“A few years ago I used to drive out onto the countryside and yell at the top of my lungs: “Mathilde!’ I was really calling her. It would not have really surprised me if my eldest daughter had appeared in her denim dungarees and her checked shirt at the end of the dirt track. Of course she did not come. At least I had spoken her name once more. Sometimes I meet a little girl who has the same name as her, and I speak it. I say: ‘Hello, Mathilde’ with a smile and I think: ‘Help, help’.
I was introduced to The Disappearance, A Primer of Loss by Genevieve Jurgensen when excerpts were read on National Public Radio’s This American Life during the show “Stories of Grief and Loss”. Written as a series of letters to a family friend, Jurgensen unfolds the story of the death of her two daughters, ages four and seven, to a drunk driver. Since her correspondent never knew Mathilde and Elise, Jurgensen struggles with “the before” as she tries to introduce her children “Can one really tell someone about very young children? I will not even show you photographs of them. All they show are two little girls, barely distinguishable from each other, just like the little blond children which people see in primary school classes and at the beach along the Atlantic coast in the summer…I feel powerless in trying to make you accept this evidence: they were here. I was their mother.”
With each chapter presenting a new letter, some lengthy, some no longer than a page, Jurgensen establishes an intimacy in which the reader feels she is addressing them specifically. Although translated from French, the writing maintains the painful open honestly of the grieving parent. Years later, Jurgensen still struggles with her decision on the day her daughters died, not to view their bodies in the hospital. “All of this brings me back to that moment of weakness on my chair when, even though two children, my two children two very young children, had known how to die and were waiting to be presented to me one last time in their truthfulness, I had not even gone those few meters along the corridor that separated them from me. They had known how to die, I no longer knew how to walk.”
Jurgensen’s grief journey which she describes as a “net plunged so deep in the water”, involves a moment in which she spends time with a car identical to that in which her daughters died twelve years earlier. “They are still on the road, those cars. When there are none left, I will no longer be able to ask questions of them. Someone will have to keep one somewhere for me…When I was near that Renault 5 the other day, I wanted to lie down on the rear seat and wait for the end of time. In short, back to square one.”
After the death of her daughters, Jurgensen gave birth to a son, Gauthier and a daughter Elvire. In one letter, she relates the discomfort of meeting other mothers on the playground. “Even so, at the square with the children, I was not like others mothers on the playground…If another woman wanted to talk to me, I had only two options: a bright facade which devastated me…or a truth that was socially unacceptable (‘These are my younger two children. The elder ones died four years ago.’) I would also be out of place.”
Jurgensen acknowledges the double rhythm of life as a grieving parent. The passage of time, the progression of one part of her life that contains conversations, laughter, friends, and a sense that her life was never touched by tragedy alongside that of the death of her daughters. “A double rhythm like a double life: you do not know whether they struggle against each other or enrich each other.”
Jurgensen offers no answers, simply a recounting of her story and an observance of her grief. While struggling to maintain the memory of her daughters yet acknowledging their death, she has written at times with raw brutal honesty but always with enduring love.
Book Review Written By: Christina Harkness, Victim Services Coordinator
For more information and to purchase The Disappearance: A Primer for Loss, click here.