Stephen Oliver (ed)
SPCK Publishing 2013
This is not a book that gives magic, or easy answers on how to deal with grief. Nor is it overtly Christian – there is no theology of bereavement, no attempt to explain the purpose of love, pain and loss. It is, however, a very practical collection of essays which explore some of the pain, practicalities and contexts of grief.
The chapters vary in tone and style. Three are deeply personal accounts of grief – the death of a beloved wife and the aftermath of two car accidents which killed a father and a son. All were a tiny insight into the blackness; all seemed to say ‘this isn’t eloquent – there are no words that explain this – it’s as close as I can get.’ I thought I had some understanding – it is clear from this that I know little of the reality. Mary Slevin’s chapter, in which she reflects on how the death of her son led her into bereavement counselling, is instructive both in learning about the horrendousness of this situation and also in her very practical advice over what are unhelpful phrases that pretend to show empathy but are in fact just hurtful, or trite. Comparing losing a son to having a dog put to sleep?
I skimmed Howard Cooper’s chapter on Jewish rituals, but it seems to provide a good guide to the traditions and ways of marking death and grief. Ben Rhodes writes with advice on supporting people of varied or no faiths from his experience as a hospital chaplain. The point that the NSS in its anti-chaplaincy campaign fails to see is that acceptance of chaplain as person to be approached, and approachable, regardless of people’s faiths is widespread; that their understanding of spirituality is not limited to Christianity.
Pat Jalland presents an academic essay outlining cultural changes in rituals and acceptance of grief and bereavement in the UK between 1850 and 1970. It helps give context to the rest of the writings – particularly the influence of war; and Pat’s discussion about expected behaviours from men and women is fascinating. Sue Smith and Jon Martin record their personal reflections on death as seen from those who are palliative care professionals. Again, a new set of insights and questions to be asked. What is it that medics know? How does their objective medical knowledge sit alongside the subjectivity that every dying person presents – because every dying person is unique?
I was surprised that the chapter I found most interesting was that which dealt with military chaplaincy. The explanation of the need for silence – not as an absence of noise, but as a definite space – in the midst of soldiers’ dealing with grief surprised me. Perhaps my interest was piqued because it is not an area of life I have – or will have – any experience of.
I chose this book for review as I am so aware of my own shortcomings when trying to be kind to grieving friends. I’m not insensitive enough to trot out the ‘it’s all part of God’s plan,’ but I am still often embarrassingly tongue-tied. I feel that I send letters and texts which effectively say nothing except ‘how are you?’ which in itself is an utterly inadequate and pointless question. I am reassured by the experiences relayed in the book that this is probably OK, that a badly-written card is better than no card. Perhaps my fairly stolid ‘you’re probably going to cry, so I brought hankies’ approach is a bit more clumsy than I’d like, but I guess it is better than never calling and being afraid of grief.