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Contemporary grief and its observers

by
14 February 2014

Jeremy Crossley reads two helpful books

Inside Grief
Stephen Oliver, editor
SPCK £12.99
(978-0-281-06843-2)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT798 )

Time to Say Goodbye: Steps in learning to grieve
Barbara Pymm
RoperPenberthy Publishing Ltd £8.99*
(978-1-903905-73-9)
*available at a discount from www.timetosaygoodbye.org.uk

MORE than 50 years after C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed was published, we have a new book, Inside Grief, of equal depth, honesty, and significance. This collection of essays, edited by Stephen Oliver, is one that will stand the test of time, and will be a tremendous help to those who grieve, and those who support them in their grief.

Rowan Williams, in his foreword, writes: "The key word in this book's short title is 'inside'. This is not meant to be a brisk and useful book on coping; it is a record in various ways of inhabiting grief."

Oliver explains that "Inhabiting grief is a matter of learning a landscape, recognising an environment in which you are going to live for a very long time - probably a lifetime." He continues: "It is our hope that in this book those in the grip of primary grief will recognise some familiar features in the landscape and that those around them will gain some small access to what it feels like to be inside grief."

The first three contributors write about their own experience of grief: Oliver's own contribution has a raw honesty as he writes about the discovery of his wife's cancer, the rest of their life together, her death, and how he responds to it. This chapter is a superb and haunting record and reflection. When I had finished it, I thought that I would buy the book for this chapter alone.

The following two chapters are both equally personal: the first is about the sudden death of a father, and the second, written by a widow whose husband had died young, is about the death of a deeply loved adult son in a car accident. They are remarkable, too, for their honesty and wisdom. The openness with which each of these three have written adds to the quality of thinking which characterises their contributions.

The book continues with an essay on how the culture of grieving changed in Britain between 1850 and 1970; a chapter in which a psychologist and a medical consultant reflect from a profesional perspective; and an essay on Jewish approaches to death.

Then, in a magisterial contribution, a senior hospital chaplain reflects on "the spiritual and cultural care resources available to those who grieve and those who support them", and sets this in the context of the rapid changes brought about in an increasingly diverse society.

He has also written insightfully about how to respond to the death of a baby, and the question of organ donation. Then, from a military chaplain, there is a chapter on death in the field, and how soldiers respond to that.

Barbara Pymm's book is equally impressive, if in a different genre and from a different spiritual tradition. It is a personal story, and one in which her "journey through grief was intertwined with a journey to faith". She is clear that her relationship with God grew significantly though her experiences of bereavement.

Pymm writes movingly and honestly about the deaths of each of her parents, an aunt to whom she was particularly close, an infant son, and a contemporary of her teenage son. There are no clichés, and she is absolutely honest about the times when her faith in Jesus Christ was weak, and yet that same faith sustained and restored her. I was particularly struck by the three chapters, at different points in the book, in which she writes about her grief for her mother and the impact that this loss had on her at different times in her life.

Each chapter ends with three lists showing what helped, what didn't help, and what could have helped in each of the bereavements that she suffered.

This is a book that will, no doubt, help people, whether or not they are Christians, by its transparent honesty and the deep reflection that has been part of Pymm's responseto bereavement, and which comes out in the book. I am very gladthat I have read it, and will always have a copy at hand to give away.
 

Prebendary Jeremy Crossley is the Rector of St Margaret Lothburyand St Stephen Coleman Street, London.

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