Book Review: Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss by Patrick O’Malley and Tim Madigan (2017)

July 28th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Finding Your Own Path in Grief

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The writer Anne Lamott says it beautifully: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that, over time, the nature of “successful” grieving was redefined in my office by both my clients and me. It wasn’t getting over loss; it was learning to live with it, and to use the grief narrative as a way to preserve a bond with the one who died.

This book will not help you “get over” your grief, but will help you experience your sorrow in its most pure form.

Patrick O’Malley knows a thing or two about loss: not only is he a therapist who specializes in bereavement counseling, but he lost his first-born son, Ryan, before they’d even celebrated his first birthday. As a young husband, new father, and practicing psychotherapist, O’Malley followed the advice of his colleagues – indeed, the same advice he’d given to countless grieving patients – and tried to “get over” Ryan’s death. However, as the prescribed time frame for grieving came and went, O’Malley gradually began to question the wisdom and efficacy of stage-based models of bereavement, perhaps best exemplified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s infamous five stages of grief. (Say it with me: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.)

After much soul searching and years of experience, O’Malley embraced a much kinder and more compassionate framework: one that celebrates the patient’s unique relationship to the deceased; recognizes that we all grieve in our own way, that there is no “one size fits all” model of grief; and uses storytelling to craft a cohesive grief narrative. In this way, grief is not something you “work through” and leave behind you; rather, to love is to grieve, and grieving is one way to keep your loved one alive in your memories. Storytelling – whether through journaling, videotaped recollections, or something else – is a powerful way to do this.

Getting Grief Right consists of three key elements. First, O’Malley briefly explores the history of stage-based models of grief. He then shares the story of his own loss, and in so doing, he illustrates how profoundly his professional wisdom failed him in his greatest time of need. Using his own experiences, as well as those of his patients, as a jumping-off point, O’Malley explores this new approach to dealing with grief.

I picked up this book because I’m having a spectacularly bad decade. In just three and a half years, I lost four dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. This last was what’s called a “traumatic loss” due to an “interruptive death” – my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was only 41 years old. Anyway, that was six months ago, and I’ve been having a hard time dealing; some things have only gotten worse with time. Getting Grief Right sounded like something I needed to read, and the idea of storytelling in particular appealed to me.

O’Malley spends quite a bit of time assuring his readers that there’s nothing wrong with them; that only some people pass through the five stages of grief; that these models are questionable at best; and that most people never truly “get over” a loss, and that’s okay – if you loved someone, why shouldn’t their absence always hurt, if just a little? (The trick is getting to a place where the memories are more likely to warm your heart than break it, imho, but the dance will always be a delicate and shifting one.) I can see how this advice could prove invaluable to those who do feel “broken” by their inability to reach acceptance, or peace, or whatever. However, I already thought of the Kübler-Ross model more as pop culture fodder than a hard and fast rule, so it felt a little redundant on my end. But grain of salt; your needs may differ from mine, and that’s okay too!

For me, the real value is in the storytelling. This is an aspect of grieving that I was already hip to; anyone who reads my blog on the regular can get a glimpse of this in the ridiculously long tributes I wrote to Ralphie and Kaylee after they passed, or in the weekly progress reports I gave as I preemptively grieved Peedee’s death from lung cancer.

For those who don’t know what to say, O’Malley gives a rather detailed list of prompts, encouraging his readers to separate their stories of loss into three chapters: the beginning (your life with your loved one before), the middle (his or her death), and the after (and all the messy, ugly feelings this entails). It’s an excellent starting point, though I’d encourage people to go deeper or get more creative, for example, by incorporating poems, song lyrics, ephemera, multimedia. Whatever you feel comfortable with, and best expresses your unique story.

While reading Getting Grief Right, I was often reminded of a Salon article, written by Jill Filipovic, which I quoted in one of my storytelling projects and has never really left me:

“Let me tell you about her” allows the grieving person to explain, in the midst of a familiar ritual, why their loved one was particularly special. The impulse to explain how a person was can feel incredibly urgent in the immediate wake of that person’s death. The telling of stories isn’t just a way to make up for the fact that the dead person can no longer make their own stories; the telling solidifies those things in the memory of the teller, making real again and again the fact that though the person is gone, you’ll remember them.

There’s a fear behind that, too: What happens when I start to forget?

To stave off the forgetting, we memorialize. We write funeral announcements and obituaries and headstones. We visit graves. And now, we make Facebook pages, we write blog posts and we tweet. The urgency in “telling you about her” spills over into the Internet and onto social media, and it seems that to many people in pain, nothing feels more natural. Yet looking in, it can feel unseemly.

Getting Grief Right is an invitation to “tell me about her,” free of judgment or fear, no matter how long it’s been since she last set foot on this earth. You may choose to share your story with others, as O’Malley recommends in some situations; or you may not. The important thing is that it exists for you: it is an outlet for your sadness, tangible evidence of your love, and a continuation of your loved one’s memory. As long as you tell the world – even if it’s just shouting into the void – about her, a part of her lives on.

Definitely recommended for those struggling with grief, particularly those whose friends and family members have “moved on” (e.g., by withdrawing their support) and expect you to do the same.

Why just four stars? The book is co-written by O’Malley and Tim Madigan; consequently, there’s some weird, referring-to-oneself-in-the-third-person narration going on. Granted, I read an early copy, and this could be cleaned up in the final version. That said, this ARC had more errors than unusual.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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