traditionally unloads books tied to childbirth. (Look to last year’s Motherhood, by Sheila Heti, and That Kind of Mother, by Rumann Alam.) But this year, authors are weaving death and near-death experiences into their stories of life. In All That You Leave Behind, documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr candidly reckons with the loss of her father, the late New York Times journalist David Carr, via a trove of email correspondence. She narrates her journey and places his words alongside her own. And in Jayson Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars, the Pitchfork writer memorializes his two-year-old daughter, Greta, who died after being struck by a brick that fell off an Upper West Side building. He unspools his pain on paper while he and his wife, Stacy, replot their futures with the help of a medium, a religious ceremonialist, and, eventually, a new baby boy. In their extreme grief, they too are survivors. All three memoirs ask: What’s the metaphysical purpose of pain, and how do we fold it into our lives?

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir

I recently spent a weekend in Edinburgh, where local lore pays tribute to Maggie Dickson, an eighteenth-century chambermaid sentenced to death by hanging for leaving a newborn, rumored to be stillborn, on a riverbank. Against all odds, like Kjaergaard, the Scotswoman survived. She awoke in her coffin while being wheeled to the cemetery. Having technically completed her sentence, she lived for 40 more years—a rare and wonderful example of female restitution.

All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir

Ballantine Books
amazon.com

We’re drawn to stories of survival because they prove that pain and loss don’t define us, but instead add a new tenor to our lives: appreciation, sadness, or faith (as seen in last month’s Christian film Breakthrough, a real-life story of a Missouri community that rallied together for a teenager’s recovery). Suffering pulls apart life’s tapestry, yes, but then refashions it into something fundamentally new. “Grief at its peak has a terrible beauty to it,” Greene writes. “The world is charged with significance, with meaning…[and] suddenly looks thin, translucent.” He discovers an opening to this new universe, in which suffering is tantamount to being human.

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