Michelle Lerner, author of “Sanctuary from Ring” from Volume 72.2, shares the origin story of the book, its relationship to loss, and reaches out a hand to the rest of us
In 1993, when I was twenty-two years old, I lost someone whom I’d loved intensely. In the aftermath, I experienced a grief that would not subside. I had trouble getting out of bed. I cried on and off throughout the day. I lost all interest in other people and activities. I had just graduated from college and, due to having known for a while that the death was impending, had not made any plans; as a result, I had no structure to fall back on, no concept of the future to keep me going. After a few months, I experienced strong suicidal ideation, took myself to an emergency room, and was hospitalized for five days for depression and complicated grief.
In the United States alone, over ten million people are grieving in any given year—a statistic calculated before the COVID-19 pandemic and now almost certainly an underestimate. Of these, over a million experience what is known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is described by the Mayo Clinic as a state of being unable to move through the “normal” stages of grief for more than a year, with symptoms lingering or getting worse instead of better, “like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.” Symptoms can include intense sorrow, rumination, the inability to focus on anything but the loved one’s death, social isolation, guilt or a belief that you did something wrong or could have prevented the death, intense longing for the deceased, numbness or detachment, bitterness, feeling that life has no meaning or purpose, and sometimes an inability trust other people. Another common element is to wish you had died with your loved one.
I had every one of these symptoms back in 1993. While friends and family tried to sympathize, their good will turned to confusion and frustration as the months passed and I didn’t improve. It’s hard for people who have not experienced complicated grief or clinical depression to understand it. This is especially true if the grieving person’s relationship to the deceased, as in my case, is a kind not generally accepted as being “worth” such extended grieving. In my own social circle, the general sense was “Okay, we understand that this was hard for you, but it’s been three months. It’s time to move on.” And yet for people actually experiencing complicated grief, “moving on” doesn’t feel like a choice. There’s a sensation that time has stopped, that there isn’t anything left to “move” toward. To paraphrase one of my characters, it feels like the narrowing of one’s life to a point, with no room for movement except deeper into that narrow place.
While stuck in this emotional space, I desperately searched for things to read that might help me understand what was happening and how to handle it, but such material was hard to find. I tried psychology and self-help books about grief, but they felt cold and detached and were of little help. The only two books that I identified with, and that helped me start processing what I was going through, were C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a first-person contemporaneous account of the famed fiction writer mourning for his wife, and a translation of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, a novella about a young woman trying to reorient herself after the death of the grandmother who had raised her and been her only family.
These two books remain fundamentally important to me, decades later, and I recommend them to others all the time. What was it about them that made them so helpful? Unlike the expository books, they didn’t include lists, directives, or instructions. They weren’t abstract or based on studies. Each was a first-person narrative, presented with vulnerability and raw emotion, that brought me deep inside the head and feelings of another person as they tried to get through each day and understand their own condition. It was as if someone in a sea of passing strangers had stopped and looked me in the eye, nodded, and then reached out their hand, offering to take me with them on their daily struggles to find meaning and hope, to survive the next hour, to come to grips with the concept of a world without their loved one in it. These books offered no prescriptions, only validation, exploration, and the acknowledgement that sometimes all we can hope for is the faith to take another step in a dark room. Walking hand in hand with the narrators of these books, I slowly understood what they discovered to keep them going. I watched them lose and find hope. They presented me with no expectations, no timeline for healing. They made mistakes and they suffered. And yet they managed, each day, to stay alive.
I gradually started to become more functional with my own grief, and faced a lot of pressure to decide what I was going to do with my life. I had always been a writer, and I wanted to write, but there was no structured plan for doing this as a vocation; while I had stories floating around in my head, I mostly published poetry, which was not considered a viable career choice by anyone around me. I also felt the need to do something to tangibly help others, because helping others was the only thing that seemed to pull me out of myself for short periods. So, for better or worse, I went to law school. It was not a healing environment, and I continued to struggle; I have memories of standing outside a classroom crying. But law school gave me structure and focus. I went on to work as a public interest lawyer for two decades, publishing poetry on the side, first as a legal aid lawyer and later doing animal protection law. I thought up stories in my head as I commuted to and from work but rarely wrote them down. In this manner, I drifted into middle age with several novels in my head and none on paper.
And then, in 2016, I got sick. Really sick. For over a year, I couldn’t get out of bed except to go to doctor after doctor while they tried to figure out what was wrong with me. Eventually I was diagnosed with late-stage neurological Lyme Disease and several coinfections, all of which had gone undiagnosed for so long that they’d levied significant damage to my brain and body. Once treatment started, I remained unable to get out of bed much for years, but I at least regained my capacity to think and to read and to write. So, I did. The isolation of the illness, of suffering with something few people outside my household could understand, of being alone most of the time in bed and fatigued to my bones, brought with it a different kind of despair and isolation than I’d experienced with complicated grief, but it was an echo of it. Unable to return to work, I decided to try to write down one of the stories that had been floating around in my head. The illness gave me permission and space to write, if slowly and haltingly. And it influenced the story that I chose to tell.
