A book I ended up not reading and so normally wouldn’t cover here..
I decided that it might be a good idea to give a brief account of the ‘rejection process’ I went through today. I’d decided to give Thomas Attig’s How We Grieve a shot, but I quickly realized this was not a book I wanted to read. There are a few of those during any given year, but I rarely talk about them here. I prefer to say nothing when I don’t have a lot of nice things to say, but sometimes there’s a case for speaking up – and I think this is the case here. The book is written by a philosopher and the focus is on the stories of bereaved people (not on, say, data about grief responses) – the combination made me skeptical from the outset, but it was on a topic I figured might be interesting to read about, it was published by Oxford University Press, and it had a 4.8 rating on amazon – so I figured I should give it a try. The 4.8 rating is part of why I don’t want to stay silent. It had 3.5 on goodreads before I added a 1-star evaluation to the mix.
I didn’t get far – I thought the book was unreadable. Quotes and comments below:
“I have come to use a vocabulary of ego, soul, and spirit to flesh out my understanding of the nature of the self as it is embodied in a web of caring engagements in the world” (Margin note: This is bad. But…) (If I’d read this a few pages later, I’d probably not have read any more than that. But I’d read so little of the book’s introduction at that point that I didn’t think I could just reject the entire book out of hand because of problematic terminology like that, even though I was already seriously considering just throwing it away and reading something else.)
“If any single driving force motivated me to write the book, it is an abiding conviction that personal stories are ” the heart of the matter, ” both in responding to the bereaved and in developing thinking about grieving. […] The existentialist philosopher in me insists that the understanding needed for a compassionate and effective caregiving response is possible only when we hear the stories grieving persons have to tell. As we listen attentively and caringly, we must focus on the uniqueness of the individual story-teller, of the challenges of living meaningfully and with integrity in his or her particular life circumstances, and of his or her personal confrontations with finiteness in bereavement and grieving. […]
They [caregivers, grief counsellors, etc.] do not encounter or help general populations or abstract statistics but flesh and blood individuals who live in distinctive circumstances, develop irreplaceable relationships, and have unique experiences of loss and grief. Compassionate and effective caregiving is simply not possible without the courage to engage in heart to heart dialogue with those who are suffering about what they are experiencing, listening and responding in turn. […] I urged the importance of getting past the idea that only scientific findings, news reports, biographies, or documentaries convey truth. Like myths, works of fiction, including folk tales, fables, parables, novels, short stories, plays, and films can be true to life without being literally true. And they can teach us a great deal about themes and narrative lines to listen for as others share their real-life tales of suffering.” (Margin note: From bad to worse…)
“I am by no means opposed to scientific research about loss and grief when science is broadly construed to include qualitative research focused upon careful listening to personal stories of experiences after particular kinds of deaths, within specified populations, in different family or cultural contexts, in response to different caregiving efforts, and the like. Experiences of relearning, and the support offered while having them, vary a great deal, and there is so much more to be learned about these families of experience through qualitative study.
I am skeptical, however, about the statistical generalizations that issue from quantitative research in the field.” (Margin note: And it gets worse…) […] “The gap from generalization to application to individual cases is huge and difficult to bridge. Rarely do statistical findings provide useful insight for us individuals or our caregivers.” (Margin note: However this is likely true at least to some extent.)
“There are two areas where scientific explanation and prediction might be worth pursuing in grief research: First, it could be useful to validate or refine understanding of the causes of some of us becoming mired in grief reaction, not responding effectively or meaningfully to changes in the world of our experience and, in some instances, needing specialized professional help to relearn them. […] Second, it would be useful to do research to discover the causes of success or failure in approaches to caregiving, to evaluate which make things worse, which do no harm hut are ineffective, and which actually help to promote effective relearning (Margin note: So it’s not all bad – at least there’s some common ground…) […]
“When we attend to them, our emotions tell us about our brokenness, all we have taken for granted, and what we need for survival, reengaging in the world, and even thriving again. Emotions that arise from our ego tell us about our needs to be effective, desires to keep up appearances and reputation, and illusions of complete independence from others, invulnerability, and limitless control. What I choose to call emotions of soul tell us about our deep needs for roots, belonging, nurture, connection, care, and love. All of these enable us to make ourselves at home in the familiar. And what I choose to call emotions of spirit tell us about our deep needs for courage, hope, purpose, meaning, adventure, and joy. All of these enable us to reach beyond the familiar, grow, and soar in the extraordinary. When we grasp what our emotions are telling us, they loosen their grip on us and begin motivating tentative reengagement in the worlds of our experience.” (No margin note, but I’m (again) getting very close to putting the book away for good here.) […]
“I have come to believe that what I call “sorrowfriendly” practices can enable us to listen effectively to our not so inscrutable emotions, learn valuable lessons from them, and use the lessons as we reengage with the world. I view these practices as grieving responses inasmuch as they provide a means of actively engaging with grief reactions. I have in mind such practices as using ceremony and ritual, sharing and exploring sorrow with another, keeping a grief journal, meditating, attending to sorrow in our bodies, pondering our dreams, calling forth and engaging with unconscious images, seeking meaning in after-death encounters with our loved ones, experiencing or creating works of art, surrendering in silence to mystery, attending to breath and breathing into deep rhythms of life, leaning into faith, and opening our hearts in prayer. For many of us, this kind of grieving response as active engagement with our grief reactions proves invaluable in readying us for active reengagement in the world.” (This guy just kept adding way too much crap into way too few pages. Margin note: Okay, I’m out… So I closed the book and wrote this brief review.)
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