‘The most beautiful and harrowing moments’: Elizabeth Gilbert on nursing a dying loved one


June 25, 2019 17:52:15

Elizabeth Gilbert’s life has been an open book.

The author of mega-hit Eat, Pray, Love could never be accused of not sharing.

“If I were to meet you on a city bus and sit with you for 15 minutes, by the end of it, you would know everything about my life, and I would probably know everything about your life,” she told 7.30.

“That’s the way I was even before social media.”

But it is only because she feels she has something to give.

“When I learn something that’s been useful to me or valuable to me, the amount of time between when I learn it and when I want to share it is very small,” she said.

“Because I know there are people out there who are suffering and struggling through the same questions, and why wouldn’t I share it?

“Why wouldn’t I help? I’ve been so helped in my life by people who are brave enough or generous enough to learn their lessons in public.

“So I feel like it’s kind of the least I can do.”

‘The most transformative thing I ever did in my life’

The last few years have been tough for Gilbert.

Her partner, Rayya Elias, was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer in 2016, and Gilbert nursed her to her death for the next 18 months.

It was a painful time but not one that Gilbert would change.

“I can truly say that the most important, beautiful and transformative thing I ever did in my life, was to spend those 18 months with Rayya as she was dying,” she said.

“I will also say, speaking to anybody out there who is actively taking care of the love of your life, who is dying, it was also the worst thing I’ve ever been through.

“The incredible paradox of humanity is that those two things can be simultaneously true.”

Gilbert insists she is not sugar-coating the experience.

“There’s a lot of rage, there was a lot of exhaustion … days and days on end where I didn’t sleep, or I lost my temper, where I felt like she was an ungrateful patient, she got frustrated with me, it’s a miserable experience. There’s nothing simple about it,” she said.

“Anybody who’s out there, who’s on day four of no sleep, taking care of somebody who’s in incredible pain, knows that it’s also quite brutal.

“And yet, in all of that, were some of the most beautiful and harrowing moments of my life.”

‘Grief is a sneaky devil’

Gilbert’s latest book, City of Girls, is fiction, looking at the world of women in the theatre in 1940s New York.

It was written in the months immediately after Elias died.

“I threw myself into writing the most cheerful, upbeat, joyful, life-affirming book that I’ve ever written in my entire life,” Gilbert said.

“I said to my editor, ‘I want this book to go down like a tray of champagne cocktails’.

“I wanted to write about the freedom that New York can bring people and about that incredibly glamorous moment in the 1940s.

“But I’ve also always wanted to write a book about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by sexual misadventures, because there aren’t very many novels like that in the history of Western literature. And I wanted to tell a different kind of story about that kind of girl.

“I think it was incredibly healing for me to do it. It might seem like a really weird thing to do during your grief. But it was almost like balancing the scales of the universe back again.”

But that does not mean she is over the pain of her partner’s death.

“Grief is a sneaky devil,” Gilbert said.

“It’s like many of the human emotions, it doesn’t operate on a tidy grid, in the same way that love doesn’t end, depression doesn’t, and recovery doesn’t.

“We were constantly trying to manage the weird landscape of our emotions and hoping that every day will get a little better, every day will get a little stronger.

“And that’s not been my experience with emotions.

“I can honestly say that I am feeling my grief worse now than I was a year ago.”

‘You can just be yourself, and it’s something quite magical’

Gilbert has used her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, to explore her life and experiences.

City of Girls has been described as a love letter to female friendships.

“I love my male friends. I’ve loved all my romantic partners,” she said.

“But there’s something about getting together with the friends who I’ve had now for 20, 30, 40 years, the female friends.

“And when there are no men in the room there’s something that can happen that’s quite magical between women, where you just really get to be, without having to impress, without having to defend, without having to compete.

“You can just be yourself, and it’s something quite magical.”

The journey that Gilbert documented in Eat, Pray, Love seemed to indicate that she had reached a level of emotional and spiritual contentment.

A decade later, as she approaches her 50th birthday, it doesn’t seem that straightforward.

“There’s a line in my novel where one of the characters says it’s important to take breaks between catastrophes,” she said.

“And I think at 40 I was in a long break between catastrophes and just thinking: ‘That is great. I’ve got this all figured out.’

“And now I’m back to a state of more humility, which is also a beautiful place to be because it contains within it so much openness and so much wonder for the weird journey that that we’re on and the unpredictability of it.

“So, I feel wiser. I don’t necessarily feel as relaxed as I feel wiser.”









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