I had been thinking of a person traveling to a remote snow-covered region for the purpose of walking out into the snow in some ritual way, to some kind of pillar where they would intend to end their life. Over the years I’d occasionally remember this character, and their story would come into focus a little bit more. I wanted the character to be sure of what they were doing, but to then meet a dog who was on the same trip, and to face an ethical struggle over the concept of the dog being taken to his death. I wanted the book to be a vehicle for exploring complicated grief and the will to live, but also the ethical boundaries of assisted suicide for humans and euthanasia for animals. The character needed to struggle psychologically with the very act of staying alive, but then also with the act of keeping someone else alive, and the contradiction imposed by having these two experiences simultaneously.
The only problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to start this story, how to build it through chapters, or what the character’s backstory was. I thought I needed to figure all of this out in order to write a conventional novel.
Serendipitously, I picked up Susan Sontag’s essay collection Against Interpretation. In one of the essays, Sontag, speaking from the mid-1960’s, argued that the conventions of the contemporary novel—things like chapters, backstory, linearity, etc.—are all historical accidents that should not be viewed as necessary to the form. In fact, Sontag argued, in order for the novel to develop and progress in the way that other art forms have, writers need to jettison some of these conventions and see what happens.
Reading this essay freed me up to start writing Ring. I’m a poet, so I wrote the story as a poet might, in short vignettes that portrayed a scene, or a feeling. Images of grief as a climate infused the vignettes and guided the plot. I didn’t force myself to figure out the character’s backstory. I just wrote the first vignette, which at the time depicted the character lying in bed in their apartment grieving; I didn’t know much about the character other than their emotional state and the silence and detachment that surrounded them, which made sense to me because complicated grief feels from the inside like it erases everything that came before, or at least makes everything else seem far away and irrelevant.
I wrote that first vignette, and then each day I wrote another. In that way, the story started to develop. For the death being grieved, I wanted to erase the question of whether the character’s relationship to the deceased was one that “counted” enough for the severity of the character’s reaction. So, I picked the kind of death that most people would agree is the most difficult to face: the death of one’s child. But in my first draft of the novel, that was the sum total that a reader knew about the character’s past. Later, after a draft of the book was complete and was signed by an agent, I was convinced to expand it by adding more backstory and a subplot. But at the time of its initial drafting, Ring was a spare and unwavering look at the state of complicated grief without any frills. It was pulled out of time and space, the way complicated grief feels on the inside.
As the story progressed, the main theme of the book developed from a question that I had in some ways been struggling with my entire adult life: why are some people able to cope with severe trauma and the death of a close loved one while others fall apart?
In a turn that I could not have predicted, the text of the novel began to intertwine with grief in my own life, in surprising and unsettling ways. After I wrote the character of Robert, a man in his early sixties dying of pancreatic cancer, my older male best friend, who was in the same age range as Robert, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Simultaneously, my mentor’s adult child disappeared in much the way my main character’s adult child had; he went missing, and then his car was found without him in it, and then eventually it was discovered that he had died of unknown causes. As parts of my book seemed to appear in my own life, I stopped writing it. After my best friend died, I left the story untouched for months, eventually returning to it only at the urging of my mentor, the sole person to have read the working draft and who told me, from the depths of her own grief, that I needed to finish it. As I did so, my mentor herself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and quickly passed away. Because it was in the midst of the first stages of the pandemic, I was unable to be with either my best friend of my mentor in person as they declined and passed away. They simply seemed to disappear.
I was left in familiar territory, struggling with the deaths of these two people who had been so central to my life, while already in an isolated state from my illness and, at this point, the pandemic. Old grief had inspired the writing of the novel, which in turn seemed to predict these new griefs. The story, while entirely fictional, became inextricably entangled with my own life. What began as a reflection on lessons I thought I had learned about surviving complicated grief became, instead, a manual for me to follow.
Most complicated griefs are not understood by anyone, not by the people in the mourner’s life and often not by the mourner themself. It’s my hope that Ring can serve as company for people experiencing this phenomenon, that such readers will accept the hand that Lee is unknowingly holding out. I also hope that it can provide a window of understanding for people who have not experienced complicated grief, so that such readers can recognize and understand it when someone in their life experiences it, or if they themselves do. But I also hope that Ring will serve, like the bell in a meditation session, as a mechanism for calling the reader back to themself, to the present moment whatever it holds, and provide food for thought about the existential question we all face every day but seldom pause to fully consider—what is worth living for?
 See https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/grief/grief-statistics/