Stunning Memoir Maps Path Through Caves Of Loss

January 16, 1992 | Reviewed by Joseph Coates, Tribune book critic.

After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges

By Diane Cole

Summit, 208 pages, $20

A reviewer of books herself, Diane Cole surely knows how it feels to come across a book that leads the reviewer to overdraw his or her account of superlatives, until all one can say to the reader is the simple truth that this one is really good. Well, Cole`s ``After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges`` is that kind of book, and even as a reviewer I`m glad she wrote it. Her combined personal memoir and research into the dark caves of grief is essential reading for anyone planning to continue living in the real world.

Americans are notoriously unwilling to acknowledge death because America has always been about throwing off old shackles, by implication even the inevitable limits of mortality. And although many good studies have been written recently about looking the gray rat in the eye, none so deftly combines intense personal tragedy with its psychological profile to give us so clear a roadmap through the labyrinth of loss.

By her early 20s, Cole had suffered in rapid succession the possibly terminal illness of her fiance, the lingering death of her mother (whose deathbed wish was that she not marry this man ``with no future``) and a close brush with her own death from the guns of Hanafi Muslims who had taken her and 100 of her colleagues hostage at the B`nai B`rith headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Even after this crash course in mortality, more was to come, in the ``invisible`` experiences of lost pregnancies and infertility.

When you`ve been hurt this badly, you want to know the whys and wherefores. And it is with considerable courage that Cole has relived and recreated these traumas to tell us what she found. Among her discoveries is the truth of the Dylan Thomas line that, ``After the first death, there is no other,`` whose two meanings, clearly charted here through interviews with other survivors, are that although old grief intensifies under new loss, the cumulative effect forces the forging of a new identity that can embrace the fact that ``it is the nature of life to leave us vulnerable`` and that being open to pain means openness to joy as well.

Repeatedly she stresses that the people most damaged by loss are those who allow it to freeze them in time and memory by a refusal to look at it. And because change-and hence loss and pain-come whether or not we acknowledge them, the best way to the other side of grief is straight through it. Cole is especially acute on the psychological strategies by which one instinctively achieves this.

During her 39 hours under the gun, she knew she was undergoing all five stages of the encounter with death outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross but was surprised to find them a confused jumble of occurrence, recurrence and simultaneity, so that denial and anger were entangled and anger came later;

while ``(fiance) Peter and I turned most to mutual denial and deception only some time after`` his crucial surgery.

Recalling a visit to see the prehistoric paintings in a cave near Lascaux, France, Cole writes that ``my journey through grief was as dark as that cave beneath the earth. . . . But in the end my journey taught me that . . . you must persevere in the hope that there will be light.``

Cole`s title is the opening of an Emily Dickinson poem whose third stanza begins, ``This is the Hour of Lead.`` By writing her own ending to it with this book-``after great pain, a new life``-she has alchemically turned that lead into pure gold.