Meghan O'Rourke in Slate:
There are few writers as suited to writing insightfully about loss as the mature Barthes was. Grief is at once a public and a private experience. One's inner, inexpressible disruption cannot be fully realized in one's public persona. As a brilliant explicator of how French culture shapes its self-understanding through shared “signs,” Barthes was primed to notice the social dynamics at play among friends and colleagues responding to his bereavement. As an adult son whose grief for his beloved mother—he lived with her and said she provided his “internalized law”—was unusually acute, he was subject to grief's most disorienting intensities. The result is a book that powerfully captures, among other things, the shiver of strangeness that a private person experiences in the midst of friends trying to comfort or sustain him in an era that lacks clear-cut rituals or language for loss.
In one of Mourning Diary's first entries, Barthes describes a friend worrying that he has been “depressed for six months.” (His mother was ill before her death.) It was “said discreetly, as always,” Barthes notes. Yet the statement irritates him: “No, bereavement (depression) is different from sickness. What should I be cured of? To find what condition, what life? If someone is to be born, that person will not be blank, but a moral being, a subject of value—not of integration.” Noting that “signs” fail to convey the private depths of mourning, he comments on the tension between others' expectant curiosity and the mourner's own suffering: “Everyone guesses—I feel this—the degree of a bereavement's intensity. But it's impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.”