Subversion of Resolution: On Eileen Vorbach Collins’s “Love in the Archives”

By Melissa M. MonroeFebruary 13, 2024

Subversion of Resolution: On Eileen Vorbach Collins’s “Love in the Archives”

Love in the Archives: A Patchwork of True Stories About Suicide Loss by Eileen Vorbach Collins

EILEEN VORBACH COLLINS’S new memoir-in-essays, Love in the Archives: A Patchwork of Stories About Suicide Loss, is about the liminal space of parental grief and the big questions that inevitably follow: What happened to that which animated my beloved’s physical form? What is real? How can I go on?

Collins lost her 15-year-old daughter, Lydia, to suicide and is condemned to obsession over the “burden of perspicacity” borne by the teenaged girl. “I’ll never know what it was like for my daughter,” she writes. “I suspect she was bombarded by her senses. Too much input and no way to turn down the volume.”

Ambiguous loss—a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss—is used to describe an “unclear” death. Perhaps a cause of death cannot be determined, a body cannot be recovered, or a motive for suicide is unknown. Modern storytelling around loss and grief demands resolution, but this is not always possible. How does one tell a story without an end? Collins discusses this problem in the preface:

Although we may always look for the why, we will never find it. The only why I am sure of is why I write this pain. I write because it’s mine to tell, and what else am I to do with it? I live it and know many others are living it too. […]

I have no advice for bereaved parents. No platitudes. No assurances of a heavenly reunion. I have only stories. Like my grief, like my life, there is no narrative arc. There is conflict and movement but no resolution. So, I wrote this book in pieces.

Love in the Archives doesn’t only detail life before and after Lydia’s death. It also explores how Judaism, the natural world, and divorce affected Collins’s ability to “move forward” in a world that looked the same but would never again exist for her. Collins’s sardonic wit cuts through her painful memories, releasing shame, stigma, and other contributors to prolonged grief in the process. The reader feels it roll off the pages. Collins has mastered not only “show, don’t tell” but also “evoke, don’t tell.”

As a bereaved parent myself, I know that cognitive dissonance can be exhausting. After my two-year-old daughter Alice died in her sleep of unknown causes (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, or SUDC), I felt as if I were trapped between two worlds of before and after. But the feeling of being unmoored from life as you know it is decidedly more challenging to convey than more familiar ideas of sadness. Collins’s hope-filled work serves as a light for those shuffling through the depersonalization that often accompanies enormous loss.

This is no how-to or self-help book, however. In contrast to Clancy Martin’s recent book How Not to Kill Yourself (2023), Collins’s work is not prescriptive. Nor does it offer deep explorations into potential causes of and deterrents from suicide, and she does not pull you into the authentic yet messy weeds of such a loss, as in Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life (2011). Collins’s work provides glimpses of life from a perspective already altered by the passing of time and emotional processing. She shares snippets without rationalization or excuses. Her insouciance may inspire the reader to consider their grief sans shame.

Those looking for a chronology might be disappointed with the structure of Love in the Archives. But the subversion of resolution is a problem that bereaved parents share: memories don’t come in order; they come in flashes. The “why” may never be known, but the narrator must tell the story anyway. The assorted essays in Love in the Archives are, as the subtitle suggests, an attempt to stitch together whatever fragments remain into something meaningful.

Collins retorts, “If one more person talks to me about having closure, I swear I’ll punch them. What the hell do they think, I can walk out the door and close it behind me, and everything is fine and good in the Land of New Normal?”

Collins’s prose makes clear the innate drive to have one’s child remembered—for others to understand the child’s impact on their corner of the world, for people to know their name, to have a direction in which to aim the love that remains. Living after a significant loss requires a balance of keeping the departed’s memory alive—hanging on to every last atom—while letting go of so much. “Every time I pull it out of the closet, the one remaining plastic bin,” she writes to Lydia, “twenty gallons of space where I keep all of you that doesn’t live in my heart.”

This balance is the event horizon every bereaved parent must navigate. Collins’s description of this precarity is superbly written in “How to Be the Mother of a Dead Girl”:

You are still here, in my mind and my heart and my cells. I just have to bring you back to life. To clone you with my memories and my pen. What if I write you into just what I want you to be? What if I’m holding you captive and you really need to go on your way to other things? To be someone else’s child or someone else’s mother? Or a lion, a goddess, a ray of pure light that will blind us if we look too closely.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Americans between five and 24 years of age. Behind every one is a human being full of potential. Some, like Lydia, wear vanilla musk, play the flute, collect Pez dispensers, and cover their bedroom walls with art, as if they “live inside a collage.” All leave behind loved ones who struggle to craft their own denouement.

LARB Contributor

Melissa M. Monroe was awarded Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest 2023 Self-Published Book Awards for her book, Mom’s Search for Meaning: Grief and Growth After Child Loss (2023). She is a mom, freelance writer, acupuncturist, and host of the podcast This Club Suuucks: Grief Support for Parents After the Lasagnas Are Long Gone. Her recent work has appeared in Insider and Well+Good.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!