Four experiences of coping with grief



Simone de Beauvoir. Roland Barthes, Noemi Jaffe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My father, Renato Catani (1916-1993) was, for many years, a university professor in the chair of analytical chemistry, at the Escola Superior de Agricultura “Luiz de Queiroz”, in Piracicaba. After he retired, he continued to reside in the country and work at a company. We spoke on the phone on Sunday nights; he called me. When death took him a few days later, trying to cope with grief, I wrote that “in the phone calls/on Sunday/my father was speechless”. Maybe I was unconsciously inspired by an inspired Paulo Leminski (“windy afternoon/even the trees/want to come inside”) – which certainly wasn't my case. I just tried, at the time, to hold on as best I could.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Roland Barthes (1915-1980), Noemi Jaffe (1962) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977) dealt with mourning in different ways in their texts. Simone, Roland and Noemi spoke of maternal loss, while Chimamanda explored paternal grief. In the following lines I try to show, in a summarized way, without great pretensions, how such processes occurred through the transcription of passages that I consider significant.



I apologize to those who read me, but I work with the Portuguese edition of A three sweet death, originally published by Gallimard in 1964. Right at the beginning Simone, who dedicates the book to her sister Hélène (Poupette), informs that Françoise de Beauvoir had an accident on October 24, 1963: “Your mother had an accident. She fell in the bathroom; she fractured the neck of the femur” (p. 11). Françoise, aged 77, had many health problems, in particular osteoarthritis in her hips that appeared after the Second World War and “had gotten worse from year to year, despite the cures in Aix-les-Bains and the massages. (…) She suffered, slept badly, despite the six aspirin pills she took every day…” (p. 13).

Reflects on the father, a lawyer boom-vivant and, like his mother, from a decadent traditional family. Despite making his mother happy, he had several mistresses, and the material bankruptcy of his maternal grandfather complicated the situation, forcing Françoise to work (p. 52).

Simone writes that her mother was tyrannical and wouldn't let her and her sister learn to swim or ride a bicycle. At the same time, she reports that she was moved when Françoise, already hospitalized, paid attention to the slightest pleasant sensations, arranging bouquets and pots of flowers on the hospital's rolling table: “The little red roses come from Meyrignac. There are still roses in Meyrignac” (p. 74). She asked to raise the curtain that shaded the window, she looked through the window at the golden foliage of the trees and said: "It's beautiful: I wouldn't see this from my house". Adds Simone: “Smile. My sister and I had the same thought: we found the smile that had enraptured our early childhood, the radiant smile of a young woman. Yet where had he got lost?” (pp. 74-75).

Relations between her and her mother have always been “difficult” since adolescence, marked by an almost absolute indifference to Simone's achievements. Things started to change with the publication of The Guest (1943), which gave the writer notoriety. In addition, from that time on, she already materially depended on her daughter. One day he told her: “Parents don't understand their children, but it's reciprocal…” (p. 101).

When both daughters were at the edge of her hospital bed, the mother remarked, “It's stupid! The only time I have both at my disposal, I'm sick!" (p. 107).

Françoise falls into a coma. Poupette calls Simone, but she takes a while to answer, as she had taken Beladenal to sleep. Meanwhile, her mother “faded out”, prompting her to write the following: “Doctors said she would go out like a flame; it wasn't like that, nothing like that, said my sister crying – 'But, madam', replied the nurse, 'I assure you that it was a serene death'” (p. 130-131). After she broke her femur, when she was hospitalized, a cancer was found in what was thought to be a simple peritonitis; there was a huge tumor and the surgeon extracted what can be extracted (p. 41-43). Finally, the mother “had died a very serene death; a privileged death” (p. 142), after six weeks.

The ten-year-old “dear mama” was now indistinguishable from the hostile woman who oppressed her adolescence: “I cried for both of them crying for my old mother. (…) If she poisoned several years of my life, even though not on purpose, I paid her back in kind. She tormented herself for my soul. In this world, she was satisfied with my triumphs, although painfully affected by the scandal I caused in her midst. It was not pleasant for him to hear a cousin say: 'Simone is the shame of the family'” (p.154-155).

