Heartbreaking memoir puts words to the loss of a beloved child

MEMOIR: Words for Lucy, Marion Halligan, Thames & Hudson ($32.99)

No words, people say, faced with the others’ pain. There is no word like orphan or widow for the parent whose child dies. Nor is there a word for “adult child”, as poet and philosopher Denise Riley wrote after the death of her son Jacob. Yet Riley argues that placing grief beyond language can “isolate you further, when coming so close to your child’s death is already solitary enough”. However well-intentioned, “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling” carries, Riley suggests, “a disavowal of empathy”.

No words. But if you are a writer, what you have is words, even after disaster. Acclaimed writer Marion Halligan prefaces Words For Lucy with the remark “words are my business”. As Romanian-born poet and Shoah survivor Paul Celan wrote, in a beautiful twist of aphoristic wisdom: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.”

Marion Halligan with her cat in her garden. Credit:© Juno Gemes 

Halligan’s daughter Lucy was diagnosed at birth with a heart condition. A doctor suggested to the new parents “if you believe in having babies christened, then christen this one”. If only for “some small ceremony” Halligan and her husband Graham did this, giving their child names someone later pointed out are those of two martyred saints: Lucy Beatrice. Lucy went on to live a rich life as a cherished daughter, sister and friend, dying in her sleep at the age of 38, her devoted cat beside her.

Words for Lucy collects Halligan’s words with Lucy’s own and others’ words about her, including excerpts from a treasury sent to Halligan as consolation. Halligan comments that the work won’t be linear. And linearity would betray the layered way we live with those who have died, how close they stay and how memories jewel and gash the present. Time and memory, writes Halligan, in one of many memorable lines, “seldom travel together”. She uses the analogy of a box of photographs to suggest the way objects as well as memories transport the past into the present haphazardly. Memory’s disregard for time relates to Riley’s thesis about mourning’s atemporality, a “state of being in the broken clock of the world”. Halligan’s words for Lucy suggest the facets of this. The stopped clock can be a refuge, holding the past close.

Words for Lucy by Marion Halligan.

Halligan’s writing is always sensuous and attentive to the flickering shapes and shades of experience. Beyond her snapshots, larger stories emerge. She considers diagnosis and treatment and medical practitioners who shore themselves against too much connection with patients who may not survive, and the impact of this on those patients. Halligan is perceptive about each angle.

Halligan’s portraits of Lucy’s time in hospital witness others’ losses. She describes parents on the hospital stairs at the moment of deciding when to switch off their child’s life support. Alongside anticipatory grief comes “being companion to the grief of others” and an unspeakable calculation of what one child’s death means for another child in the “huge and terrible game of odds in life”.

Towards the end, Halligan tells another story. It is about her first marriage, to Lucy’s father Graham, a story of desire and fidelity that will feel familiar to readers of her fiction. It emerges not as part of Lucy’s story, but as a result of memoir’s act of remembering, a subject Halligan keeps in focus.

Like Riley, Halligan speaks directly to her child. She expresses a sense that Lucy is alive in these words “as vital I hope as you were in life”. A work of witness to Lucy’s life, Words For Lucy witnesses grief more broadly, lit by bright glimpses of Lucy’s strength. Lucy as a brave child facing her scarred body in the mirror to undertake breathing exercise, and as a “wonderful giver of presents”. Of Lucy’s fear not of death but of “a hard dying”.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in Notes on Grief that mourning shows us “how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language”. It is about “grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present”. Words For Lucy enacts this tension. It is a quiet and tender act of attention, an insistence on words’ power and an avowal of empathy.

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