“On Grief”: One Writer Tackles the Confounding Nature of Sorrow

a man walks toward a door that sits ajar

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Senior spoke to us about what she’s learned about sorrow and coping.

It’s been nearly two years since The Atlantic published its astonishing feature What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, Jennifer Senior’s piece about how the death of a promising young man killed in the September 11 attacks punched a hole in the lives of those who loved him. It made such an impact on readers, it was just published as its own standalone book, On Grief: Love, Loss, and Memory. It begins as a profile of a family but reveals itself to be an insightful meditation on the long arc of grief and how it snakes through the lives of those attempting to process it, giving readers an intimate view of how sorrow manifests over decades. 

Senior tells the story of Helen and Bob McIlvaine, two parents whose mourning has taken them down radically different paths, and of Jen, Bobby’s girlfriend whose sorrow leads her into a 20-year feud with Helen over Bobby’s final diary. This incredibly moving feature won Senior a Pulitzer. We spoke to Senior about her exploration of the emotion, how she was able to build such a richly detailed portrait of the different ways heartbreak manifests over decades, and how we can all be better at supporting each other through loss. 

Katie Couric Media: You’ve known the McIlvaines for a long time, when did you first consider sharing their story?

Jennifer Senior: The really boring answer to this question is that I showed up for my first day of work at The Atlantic in April 2021. About three days later, the editor-in-chief calls me and says, ‘We want to do something for the September 11 anniversary that’s coming up. We’ve already got big pieces from David Frum and George Packer on foreign policy. Would you happen to know any personal stories about what happened?’” And I was like, I sure do.

I had always in the back of my mind thought about writing this. I had been as obsessed with the diary as Helen, but getting the diary struck me as too far-fetched a goal. I really thought Jen would never part with it. What made me think that it could be a sticky way into the story though is this podcast, called Heavyweight. The host of that show is in the closure business. Someone who was dumped by their middle school peer group will come to him and say, ‘I’m 45 now and I still can’t stop thinking about the eighth grade.’ And he’ll find them and figure out what the hell they were doing. I thought this was like an episode of Heavyweight. I’m gonna go and try to figure out why Jen took that diary 20 years ago, see what’s in it, and try to get some resolution around it.

One of the reasons why I love this piece, and why I think so many people are drawn to it, is because it looks at how grief changes over decades. Can you tell us about what you learned about how grief evolves in reporting this?

First of all, some people don’t want to “heal.” They want to keep their sorrow close. There’s a quote that’s mistakenly attributed to Freud that goes something like, “Grieving is another form of loving.” That’s not exactly what Freud said, but he did say something like it in a letter to a colleague who had lost a child. I think some people want to keep grieving to make sure that they still feel the intensity of that love, and they live in terror of that feeling fading. I think for Bob McIlvaine the fact that you could one day wake up and have your son not be the very first thing you think about in the morning is a terrifying thought. Some people want to live in their grief.

I also had no idea that grief came in so many varieties — and that a couple could grieve so differently and manage to still stay married. There are some forms of grieving that seem so incompatible you just wouldn’t think it possible for people to stay bonded, and yet the McIlvaines have managed it. They realized that the love they share for the person that they’ve lost is even more powerful than anything that could have pried them apart. 

I also learned that there are lots of things you shouldn’t say to a person who’s grieving. Asking them how they’re doing that day is better than asking them how they’re doing in general. Grief is so overwhelming that “How are you?” feels like too big a question, especially when the answer is typically “Terrible.” So asking, “How are you doing right now?” gives the person who’s mourning a real chance to share their immediate reality and give a more focused response. 

Throughout the piece, you look at Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief and some of the other conventional wisdom we have around loss. Is there anything you think we get wrong about the emotion and how to heal?

I learned that theories of grief are great but don’t always apply. You kind of have to pick and choose, grabbing things from column A and column B and column C that resonate. If you’re looking at a bunch of different grief books, a lot of it will feel alien to you and that’s OK. I think people don’t always grieve logically, they don’t grieve sequentially or in stages. Kubler-Ross over time decided that people dip in and out of different stages, even that you can backslide to stage one. She had to really revise that.

Do you have any advice for people trying to support somebody who’s experienced a traumatic loss like this?

To have patience. To be kind and to measure their words carefully. They should expect anything. And they should not be in the advice-giving business. That they should be in the listening business.

Is there anything that got edited out, or anything that you wish would have made it into the final piece?

Yes. It didn’t get edited out, it’s just that I knew, architecturally, there wasn’t any room for it and that the reader wasn’t going to have any bandwidth for it. I wrote a whole lot about Jeff, Bobby’s brother, and then I realized we were already at the bottom of the staircase here, so I edited it out. I was talking about how Jeff had four kids and it was through these four kids that the McIlvaines found their way out of the dark. I included some about Jeff’s grieving but I did not do Jeff justice. It’s a unique thing to lose your only sibling, and he was so young when that happened. He was 22 and he had his whole life ahead of him without his brother. I really wish that I could have written a whole separate story about all the amazing things he told me. He’s so wise and he had to grow up so fast. He’s so introspective and he’s so funny, but I just didn’t have room for it. Thank God for the Atlantic podcast, the Experiment, which was done in conjunction with NPR. It did a whole episode about Jeff. I just gave them all my tape and they did a beautiful podcast about that.

I’m sure tons of people have reached out to you since this story ran. What types of things have they shared with you?

I’ve heard from an astonishing range of people. I’ve heard from people who’ve lost kids, I’ve heard from people who’ve lost spouses, I’ve heard from people who’ve lost parents or friends. Two different people reached out to tell me that they’ve gotten “Life loves on” tattooed on themselves because they were so moved by this organizing motto for the McIlvaine family. I thought that was kind of amazing. I’ve received some beautiful letters from people, but those are private. 

How did the McIlvaines and Jen react to the piece?

They all really loved it for different reasons. They love anything that honors Bobby — anything that would get people talking about Bobby McIlvaine. I also think it’s something they can point to when they meet new people, and say this is what we went through instead of having to explain it. It serves as a kind of shorthand for them. 

Jen I think really wanted to give the McIlvaines the diary a decade earlier and didn’t know how to approach them. I almost think she was kind of thrilled to have the excuse to do it. So she was very eager to help. When she heard I won the Pulitzer, she called me up and started screaming into the phone.

How are they all doing now?

They seemed good. Helen was my date to the Pulitzers. I couldn’t bring Bob Sr. I haven’t talked to him about whether he’s still involved in what he likes to call the 9/11 truth movement. In some ways, I think when you lose a child you don’t ever forget, you don’t ever move around it, you just build a new reality on top of it. But they’re both really loving being grandparents.