The last paragraph of the book deserves to be transcribed because of Simone's refusal to accept death as something natural. “One does not die from being born, nor from having lived, nor from old age. Anything dies. Knowing my mother doomed by age to an imminent end did not lessen the horrible surprise: she had a sarcoma. Cancer, an embolism, pulmonary congestion: it's as brutal and unpredictable as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky. My mother encouraged optimism when, impotent, dying, she affirmed the infinite value of every moment; but at the same time her vain grimness destroyed the reassuring veil of everyday banality. There is no natural death: nothing that happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men are mortal: but for every man death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, undue violence” (p. 159).



mourning diary, by Roland Barthes, had the text established and annotated by Nathalie Léger, with the friendly collaboration of Bernard Comment and Éric Marty. The same began to be written the day after the death of his mother, Henriette Binger (1893-1977), who died on October 25, aged 84. She married Louis Barthes at twenty, became a mother at twenty-two, and a war widow at twenty-three, for Louis was captain of a ship shot down by the Germans.

In the presentation there is an observation that cannot be ignored: “what is read here is not a finished book by the author, but the hypothesis of a book desired by him” (p. VIII). I understand this to be relevant, because in “Roland and Antoine”, an introduction to the book the age of cards, by Antoine Compagnon, Laura Taddei Brandini talks about Barthes’ care with his written production and the craftsmanship in which he worked: “he wrote down ideas in small notebooks during conversations with friends, then he wrote these notes cleanly on index cards, which were , meticulously packaged by Roland himself and, in the writing of a text, such cards were transformed – or not – into Texts” (p. 10).

The notes that Nathalie, Bernard and Éric found were written in ink, sometimes in pencil, on sheets that Roland himself prepared from standard sheets of paper cut in four, always present on his work desk (mourning diary, P. VII).

Barthes wrote, on October 29, 1977, the following: “she [the mother] was not 'everything' to me. Otherwise, I would not have written a work. Since I took care of her seven months ago, she was effectively 'everything' to me and I completely forgot that she had written. I was hopelessly on her account. Before, it made itself transparent so that I could write” (p. 16). On November 10 he recorded: “They wished me 'courage'. But the time of courage was that of her illness, when I took care of her, seeing her suffering, her sadness, and I had to hide the tears. At every moment there was a decision to make, a face to show, and that is courage. – Now, courage would mean wanting to live, and we have too much of that” (p. 40). On November 28th, she faces terrible doubts: “Does being able to live without someone we loved mean that we loved her less than we thought?” (p. 66).

On November 29, Roland will explain to Antoine Compagnon the particularity of his state of suffering, “erratic”, “by fragments”, which does not calm down with the passage of time. “He refuses to place him under the term 'mourning', which, in the psychoanalytical sense, implies the etiolation of the feeling that leads to his end” (Compagnon, 2019, p. 11).

On the last day of November 1977, he wrote from his apartment on Rue Servandoni, close to the Jardin de Luxembourg, that he wanted “not to say Mourning. He's too psychoanalytical. I'm not in mourning. I am sad” (p. 71).

I recover, from July 18, 1978, fragments of two notes: “And earlier today, your birthday. I always offered her a rose. I buy two (...) and put them on my table” (p. 157); “to each his own pace of suffering” (p. 158).

On September 01, 1979 Barthes says that he returns to Urt, near Bayonne, where his brother and sister-in-law were. He asks: “Am I unhappy, sad, in Urt/Am I therefore happy in Paris? No, this is the trap. The opposite of a thing is not its opposite etc.//I left a place where I was unhappy, and leaving it didn't make me happier” (p. 236).



It's funny that I didn't meet Lili Jaffe, but sometimes I saw her daughter Noemi, the writer, in the vicinity of my house. That's because, when she became a widow, she went to live in the Higienópolis neighborhood, next to the building where I lived for over twenty-five years.

