"What can I do?" is a question pondered by people trying to reach out lovingly to a grieving friend. We are so often paralyzed and unsure of what is the "right thing" to do when someone we know loses a loved one.
Society is not comfortable with death. Grieving people find this out quickly. Our whole world plunges into darkness and few people come searching for us with flashlights. Foreign feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can create a terrifying experience. "Normal" ceases to be.
A key to healing is to know the elements of the grieving process, to know there are universal experiences. The gift of a book can bring some light in the darkness to the person who is mourning the death of a loved one. Suddenly, there is a connection: "Someone else has felt this waymaybe Im not going crazy."
Any good bookstore will have a myriad of books on death, dying, and grief. Because some people find it hard to focus during the initial stages of grief, intellectual books can leave such people re-reading the same line. Personal stories written in lay vocabulary with short chapters are more readable during a time of struggle.
A Journey Through Grief, by Alla Renee Bozarth, is a 51-page book that, as its subtitle states, is "gentle, specific help to get you through the most difficult stages of grieving." Bozarth has suffered losses herself, including the sudden death of her husband when he was 37 years old. She writes about the feelings without going into the details of the stages of grief. "As the natural anesthesia of the heart wears off" one wonders "where is the merciful numbness now?" She examines the numerous emotions that bombard people who grieve. She invites us into the pain: "Paradoxically, the way past the pain is to go all the way through it."
In a world that encourages us to move on when we want to sit in the darkness longer than those around us are comfortable with, Bozarth observes, "Doing grief work is like being a trapeze artist. Balance and timing are everything. Letting go too soon and holding on too long are equally dangerous."
This book can be read in one sitting. Poetry is woven through the logical, valuable information. Often single sentences stand alone, usually "cheerleader" affirmations necessary for this difficult journey.
Judy Tatelbaum lost her brother when she was 17. The Courage to Grieve was written 24 years later, in the hopes of assisting others to "grieve fully, to finish with their grief more quickly...and to use their loss as a stepping stone."
Tatelbaum leads us through the grief experience. She names three phases of grief: shock, suffering and disorganization, and aftershocks and reorganization. She allows the bereaved to find a home, a place that they recognize in the pages of her book. We read about the phases and weep and rejoice simultaneously as we relate it to our own experiences. We are compelled to read relentlessly to help us solve the mystery that has happened and is happening to us, and to find out what will happen next. Hope shines in the darkness; there is a way out of this long tunnel.
To assist in surviving and recovery from grief, Tatelbaum gives concrete ideas and plans. She encourages people to examine their support and belief systems and their environment. She discusses therapy and support groups. In a chapter called "Finishing," she examines how to let go and move on using concepts from Gestalt therapy.
Tatelbaum offers light not only to the bereaved. There are chapters titled "Childrens Grief" and "Helping Others With Grief." She ends the book with exercises to break through our own denial of death. There is also a practical appendix listing items that need to be taken care of after someone dies. This empowering book reads easily.
WHEN I DISCOVERED that Companion Through the Darkness was about a widows experience, I almost put it back on the bookstore shelf, thinking it was not pertinent to my situation. Instead I became instantly mesmerized. Stephanie Ericsson has written pages stolen from my journalhow else could she know my pain, my darkness, my dark side?
Ericsson holds nothing back. She sorts "through the language of grief books that say all the same things but desert us by leaving the unsafe things unsaid." Her book covers the gamutthe obvious to the unspeakable. People who have never walked through the darkness may be shocked at her brutal self-disclosure. Her companions will find strength for the moment and hope for the long haul.
An excerpt from her heart-wrenching journal follows a brief, candid discourse. The truth in her writings cuts deeply. Her husband died unexpectantly while she was pregnant with their only child. She admits four months after her husbands death that she "fired God that day" and "still stubbornly thinks that God is a bumbling idiot." She addresses the frightening dark side of our thoughts. Somehow we are reassured, can even smile about it, and then move freely toward the Light again because we are no longer ashamed of our thoughts. (She does later reinstate God.)
Death rips through our lives, destroying all that is safe and secure. We are left totally exposed and emotionally raw. Few can journey into the darkness with us. Well-meaning people thrust us even further into despair.
"Mourning is a time when the cruelest things are said, sometimes by our most trusted." Ericsson reveals a surprising element of grief:
It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. It shoves away friends, scares away so-called friends, and re-writes your address book....Grief will make a new person out of you, if it doesnt kill you in the making....Grief is a molting where we shed the parts of us no longer applicable to the new parts.
These are the gems that are gathered in the darkness; these are the life-altering rewards that make the journey worth it. Rarely are they so powerfully stated in print.
These books help make transitions easier and ensure that the grief does not consume. A friend tried to console me with the cliché, "Theres light at the end of the tunnel." I responded calmly, "No, theres light in this tunnelotherwise I wouldnt be here."
The dark abyss that bereaved people fall into does have lightand the darkness will not overcome it. A book can be a luminous companion for the journey. Suzanne St. Yves
Companion Through the Darkness: Inner Dialogues on Grief. By Stephanie Ericsson. HarperPerennial, 1993.
The Courage to Grieve: Creative Living, Recovery and Growth Through Grief. By Judy Tatelbaum. Harper and Row Publishers, 1980.
A Journey Through Grief: Gentle, Specific Help to Get You Through the Most Difficult Stages of Grieving. By Alla Renee Bozarth. CompCare Publishers, 1990.
SUZANNE ST. YVES, a former Sojourners intern, a closet writer, and a fledgling clown, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She grieves the sudden death of her youngest sister one year ago.