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And if thou wilt, remember

03 July 2015

Naomi Starkey looks at books about death and bereavement

"I sometimes walk around with my arm in the air, holding Daddy's hand in Heaven": one of Hazel Money's illustrations for a poignant and true story of a little girl who loses her father to cancer, I Love You Daddy by Rebecca Dixon-Whatmough, who seeks to help other bereaved children (Millgate House Publishing, www.millgatehouse.co.uk, £10 including p&p). All proceeds are being given to Macmillan Cancer Support

"I sometimes walk around with my arm in the air, holding Daddy's hand in Heaven": one of Hazel Money's illustrations for a poignant and true story of a little girl who loses her father to cancer, I Love You Daddy by Rebecca Dixon-Whatmough, who seeks to help other bereaved children (Millgate House Publishing, www.millgatehouse.co.uk, £10 including p&p). All proceeds are being given to Macmillan Cancer Support

Dying to Live: A theological and practical workbook on death, dying and bereavement
Marian Carter
SCM Press £27.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £22.50


Letting Go of Ian: A faith journey through grief
Jo Cundy
Monarch £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


Tips from Widows
Jan Robinson
Bloomsbury £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


AS A recently ordained cleric, I suspect I am not alone in feeling an ongoing degree of trepidation about bereavement ministry: conducting funerals, pastoral visits before and after, what to say to whom and when. If we do not reflect upon our assumptions about what constitute appropriate responses, we could be tempted just to "do what comes naturally" - and that path could prove full of pitfalls.

Marian Carter's Dying to Live is a comprehensive resource that demonstrates the importance of our pastoral practice arising from judicious reflection on experience, taking into account cultural context, scripture, and faith traditions (including insights from other faiths). Following the model of the pastoral circle (helpfully reproduced as a diagram at the start of each chapter), the book systematically explores death, dying, and bereavement ministry, starting with care of the dying and their carers, and covering post-funeral support.

Understanding why we do pastoral ministry is shown to be essential in shaping exactly how we go about doing it. The author draws on her work as a teacher of pastoral theology, as well as hospital and hospice chaplaincy, but also shares moving insights from her own sister's untimely death from a brain tumour.

The book offers a breadth of information - the bereavement rituals of other faiths, the history of funeral liturgies in various denominations, recent developments in society's rituals of grieving - as well as succinct definitions as a starting-point for further thought. I noted: "A funeral is a rite of passage in which emotions are expressed - sorrow, relief, anger - depending on the nature of the death. A ritual is a deliberate repeated pattern of activity of symbolic meaning, which may help the need of bereaved people, psychological, social, spiritual and practical."

The questions provided for reflection and response are stimulating, and at times challenging: "Are churches wise to take on the responsibility of a funeral of non-church people? Can this be mission?"

There are also invaluable reminders of the importance of self-care for the pastoral carer, in terms of body, mind, and spiritual life. I found particularly helpful the acknowledgement that leading funerals is emotionally demanding - and the suggestion that time to "potter" afterwards is a good way of restoring depleted personal reserves.

This is a book that I will certainly have to hand and refer to frequently. My one quibble is the price: £27.99 seems excessive for a book that the introduction describes as "intended for . . . ordinary church members", besides those joining a pastoral-visiting team, trainee Readers, lay preachers, worship leaders, ordinands, and clergy wanting to brush up their reflective skills.

Bereavement is characterised by a recognised succession of intense emotions, but is also deeply individual and dependent on personal circumstances. Letting Go of Ian is the story of Bishop Ian Cundy's death from cancer, written by his widow, Jo, and her account spans two distinct narratives.

First, and more universally, she describes how it feels to lose a beloved husband, just at the outset of the Third Age of retirement, grandchildren, and opportunities to enjoy pastimes previously squeezed into the "spare-time" slot. Second, she tells her story of living through terminal illness and death in the public eye, as Bishop Cundy was the first bishop to die in office in more than 25 years.

Given that the end of the story is already known, the author chooses not to follow a strictly chronological path, but takes a more thematic approach, providing a kaleidoscope of emotions, thoughts, and reflections. The book is based around three defining moments: Bishop Cundy's diagnosis, his death, and his widow's own subsequent near-death experience in the 2011 New Zealand earthquake. A key phrase is "extraordinary journey" - cancer and death was not at all what the Cundys had expected, but, as they begin to live through the weeks of treatment, they discover God's grace and care to be sufficient, not least through the loving support of the diocese, cathedral, and senior staff.

Even so, the shock of coping with life afterwards is profound. Jo Cundy speaks of "total dislocation and total disruption" as she faces the "impossible hassle" of moving from the episcopal house and beginning a new life alone: "I am a relational person, but I had no person to relate to, deeply, intimately, unreservedly; no person with whom to share the journey as a trusted, constant, daily travelling companion; no alter ego." Her honest sharing of the pain of loss makes more meaningful her rediscovery over the following months that God is indeed faithful.

In her foreword to Tips from Widows, Joanna Lumley describes it as a "crib sheet of how to cope". This gentle and practical little book is clear about its intended readership, offering advice from "widows of a certain age" (over 50 and without dependent children) for those in "broadly similar situations". Beginning with "Before he dies", advice progresses from "The months after he dies" to "The years after he dies", dealing with finance, funeral practicalities, household responsibilities, dealing with other people's unhelpful reactions, and, above all, the grieving process.

The turbulence and disorientation of grief are acknowledged, and suggestions are offered for working through it - but by the time we reach the final section, there is a reassuring list of "Consolations", things you are free to do, since you no longer have to consider the needs of a spouse: "You can eat anything, or nothing, any time you wish to. You can go to bed at any time, or stay in bed as long as you want."

The onward journey involves recalibrating one's perspective on life, realising that it is not only possible but permissible for the heart to mend, given enough time.


The Revd Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor for BRF and also serves as an NSM in the Church in Wales.

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