More Lili: soap opera of mourning, which has ears written by Zélia Duncan, deals with the death of Noemi’s mother at the age of 93, in February 2020 – she survived the holocaust, had three daughters and died due to “an infection in her feet”. The book, written to fight mourning, is a novel that is difficult to classify, as it includes moving, humorous passages, with true “quarries”. I will try, here and there, to show this in various transcripts - precious and well constructed.

“When she was dead, I kissed her face, her hands, her lap. She squeezed her wrist, hugged her body, called: mother, mother. She would raise her hand and let it fall” (p. 7).

“The day before, when she was not yet dead, but almost dead, I would put my ear close to her chest and listen to her breathing. It was different. It's different to be almost dead than to be dead. It's different, and I only know that now that she's dead” (p. 7).

“If when she was almost dead I expected her to die, now it's like I want her almost dead forever, just to hear her breathing, her cheek hot, the fingers of her hand moving even if reflexively, a low rumble in the back of my head. chest, the trembling of the eyelids” (p. 7-8).

“I had never been close to a dead and uncovered person. Only my father's, but a sheet covered him, on which I traced the outline of his nose with my finger, a gesture I repeated with my mother after they covered her” (p.8).

He says that his mother died of pain. “Her feet became gangrenous, in an irremediable infectious process, and because she couldn't bear the pain of the dressings, she had to be sedated, which made it difficult for her to eat and ended up leading her to death. Death that would happen anyway, but that was how it was” (p. 13-14). And, he tells page 17, “it all started with a blister on a toe”.

In his understanding, the difference between life and death, even just before a person dies, “is the difference between thunder and silence” (p. 22). Good humor appears: Lili loved the sweet millefeuille and, when she ate one, “she always said that that one had only 999” (p. 31); when the daughter sent a kiss, she replied: “I won't give it back” (p. 31).

He narrates his parents' arrival in Brazil: without speaking the language, without a profession, without training, without any money, they found ways to do business in the 1950s, under the government of Juscelino Kubitschek (p. 42-43). His father sold the clothes his mother made, knocking from door to door, carrying a suitcase (p. 43). He made friends with traders from 25 de Março – Christian Arabs – and from Mooca. They rented a room and ended up buying their first property, both residence and workshop (p. 43). They progressed, earning money and buying properties in Bom Retiro, in addition to acquiring others in Higienópolis and Perdizes for their daughters (p. 44-45).

His father didn't go to Higienópolis, because it was a more elegant neighborhood. “He never let go of his European immigrant roots, more precisely from the deep interior of Yugoslavia, keeping his wide trousers from Tergal. Shirt untucked, pocket full of a wad of money wrapped in an elastic band, drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola at the bar on the corner and talking to inspectors and beggars, all unthinkable things in Higienópolis. A few months after he died, the first thing my mother did was buy an apartment in Higienópolis, on Albuquerque Lins, in a colonial-style building called Mansão Tintoretto” (p. 45-46).

Lili repeated, until the end of her life, “not having loved my father, at least not in the sickly passionate way he always loved her and which, I believe, ended up leading to his death” (p. 67). She admired his kindness and intelligence, "but she insisted that she didn't love him". Noemi completes: their story is “a love story with everything it has of survival, strength, struggle, suffering and overcoming. (...) A frustrated love on both sides. On their side, for not being reciprocated and, on her side, for not being able to love him (p. 67-68). She was 69 when she became a widow and one of the first things she did after her husband's death was to try to find a boy she had dated in Serbia even before the war and who she knew had gone to Israel. But she did not find him (p. 68). With the death of her husband, Lili began to be happier, travelling, forming groups to play lock-up, going to the mall and the cinema on Sundays, “living in Higienópolis, getting ready and feeling beautiful and well” (p. 69). .

Noemi says she likes the idea “of a body being eaten by worms and slowly transformed into organic matter, food for other living forms” (p. 74).

However, “the main mark” of his mother “was the number tattooed on the arm”, on the soft and wrinkled arm, in which “the numbers were erased and folded. Before she died, I even thought, knowing how absurd it would be, to later cut the skin with that number and keep it. Of course. That number was her, as was the rest of her body. It wasn't hers, but it was her, and ripping it off would be like ripping off a finger or a hand. To have it would be to fetishize war and suffering” (p. 77).

