The first story tells of a woman living with her dying husband while having an affair. Their marriage had been difficult and after his death she spiraled out of control. We read of her path to finding some stability and calm.
In the introduction, Julia says, “Death is the great exposer. It forces hidden fault lines and submerged secrets into the open”. She is a psychotherapist and the stories are case studies of real people she has worked with. In each instance she shows how either unrecognised grief is behind a problem or how the longer-standing pains and tensions in a life are the complicating factor in an experience of grief.
She goes on to say: “These stories demonstrate that we need to become more familiar with what is going on inside us. We must learn to recognise our feelings and motivations and genuinely get to know ourselves. This is necessary if we are to adjust to the new reality brought about by loss.”
The stories describe not just widows and widowers but also grieving parents and children, brothers and sisters and people facing their own death. There is the story of how the death of a sibling stirred up traumas passed down a generation. There is grief in the face of abusive relationships; traumatic grief, and grief for a person no longer remembered but which still has the power to send a life into chaos.
There is death by suicide and suicidal survivors. There are deaths in families divided by geography, conflict and prejudice. Julia also talks about the jealousy that the dying can feel for the living and the competing feelings of those caring for the dying.
At the end of each section and then at the end of the book, Julia offers some reflections, advice, and the context of history and statistics. She wants to break the silence that surrounds death and prevents us talking to each other and even talking to ourselves about the reality of our experience.
When you see the many layers in each of these lives, it becomes clear how much the standard advice on bereavement tends to treat grief as if it happens in isolation, unconnected to the other parts of a person’s life. In recent years there has been an attempt to be more accommodating by urging people to do what feels right for them. In practice I think this feels like going from one extreme to another. We’ve dropped the strict rules of Victorian decorum and the much misunderstood five stages model and now we have to just wing it. We have the freedom of freestyling when some kind of supportive structure would be more reassuring.
So Julia shows us some of the tools of her trade to let us learn how to create better-tailored support for ourselves and others, and how to recognise when we need additional support.
We see how some of the people in the book visit her only a handful of times while others take several years.
Most consistently we see compassion. So often it seems as if Julia uses her sympathetic, non-judgmental view of the people she works with, to teach them how to be kinder, gentler and more understanding towards themselves. You don’t have to identify with any of the circumstances of the people in the book to gain from seeing that mindset of care in action and how it is able to dissolve the barriers we use to keep our deepest problems concealed from ourselves.
It is a book that lets you come out of hiding. It also gives you some useful things to say to friends and family. On the perennial problem of the well-intended intrusions, Julia says: “Follow the mourner’s lead. They may not want to talk about their grief now or with you. It’s good to say something to acknowledge their loss but then let them have the control they need; they had none over the death.”
That lack of control is another thing that is rarely addressed. The book is unsentimental on what we can and can’t control. But throughout it shows that if we allow ourselves to move our understanding of ourselves and each other, up to another level, we can regain the amount of control we need and we can help others do the same.
The book’s website is full of advice
BEAD Bereaved Through Alcohol and Drugs
A new initiative from Cruse bereavement care
For friends and family of a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol
CALM the Campaign Against Living Miserably
Support to men in the UK, including suicide prevention and support to those bereaved by suicide
SOBS Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide
A huge network of local support groups as well as a helpline, online support and specialist services for under 18s and for LGBTQ people
SAMM Support After Murder and Manslaughter
Helplines, retreats, secure online forums and more
Support for families and friends bereaved by a death in custody or detention
Someone to talk to, any time of the day or night, every day of the year
An encyclopaedia of help and information for anyone with any experience of or interest in mental health issues
First published in Issue 15 Widows and Widowers magazine
Image by image by iStock.com / anyaberkut