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Book Review: An Ambiguous Grief

AN AMBIGUOUS GRIEF by Dominique Hunter is a tender, inventive memoir that grapples with the unexpected loss of a child. Check out what Tucker Lieberman of IBR has to say in his review of this Atmosphere Press memoir.

“Book Review: An Ambiguous Grief”

Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman

A tender, inventive memoir that grapples with the unexpected loss of a child

An IBR Impressive Indie Press Book of 2020*

Dominique Hunter has experienced one of the greatest personal sadnesses most people can imagine: the death of a child. Her son Dylan died as a young man. In An Ambiguous Grief, she reckons with her loss.

“I had, or so I thought, already done all the mourning I could, and then some,” she says, but now she acknowledges that “I am far from having done my mourning.” This memoir is a running conversation with her absent son. Within the text, he speaks in italics, arguing with her, encouraging her to say more.

Dylan had challenges early in life. Diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia, ADHD, and OCD, he often was left behind by his teachers’ classroom styles, and he struggled academically. He suffered from panic attacks and soothed himself with rituals. (Hunter wonders if her son’s OCD was inherited from her father, who worked as a furniture restorer in post-war France.)

Eventually, Dylan found mental relief in pills as well as in the endorphin highs he got from participating on his high school track team. Hunter remembers her son’s sweet personality, his humor, and his joy in living. The cause of his death at age 23 is discussed at the end of the book. After the death, she asks his roommates, “to open the window so that your soul – Your spirit? Your energy? – the immaterial part of you could fly away.”

In much of the narrative, Hunter is bargaining. What if she had made just one different parenting choice? Would her son’s destiny have turned out differently? Would he have been happier, healthier? Would he have lived? Maybe a choice that seemed small at the time, like a different French teacher, would have mattered. Or perhaps a more drastic decision? She muses: “I should have taken you to France,” her homeland until her twenties when she married an American. “Or to a foreign land. To the end of the world. To New Zealand.” Such questions are unanswerable, of course, but, in the asking, she takes the opportunity to review her family history and explore her own identity.

In her reverie, she imagines a life in which she brought her teenage son to apprentice with a violinmaker in 17th-century Italy. In this situation, she might have had to explain her son’s strange fixation on the number five, but she could have assured the teacher that the boy would likely be soothed by relaxed attention on mechanical design.

Separately, she imagines that, some twenty years from now, her family might find spiritual traces of Dylan in the world in a moment when they least expect it, proof that he was part of history and that his presence still resonates. In these parts of the text, Hunter deviates from conventional memoir and weaves in speculative fiction.

This memoir may be reassuring for a person who is grieving someone’s absence, whether due to a suddenly and untimely death or some other kind of loss. It is normal to imagine an ongoing conversation with someone who is no longer present, expressing feelings through remembered and invented dialogue. Sometimes a vivid story—half “What happened,” half “What if?”—is how we keep a person’s memory alive and bring it into the future with us. This book is a gentle, loving example of this stage of mourning.

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir

Print Length: 182 pages

ISBN: 978-1649218810

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