“Meeting Grief in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand”
This book begins with the assertion that we –- all the would-be helpers – are getting something fundamentally wrong in our efforts to support bereaved people in their grief.
Devine is a therapist whose partner drowned just short of his fortieth birthday in a completely unexpected and inexplicable accident; this caused the author to enter the country of grief and to navigate her way through the territory. The book is in part a report from that experience, augmented with information and observations from contemporary understandings of neurobiology and some derived from Buddhist perspectives.
Devine distinguishes pain, which is a natural consequence of having loved and is to be “tended,” from suffering, which gets added to the pain and can be reduced with a combination of attitude, pragmatism, and applied intelligence. Unfortunately, the culture we occupy does not support the reduction of suffering, despite the good intentions of its denizens.
A recurring theme is the overwhelming and incomprehensible pain that accompanies the death of a loved one, particularly an “untimely” or out-of-time death. This pain is not something that can be “fixed.” It’s not something that one “gets over” or “recovers from.” It hurts, in ways that those on the outside can’t begin to comprehend, but it isn’t wrong. Over time, and with attention, that pain becomes part of the person as the grieving person reconfigures his or her self. How that reconfiguration can occur is highly individual, and not subject to any theoretical framework such as stages, or phases, or progressions. This process is, according to Devine, akin to a series of experiments rather than something one can ”get right” or “get wrong.” Many of the pieces of advice commonly offered carry with them the unstated implication that if only the bereaved person would do it right, they’d get over the pain more quickly.
Devine proposes a number of pragmatic measures that a person might try to find moments of refuge in the midst of the storm – for example, redirecting one’s attention from an ambush of grief by noticing and counting the number of eternal objects containing the color orange, or beginning with the letter “b” – an exercise that focuses on something entirely lacking in emotional charge that can offer breathing room and down regulate the limbic system. These are not long-term solutions, only measures to buy a moment of relief when it’s most needed.
Suffering, according to Devine, comes about when one’s pain is not acknowledged, supported, honored. It comes when the person feels dismissed or unsupported in his or her pain, when the grieving person questions their choices, their normalcy in actions and reactions. This is where the close attention Devine recommends to the effects of various experiences can come into play, enabling the bereaved person to steer herself or himself in the direction of experiences that tend to increase a sense of calm and stillness, away from experiences (people, books, etc.) that tend to make things worse.
Nothing gets solved or fixed here. Nobody moves on or gets back to “normal.” There is no schedule. There is no going back.
And, according to Devine, this is precisely as it should be.
That perspective alone may be worth the price of the book.
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