Down the years I've done my fair share of training in bereavement counselling, both year long and short courses, and in the process you listen to a lot of talking, do a great deal of role play, read a whole heap of books and you learn a great deal, but sometimes a book comes along that imparts far far more than any course ever could.
Grief and loss isn't just about death of course, life's replete with loss at many levels and anything which leads to that whirlpool of reaction can have far-reaching effects. The seven stages of grief often identified as shock, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression and acceptance and the possibilities for getting stuck on any one of these after a significant loss are ever-present. The stages may be experienced as a complete chaos of emotions hence the whirlpool imagery and often people make great leaps across them but when people are sucked down and hindered in the process it can be hugely debilitating.
I was delighted to meet Gina Claye, one of the Oxford Writers over the lunch at The Trout, who kindly gave me a copy of her book Don't Let Them Tell You How To Grieve . Overcome with the excitement of such a lovely gathering I promptly left the book on the windowsill in the pub and didn't realise until I arrived home. If you're looking at which stage I was stuck on over this loss it was the kicking myself stage and I just hope whoever picked the book up has found it useful.
Gina kindly sent me another copy and when you learn about the circumstances that led Gina to write this quietly amazing little book you will realize that she is extremely well-qualified to do so and to give it such a direct but telling title.
In 1987 Gina's elder daughter Nikki, aged nineteen took her own life, just over a year later Gina's husband left. The stresses of a bereavement are profound on any family, a suicide even more so and the losses for Gina started to stack up. Her son Robin went off to university and Gina had to return to work to support the family and trained as a teacher. Once her youngest daughter Rachael had headed off to university there was a house to be sold. More upheaval, more loss.
Then in 2003 Robin, on a trip to Singapore, fell ill and died of encephalitis.
In the two years that followed Gina wrote this book of poems. Previously she had written poems for children published in anthologies by Scholastic and Oxford University Press.
I can only say thank heavens Gina decided to share both the circumstances of her grief and her poetry because she has done something remarkable here. Each poem is accompanied by a brief personal explanatory note from Gina which places it in context and these are all contexts that a bereaved person will recognise with ease.There is nothing mawkish or sentimental about any of it, it's a book that gives anyone permission and the courage to do the agonising but essential work of grieving however they may choose.
Crying over the clothes of the deceased person long after they've died, the full house suddenly empty, the right words from a friend at the right time,
'One foot in front of the other and don't forget to breathe.'
The feeling that the ground may be about to give way beneath your feet, others living a normal life while you think yours may never be so again, the letters that keep arriving addressed to the dead person, the hours of sitting and staring into space and many more.
The profound comfort to be gained from knowing this is all normal and part of the process cannot be over-stated and this book, with its short pieces, is perfect for that brief attention span so often experienced after a bereavement, making it ideal to have alongside.
I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone whether grieving or not, everything within speaks to the many facets of grief and loss, and there are startling moments of such acute and simple revelation making it a book that offers both an understanding of grief as well as endless compassion. I will return to it many times over.
Here's one extract and if anyone would like to make contact with Gina you can e mail her here.
'This photograph of Robin and me stood near the television in the sitting room which I had to go through to get to the kitchen, so I could hardly avoid seeing it. There were other photographs around of course, but it was this particular one, taken not long ago, that seemed to be a focus for my loss.'
At first I almost took the photograph
down. It showed the two of us
together, walking in the Chiltern hills.
We had stopped for a rest. I leant
against you, your arm around me,
my head on your shoulder.
The pain I felt each time I saw it
was so acute, it made me feel
again my overwhelming loss.
But to stare at the space it would
leave would be worse. So it
stayed. And gradually as time
passed, I made a friend of pain.
And now in moments of anxiety,
I stand and look at the photograph.
I lean on you still and will all
my life. Your arm around me.
My head on your shoulder.
Don't Let Them Tell You How To Grieve
Published by WritersPrintShop