A widow shares hard-won advice with those facing bereavement.
Larkin (Introduction to Chizigula, 2019, etc.) lost her husband, Ron, to brain cancer. Two months after his death, she became the full-time caregiver for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. This new role kept her from feeling the true weight of her loss. Based on her research, she believes she suffered from “delayed grief.” Moreover, she suspects she had experienced “anticipatory grief,” a term coined by psychiatrist Erich Lindemann in 1944, starting with Ron’s diagnosis. By weaving in expert opinions on “grief work,” the author gives a more nuanced picture of the bereavement process than is conveyed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ now-discredited five stages. Larkin fleshes out the models by describing her own sorrow’s emotional range. Throughout the book, she uses the effective metaphor of grief as a country made up of various states, such as Numbness, Depression, Social Withdrawal, and Self-Absorption. The main text is interspersed with essays and poetry written at different points on her grief journey; these offer windows into her state of mind at the time. For instance, in an early poem she writes of Ron: “He is a shadow of himself / A ghost, walking backwards / Away from my outstretched hand / But never beyond true love’s grasp.” Larkin maintained her emotional health through faith, bereavement support groups, and purposeful work with refugees. She found, though, that she had to adjust her expectations when “invisible friends” dropped out of her life. Figuring out her ongoing role in her stepchildren’s lives was an additional challenge. The most helpful sections of the work generalize from the author’s experiences to give lists of what a widow needs in the first few months (most importantly, for people to simply “acknowledge her loss”) and what not to say (“at least…” and other platitudes). It’s common to compare grief, Larkin notes—claiming that the loss of a child is worse than that of a husband, for instance—but such judgmental attitudes are unconstructive. Every death is painful, as she convincingly argues.
A personal, relatable study of grief.