In another book by Naomi, What are blind people dreaming of?, there are interesting considerations about the tattoo, which was part of the industrial machine of Nazism, being used “for the quick and indelible marking” and, also, “for greater humiliation of the prisoners”. Primo Levi recounts that when prisoners with smaller numbers saw one with larger numbers, they laughed in his face. He would have to go through countless problems until he knew how to act in the field” (p. 172).

At age 19, Lili, who was born in Szenta, in the former Yugoslavia, was a prisoner in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Nazism was conceived as an extinction machine, with the German officials as cogwheels, having to act to eliminate the filth represented, for the regime, by the Jews (p. 185).

But Noemi continues to process her grief: “It's been more than a month since she died and I fear the death of death” (p. 79). “Just writing has helped me to be closer to death in general and her death in particular” (p. 83); “Now I feel the strength of the hand recording words on paper and the love for the accuracy that some words manage to have” (p. 82). “And where do I go now? What future am I going to without her, who is a part of me, her, of whom I am a part? (p. 87). She remembers the taste of the food that her mother made and that she will never return, in addition to the sweets that she enjoyed.

Almost a year after Lili's death, in that year of 2020 when epidemic panic devastated several families, Noemi concluded her little book with the following words: “When the time of my death comes, I want it to be silent like hers. But above all, what remains of me is what remains of her in me now – this film of air” (p. 107).



At the conclusion of her report, the Nigerian author, the fifth daughter of six siblings, all Igbo speakers, whose parents Grace Ifeoma and James Nwoye Adichie (1932-2020), lived in Nsukka, defines her state of mind as follows: “I am writing about the my father in the past tense, and I can't believe I'm writing about my father in the past tense” (p. 110).

Grace was the first woman to hold the position of administrative dean at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, while James was a professor of statistics at the same institution; rose to deputy vice-chancellor; had your Biography of Nigeria's Greatest Professor of Statistics (written by Professor Peter I. Uche and Jeff Unaegbu) published in 2013, three years before he was appointed Emeritus Professor at the University of Nigeria (p. 47); he studied at Berkeley and taught for a year at San Diego State University (p. 96, 98).

During the Biafran War, “all his books were burned by Nigerian soldiers. Mountains of incinerated pages piled in my parents' front yard, where they used to grow roses. His colleagues in the United States sent him books to replace those that had been lost; they even sent him shelves” (p. 97).

James was the eldest son of an Igbo family, having lived up to his “tangle of expectations and dictates. He filled the simplest descriptions with meaning: good man, good father. I liked to call him 'gentle-man, gentle-man'” (p. 67). He also says that concrete and sincere memories of those who knew him are what comforts him the most, and they have pronounced the following qualifiers about him: “honest”, “calm”, “gentle”, “strong”, “discreet”, “ simple”, “tranquil” (p. 39).

Chimamanda's family made Sunday Zoom calls during the pandemic: two members entered from Laos, another three from the United States, another from England "and my parents, sometimes with a lot of echoes and squeaks, from Abbia, the city of our ancestors in Southwest Nigeria” (p. 9). On June 7, 2020, his father was on the screen “with only his forehead showing (…) because he never really knew how to hold the phone during video calls” (p. 9). On the 8th, one of the sons went to visit him and found him tired; on the 9th, Chimamanda spoke briefly to spare him. “On the 10th of June he was gone. My brother Chuks called me to let me know, and I broke down” (p. 10). The next day he would have his appointment with the nephrologist. The narrator tells her sister Uche, who had just messaged a friend of the family: “No! Don't tell anyone, because if we tell it, it becomes the truth” (p. 12).

“How can he be joking and talking in the morning, and be gone for good at night? It was too fast, too fast. It wasn't supposed to happen like this, as a tasteless surprise, during a pandemic that forced the whole world to close down” (p. 18).

