The Big Idea: Madison Davis
Stories are meant to connect those in our lives to us, even if those stories are about death. Author Madison Davis brings us a Big Idea about connection, community, and grief. Follow along as she tells us what led to the creation of The Loved Ones.
I’ve written about the deaths in my family for over a decade. As I tried to understand and process the events of my teens and early 20s, I came at them from every angle. I wrote about my father and his illness. I have folders and folders of poems about the death of my brother. I drafted essays that attempted to forge some kind of loving path through the unsettling brambles of true crime to convey the murder of my cousin in some way that felt respectful and satisfying. Again and again, the gap between my experience and the expression of that experience was so wide and so personal that no iteration was sufficient. However, over the years, I’ve struggled to truly focus my attention elsewhere. Every project led back to these core stories.
The desire to bring the dead back to life is so strong that I couldn’t see another way forward. I wanted to write the book that made a reader fall in love with my father’s wit, my brother’s sense of adventure, my cousin’s mischievous humor. I wanted to give them each their own full, vibrant story. But every time I groped around for that book, it wasn’t there. What I found instead was my experience of being chipped away at by death. What I found was myself. I am fundamentally a product of these events. I came to realize I would have to write about my dead, imperfectly, in the mirror of my grief.
The Loved Ones began to take shape when I finally understood that the project endeavored to bury the dead, not revive them. The book is the burial act—ritual, container, tribute—and like a burial, it would not be able to capture all that they were. I would never be able to bring them fully to life in the pages of my book nor render them in a way that felt real enough. I had to make peace with the simple act of a loving burial.
A burial can serve to close the door between the living and dead. It helps make the separation real when the death is still unfathomable to the living. We mark graves to ensure the dead are not forgotten. We stand over the graves and console ourselves by sharing memories. We acknowledge so we can move forward. If the door is left open, we can spend the rest of our lives trying to reach those we’ve lost and lose ourselves in the process.
This shift in perspective helped me understand the desperation I felt to write the book; why I needed to write this book before I could engage with any other topic. It also let the book unfold naturally. Burials and funerals are messy and complicated. They come in many forms, but what they offer is closure, not an ending. They don’t heal, they simply give a foundation on which to build healing. When I conceived of it as a burial, I felt free to leave in the mess and the unanswered questions. I could draw connections even if I didn’t have conclusions. I could stop fighting the complexity and just let it be honest.
The most significant challenge was forgiving myself for the need to bury my loved ones together. When the book became a burial site, I had to let go of the desire to give each of my loved ones their own afterlife. At least for now, burial is just the beginning.
There is an urgency to a burial. Of course, there is an enormously wide range of death rituals depending on cultural and religious context, but typically a burial takes place quite soon after a loved one has died. In a way, focusing on essays to bury the dead allowed me to follow my own sense of urgency. I felt driven to explore these deaths up close. In the book, I outline some family history and draw larger connections to generational trauma and manifestations of death with broad social impact—capital punishment, medically assisted suicide, compulsory military service—but the core of the book is a focus on specific points of rupture. The book exists in that period of panicked time right after a death has occurred. It captures my reflexive desire to comb over the details again and again.
Much in the same way a funeral allows people to share and experience a loss together, a book is meant to be a form of communication and connection. My hope is that this book resonates with people who are processing their own losses, sitting in the cloud of meaninglessness that tragedy can create, or simply find comfort in asking questions alongside someone else.