Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Good Books For When Bad Things Happen

Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple, by Nathalie Himmelrich

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading.
Karen Capucilli

I'm a reader. When bad things happen in my life, I tend to turn to books. Not just when bad things happen. All other times too. I'm always reading.

Other people know this about me. So when our son Jacob had a recurrence of his cancer, and Jeremy and I had the heartbreaking task of contemplating end of life issues for our two year old, people were generous. They bought books for us.

People had the best of intentions. They were successful in finding books about surviving the death of a child. There was only one problem with them. It turned out that the books sucked.

No one set out to buy crappy bereavement books. No one set out to write crappy bereavement books. But unfortunately, that is what happened.

The books were so crappy that I finally put them in my bedside table drawer and left them there until one day I found them and threw them out.

We found our support elsewhere. When I read books, I read an entirely different kind of book. I preferred memoirs. Some were written by people who lost a child. Some were not. All of them had a loose theme in common: Surviving and thriving in spite of terrible circumstances. Oftentimes, in some ways, because of circumstances. These were the books I read. I still read books like this to this day.

Recently, Nathalie Himmelrich, a relationship coach, grief recovery expert, writer, wife, mother and bereaved parent contacted Jeremy and me. We agreed to be interviewed, along with many other couples, for her new book about parental bereavement. We were both eager to participate. That book turned into Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple.

Himmelrich's professional experience and personal story of loss combined to finally create a book that struck the right chord with me.

It Had Me At Hello

This book can be read at any time in the grieving process. When you feel called to open it, do so and read wherever you are led. Jump back and forth between pages with the intent to look for the nuggets of wisdom that apply to you and your situation. Let go of the things that do not fit or not yet fit for you.”

This alone shows a rare understanding. There it is right in the preface. Thank you, Nathalie Himmelrich.

A Welcoming Voice

My previous experience with bereavement books left me cold, partially because of the tone.

I did not need to be reminded that something miserable was happening, more of the same was about to happen and that the misery would stretch out with ebbs and flows, indefinitely. I already knew this. I was living it.

In contrast, Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple, takes on a voice that is friendly without being frivolous, optimistic while acknowledging the devastation. I'm a glass half full person. This book supports that.

No Nonsense

The friendly tone shifts during the part of the book written with friends and family in mind. Any bereaved parent who has endured outrageously insensitive comments and actions - which is every bereaved parent I've ever met - will appreciate this section of the book.

There is a trend in parenting blogs, magazines and on social media of the "10 things not to say" article. In one recent week, I read 10 things not to say to your infertile friend, people suffering from depression, new moms, special needs moms and obese moms.

I'll admit that I mostly read these things to make sure I hadn't already said any of them (I hadn't) but it left me with a feeling that saying anything at all would put me at risk for putting my foot in it.

This book is different. Himmelrich understands better than anyone that there is no use beating around the bush when it comes to this stuff. She offers explicit and direct instructions for people who want to be supportive to bereaved parents. People need a road map. She's provided that. It's not just what not to say. It's what to say and do instead.

Out In The Open

Experiencing the death of a child is isolating. You epitomize every parent's worst nightmare. I felt this acutely after Jacob died.

I have not experienced the tragedy of pregnancy loss, miscarriage or stillbirth. There is a way that such losses remain cloaked in mystery. These things happen frequently, yet talking about any of it feels fraught.

Nobody benefits from keeping the realities locked up. Pretending it doesn't happen doesn't make it so.

The tone and content of this book served to de-mystify the loss of a child at whatever stage the loss happened. It did a good job of putting words to things that are hard to describe even as they are happening to you.

In our case, our loss involved a small person, who walked, talked, made us laugh. We lost this little guy as well as the person he would have become. For some people, the loss was earlier, some later. In every case, it is the loss of the dream you had for the future.

Normalizing both the loss and feelings that surround is liberating. I feel understood. I also understand other parents and their bereavement process better.

It's Okay To Be Different - Really

In a sea of bad news - the death of our child and the secondary losses surrounding that reality - were pockets of comfort. One of them was our daughter Hannah and later our son Noah. Jeremy and I were also fortunate enough to have one another. We are very similar in how we grieve, how we want to be supported and what we want to do.

Reading this book shed some light on some reasons for that.  Although Himmelrich is not a grief theorist, she very eloquently describes different styles of grieving. It turns out that Jeremy and I both seem to naturally gravitate largely toward one of the grieving styles she describes.

Reading about this gave me deeper understanding of how grieving styles can inform how we connect with others after the loss. It explains why some other bereaved people can seem so confounding at times, and others are so relatable. It can also explain why sometimes partners can be on different pages and need different things at different times.

A lot of what I've read and heard is geared toward putting couples on the same page or having them meet in the middle somewhere. When it works and helps that is great. It can bring people closer together.

A lot of times it doesn't work.

I've seen many wives tortured emotionally because their husbands don't want to go to support group. That is one common example, but there are many more. At least some of the despair comes from the fact that one partner thinks there is something intrinsically wrong with how the other one is grieving. So on top of every other challenge, this worry can loom large.

Himmelrich offers an important alternative. Couples can be close and supportive of one another in spite of - because of - their differences. It is a more nuanced and sophisticated read on this side of the grief process. She gives concrete suggestions for understanding your partner better and feeling comfortable with his or her unique fingerprint of grieving.

The Title Doesn't Tell The Whole Story

If you are half of a couple and have suffered parental loss, this book is clearly for you. That much is a no-brainer.

If you are not, this book may still have a great deal to offer you.

If you are a single parent or a divorced parent and have suffered from this loss, I suggest you read this book. There are things you can skip over. But there is so much here that will help you understand yourself better. The tone will give you ample hope. You will learn how to ask for what you need from those who want to support you, but don't know where to begin. You'll stop second-guessing your feelings. You'll feel less alone.

If you are a friend or family member of a bereaved parent, this is also good for you. Some of you may be able to gain understanding from reading the entire book.

If you are a parent who is raising children, be kind to yourself. I always find myself protective of people who are uninitiated with this and raising healthy kids. It's hard to go there. There is a part of me that doesn't want you to know what it is like.

I give you permission to go straight to the part of the book about how to support your bereaved family member or friend. Alternatively, you could give the book to your grieving loved one. Give them a highlighter to go with it. They can make copies of the support suggestions and highlight the ones that speak to them.

This post is the first in a series called Good Books For When Bad Things Happen. I will be writing about books that can support us through adversity and challenge.

Learn more about Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple, by Nathalie Himmelrich

Visit Nathalie Himmelrich’s blog here

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