The experience of mourning, for her, constituted “a cruel form of learning. You learn how unsoft, angry he can be. Learn how condolences can be shallow. Learn how much grief has to do with words, with the defeat of words and with the search for words. Why do I feel so much pain and discomfort in my sides? It's from crying so much, they say. She didn't know that people cried with their muscles. The pain doesn't scare me, but its physical aspect does: my tongue unbearably bitter, as if I'd eaten something disgusting and forgotten to brush my teeth; in the chest an enormous, hideous weight; and within the body a sense of eternal dissolution. (…) Flesh, muscles, organs, everything is compromised. No position is comfortable. I spend weeks with my stomach in knots, tense and contracted with apprehension, with the ever-present certainty that someone else will die, that more things will be lost” (p. 14-15).

Well, such apprehension turns out to be a sad reality, for on March 28th his favorite aunt, Caroline, his mother's younger sister, died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm (p. 103) and, on July 11th, a month after the death of his father, his aunt Rebecca, “saddened by the death of the brother with whom he spoke every day, would also leave” (p. 104). For her, “the layers of loss make me feel paper thin” (p. 105).

The last time Chimamanda saw James was on March 5, 2020, “right before the coronavirus changed the world. Okey and I made the trip from Lagos to Abba” (p. 100). His father's humor, already dry, “became deliciously sharper as he aged” (p. 61).

The cause of his death was complications from kidney failure. “An infection, according to the doctor, had exacerbated the kidney disease that had afflicted him for a long time. But what infection? I think of the coronavirus, of course…” (p. 28).

There is a behavior in Chimamanda in which denial sets the tone. “This denial, this refusal to look is a refuge. Of course, doing this is also a form of mourning. (…) Often there is also the urge to run, run, the urge to hide. But I can't always run, and every time I'm forced to face my grief – when reading a death certificate, when writing a draft funeral announcement – ​​I feel a curious physical reaction: my body starts to shake, fingers drum wildly, one leg wobbles. I can only calm down when I look away (…) For the first time in my life, I am in love with sleeping pills, and in the shower or in the middle of a meal I start to cry” (p. 24-25).

“Grief is not ethereal; he is dense, oppressive, an opaque thing. The weight is heaviest in the morning, right after waking up: a heart of lead, a stubborn reality that refuses to go away. I will never see my father again. Never. It's as if I just woke up to sink deeper and deeper” (p. 41). “Is it possible to be possessive about your own pain? I want pain to know me, I want to know her too. My bond with my father was so precious that I am not able to expose my suffering until I can discern the outline of it” (p. 43).

The funeral is delayed due to the epidemic, as they intend to observe Igbo customs. The dates are changed several times, as Nigeria is closed to those coming from abroad. Her mother is desperate to get the date right. She is finally able to arrange the ceremony for October 9th. “After the burial we will be able to start healing”, says his mother (p. 90).

For Chimamanda, “one of the many notable components of grief is the creation of doubt.” But as for his father, he concludes with optimism: “No, I'm not imagining things. Yes, my father was really wonderful” (p. 109).

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution..



ADICHIE, Chimamanda Ngozi. notes on mourning (trans. Fernanda Abreu). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2021, 144 pages.

BARTHES, Roland. Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977 - 15 September 1979) (trans. Leyla Perrone-Moisés). São Paulo: Editora VMF Martins Fontes, 2011, 252 pages.

BEAUVOIR, Simone de. serene death (trans. Luísa Da Costa). Porto: Editorial Minotauro, 1966, 159 pages.

BRANDINI, Laura Taddei. Roland and Antoine. In: COMPAGNON, Antoine. the age of cards. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2019, p. 7-16.

COMPAGNON, Antoine. the age of cards (trans. Laura Taddei Brandini). Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2019, 192 pages.

JAFFE, Naomi. Lili: soap opera of mourning. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2021, 112 pages.

JAFFE, Naomi. What are the blind dreaming?: with the diary of Lili Jaffe (1944-1945). (translation of the diary, from the Serbian, by Aleksandar Jovanovic). São Paulo: Editora 34, 2012, 240 pages.


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