I can’t remember the last time I read book length non-fiction. I’m going to guess at least a year. Maybe two, if you don’t count books for work. Which is to say it has to be a compelling proposition for me to entertain non-fiction (like I considered reading Fire and Fury but then thought – who cares, there are podcasts). But when I heard that the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival, Julia Samuel, was coming to my city, I looked into the book. And that was enough for me to pick it up.
The gist: Samuel is a grief counselor and the book presents 15 case studies from her years of practice as a way of inviting the reader to consider how folks experience grief and keep living after significant loss. The book is broken into sections (death of a sibling, death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a child, facing your own death) and each section has three case studies and then some reflections on the chapter. The book concludes with some general notes about death and dying in Canada (presumably only for the Canadian edition), supporting others in grief, supporting yourself in grief.
I haven’t experienced grief up close. Yet. Samuels is great, however, at reminding the reader that it is only a matter of time – and chance – before we encounter death and grief, and that hiding from this certainty does nothing to protect us from the inevitability (sort of like my relationship with global warming, actually). And she reminds the reader without being scary or macabre.
In fact, I’d say the overarching mood of the book is ‘gentle.’ Readers are allowed space to digest as each case study is relatively short, and within them are moments of levity and reflection. (One complaint I have is that Samuels dwells a bit too much for my taste on her therapeutic process (i.e. how she needs to go slow in asking some questions because trust needs to be established first), but then I wasn’t reading it with interest in how grief counselling works, but I can see how other readers might have this interest).
I was talking to my dear friend S. about the book (as well as my mum and my Auntie P.) and sharing with them that what I found most valuable about the book (at this moment in my life anyway) was in supporting others in their experience with grief. But it was also a key read for me at the moment because I am – inexplicably? – preoccupied with knowing that those I love will die. And dwelling in this morbidity has been scary and disquieting and all the other feelings you’d expect to have. And while fiction does it’s best to help me prepare for death (there are no shortage of novels exploring all the many different ways death finds us), I suppose I wanted something practical. And this is a desire Grief Works frustrates. Samuels acknowledges the desire for a practical guide, and notes that these kinds of books do exist, but she resists giving a check-list because of her emphasis on how individualized and contextual grief is experienced. Sure she offers a few ‘pillars’ (meditation, running and visualizations seem to be her fan favourites), but these are couched in the insistence that each individual will have to find their own path.
So maybe what I’m most appreciative of is the way the book has opened conversations for me. I can say I’m reading, or just read this book, and it made me think about these things. Instead of being like “I’m thinking a lot about death these days,” which is odd because it is sunny, and springtime, and there are baby cats (aka: kittens) all over Facebook, I can use the book to begin conversations that let me know that other people are thinking about death, too. (And yes, I know I should check out a death cafe).