When the publicist reached out with a copy of this, I wasn’t sure I was ready after my mother’s death at the end of last year.* They reached out within the first couple of weeks and I was so caught up in dealing with everything you have to deal with from a planning and organization perspective that comes with death, that I wasn’t even really thinking about the physical and emotional perspectives. Ultimately, I said yes thinking I would eventually need something like this, but not sure when.
When we packed for our trip to Mexico I threw it in our bag, I figured what better place to open up the emotional turmoil than on a beautiful beach hundreds of miles away from everywhere to start processing things. And that’s sort of what happened, but not really.
The very first vignette, had me in tears on the plane to Mexico. At that point I realized it might not be the best place to read the book, but I persevered because I’m that type of person who can really only read one book at a time. I kept reading and I never again got to the same state as that first story. I’m not sure if it was the way it was written or their specific relationship, but the rest of the vignettes didn’t hit me quite like that first one. What I needed to hear over and over, and what I’m sure anyone who’s faced the death of a loved one (oh that phrase – ugh),
“There is no right or wrong in grief: we need to accept whatever form it takes, both in ourselves and in others, and to find the strength to live with that acceptance.” (47)
“That is the difficult truth about grief: it’s impervious to control. It does things in its own time, and that’s usually much longer than anyone wants.” (145)
“It’s something that you go off and do on your own. It’s quite lonely. We all share in the family grief, but the grief I feel as an individual doesn’t happen at the same time as theirs, and isn’t the same as anyone else’s. We’re each wired differently, and one of us might feel the same thing with a different intensity at a different time. But in the end you have to deal with it yourself.” (155, Phil and Annette)
I took out of this the same things I’ve taken out of everything else I’ve read about grief after the death of a loved one. It takes time and space, people grieve at their own pace, and there are so many factors that go into grief that it’s impossible to put it into one book even though Samuel tried to encompass specific types. She broke the book down into sections: death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a sibling, death of a child, facing one’s own death, and what helps to survive.
It was odd, but the most pertinent portion that I found for me was a sub section in When a partner dies about drugs and alcohol. My mom faced a very short but intense battle with alcoholism and ultimately it and depression contributed the most to her death. My grandmother died two months before I graduated high school and my mom was never the same and when she discovered she could drink, she had a lot of allergies for a long time, that was the beginning of the end. If you go back you’ll find plenty of books about alcoholism, difficult conversations, and mental health (and mentions of my therapist, like below) from where I was searching for answers and support. Samuel on pages 44-45 summed up a lot of what mom must’ve faced that I couldn’t and probably never will understand and again in her section on A living Loss.
“Whatever the reason for their abuse, drugs and alcohol increase the risk of bad outcomes for the bereaved and, as a consequence, their children, sometimes even many generations of their children. Addiction, can prevent people from accepting the reality of their situation—and it is this absolute determination not to surrender to reality that prevents people from moving beyond their grief and living the life they’ve been given to the full.” (45)
“Anyone who is worn out by being a caregiver for many years may be veering between two unwelcome thoughts: ‘I can’t do this anymore; I want it to be over’ and ‘I’m terrified of her/him dying.’ Both thoughts have truth and power, but when competing with each other they can make someone feel quite mad. The ‘I want it over’ thought can not only instill feelings of guilt, but also switch on a version of ‘magical thinking’—the fear that merely having the thought might hasten the dying person’s end. The ‘I’m terrified of him/her dying,’ on the other hand is a boiling cauldron of dark materials that need to be voiced in order to prevent the caregiver from becoming ill or depressed, which is all too common in these situations.” (135)
Even though I wasn’t a direct caregiver trying to understand and work with mental health issues and alcoholism that were destroying my mom was incredibly difficult. I can’t understand, and probably never will be able to understand how my aunts and uncles had the strength to face it every day from so much closer geographically and if I’m completely honest emotionally.
These quotes and others passages throughout the book of Samuel’s highlighted and reinforced a lot of the conversations I had with my therapist in the years leading up to my mom’s death. I actually laughed when Samuel’s reiterated over-and-over that exercise and healthy eating will go a long way in helping you stay mentally fit and healthy to face the type of emotional turmoil you can/may experience. Mine did that too and I was like BUT HOW!? constantly. I’m definitely getting back into the healthy, but it took a tole over the past few years, so we’ll see how it goes. And the other good thing that came out of the past few years, is that my sister and I are super-cognizant of alcoholism and mental health issues. Neither of us were/are heavy drinkers, but having the awareness of what can happen is important.
The other interesting thing of note, to me at least, was that Samuel wrote as if she was very young and new to the field. And she’s not, she’s only two years younger than my mom. For some reason the way she wrote made me think she was so much younger than she is and that she was helping these people deal with grief and death from a perspective that hadn’t experienced it as thoroughly as she may have through the death of friends and family. It could have just been how I read it, but it was odd when I looked her up after and I wonder if this would’ve changed my perspective on the work.
Recommendation: Personally, I’m not sure how much this book helped me. The book is definitely one I can see being very helpful to an incredibly large swath of the population, but for me I’m not sure it helped me process anymore than I already have processed. Perhaps it’s where I am in the grieving process, maybe it’s the writing style, or maybe it’s helped more than I know and I’ll revisit it mentally over and over in the next few months and years. Samuel tried to do so much in such a tiny space that there wasn’t really the opportunity to go as in depth as I think I was looking for and ultimately this is what fell short for me at this moment in time.
*I received a copy of Grief Works from a publicist in return for my honest opinion. No goods or services were exchanged.
Opening Line: “When Caitlin rang my doorbell, I was curious.”
Closing Line: “As someone who has been brave enough to read this book, you have, I hope, found these stories inspiring and replaced your fear with confidence….” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)
Additional Quotes from Grief Works
“Death is the great exposer: it forces hidden fault lines and submerged secrets into the open, and reveals to us how crucial those closest to us have been. But those surrounding us don’t necessarily understand the complexity of what has happened or the depth of the injury we are carrying.” (xiii)
“The person who has died feels alive to us, even though we know that in actuality they have died. We envisage their body as if it were alive: we wonder if they are lonely, or cold, or frightened; we speak to them in our minds, and ask them to guide us in big and little decisions in our lives. We look for them in the street, connect to them through listening to the music they loved or by smelling their clothes. The dead person is present in us, yet at the same time not present physically. We may have a sense of an ongoing relationship, while knowing that nothing will ever move forward again. When this is unacknowledged or even denied, our minds may become disordered or unbalanced; but when this is understood, our overwhelming feeling will be one of relief.” (xix)