October 16, 2006

Books That Heal

Part of the funk that I have been in these last few weeks stems from the fact that I never properly grieved for my father. I dealt with the details and I accepted the condolences but I never faced the deep pain of the loss. I thought I did. I cried a little bit each day. In Hawaii, I'd cry a few minutes by myself on my runs along the beach. But I never let myself cry for hours at a time for days in succession. Instead, I tried to go back to work. Yeah, that didn't go so well.

When I realized I needed to grieve, I turned to my favorite helpers: books. First, I went to the local library and cried while perusing the section on death and bereavement. There really aren't that many books in this section, which surprised me. Many of them were the "First do this. Then do this." style of self-help, which I don't handle well. I don't like anyone to tell me what to do, not even a book I can put down whenever I feel like it.

So, I took I'd Rather Laugh and Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul. I figured I'd pick up a few other books from the store when I needed 'em.

I'd Rather Laugh was a perfect introduction to the journey. I laughed and cried my way through it and took Linda Richman's story of survival to heart. We all get through the crap of life one way or another, it's just a question of how well.

Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul is a collection of short stories about grieving, loss, and recovery. I found it a bit sappy, but I think I needed the sappiness to help me maintain my sense of distance from the full pain of my loss. Even with the disdain I felt for some of the overly simplified stories I repeatedly found myself in tears and addressed aspects of missing my father that I wouldn't have realized without the book. I bet there's a better option out there, but in a pinch, if you just need vignettes to make you focus and grieve, this will do.

A friend recommended The Year of Magical Thinking. Much like I'd Rather Laugh, this is a very personal story of loss. Joan Didion lost her daughter and her husband in the same year. She was a journalist for years and I found that her writing was the most precise of all of the books in terms of explaining just how confusing and painful and crazy a human can feel while facing huge loss. I felt less alone while reading her book. It was perfect as the third option because I was ready to read about and face the full extent of my pain. It was a pleasure and an honor to do so alongside Ms. Didion, whose loss was different, but equally heartfelt.

Finally, on a lark, I picked up Kitchen Table Wisdom from the 3-for-2 table at Borders along with some sillier lighter pleasure books. Ms. Remen is an oncologist, a cancer and death counselor, and a 30-year sufferor of Crohn's disease. This book is a collection of stories about healing, facing death, the medical profession, judgment of the self and others, the life force, awe, mystery, spirituality, and more.

Daddy died of cancer. He experienced many of the symptoms and situations that the stories in this book address. His death also included some mystery and awe that made it beautiful. I refused to try to explain that beauty away with science, so it was wonderful to read about the common mystery of others in similar situations. Also, I needed to re-embrace the idea of the life force, spirtuality, and awe. What I really needed to do, however, was read stories about judgment and do some serious thinking about how judgmental I often am, both of myself and others. Judgment and expectations are a very strong force in our lives and I have been in the habit of applying them on autopilot. Daddy's death is not an autopilot situation. I've never been through this before. Come to think of it, I've never been through most of the stuff in my life before. Kitchen Table Wisdom helped me to recognize that letting go of my deep sorrow and moving through it was actually a way to embrace it. Along the same lines, the stories encouraged me to let go of much and relax to allow myself to change. I've studied the principles in this book in much of my Buddhist reading. But I found myself understanding the concepts at a new level while reading this book. It was profound, healing, and wonderful.

I'm very thankful that I took the time to read and be sad. I feel much more whole.

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