A Review of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing”

Brimley family in field

I went on Amazon the other day and put in “widow book.”  Now that I’m emerging – just a tiny bit – from the fog of the first few months, I’m trying to figure out how to make my life work.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about loss and grief.  I talk to everyone and I keep going to different types of therapy.  I know there’s no magic answer, but I figure it can’t hurt to just try everything I can to help ease the pain.

Anyway, Amazon recommended this book called, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing,” and so I bought it.  I’ve spent the past few nights reading it.  There were some good parts.  I really appreciated the discussion of post-traumatic growth, for example.  But then there were the other parts.

For example, in the first chapter, which is titled “the 411 on surviving the first month,” there is a section (in bold) called: “Tasks that Should Be Done by the End of the First Month.”  First off, I can’t believe that there is even a list under this title.  If I had to list the tasks that needed to be done a month after losing a spouse I would list one thing – SURVIVE.  But I digress.  The book has nine things that need to be done within the first two weeks and six more things that need to be done in the two weeks after that.  Some make sense, but then there is this awesome one: “Prepare a list of people who need to receive acknowledgements of flowers, gifts, or condolences.  You may want to send a note or handwritten card to everyone who attended the funeral or sent flowers.”

What. The. Hell.

As if widows – especially young widows with kids – don’t have enough to do, I’m expected to send a handwritten card to everyone who came to the funeral, sent flowers or gifts, or merely told me that they were sorry?  And I need to do it within the first month after my husband dies?

It gets worse.  Still in the first chapter, the authors ask, “how long will I feel bad?”

They answer their own question.  “It will take at least two years to begin (emphasis mine) to make a recovery and begin (again, emphasis mine) to transition to the next phase of your life.  Many widows we interviewed for this book told us they were in their fourth, fifth, or even sixth year before they were starting to feel ‘normal’ again.”

Well that’s encouraging.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll never get over the loss of Shawn.  But the idea that I won’t start to heal until 5 or 6 years from now is terrifying.  I’m not even sure why I kept reading past the first chapter, but I did.  A few chapters later, I came upon this gem:

“If someone asks you, ‘how are you?’ you may take this quite literally and start telling them about how you are really feeling, sharing your misery and loneliness.  But, nobody really wants to hear how awful your life has been since your husband died.”

Really?  They don’t?  So I should just plaster a smile on my face?  That seems healthy.

“While it may be difficult to keep your negative thoughts and feelings to yourself,” the authors write, “it’s important to ensure you’re not inappropriately pushing your grief on everyone around you as well.”

Dear Lord.  I think I’m doing just about the opposite of what this book is instructing me to do.  I’m using all my time to tell everyone about the grief that I feel, rather than smiling politely and writing those damn thank-you notes.  At first, when I read the book, I felt like it was just fluff, something to ignore and move on from.

But then, I started really thinking about it.  Why must we tell widows – or really anyone experiencing grief – that they must hide their grief?  Why must our grief be managed with thank you notes and kind smiles, rather than felt in its raw sense?

Why are we so afraid of grief?

In other places in the world, grief is not hidden.  In these places, grief is more public and it is more acceptable to share that grief with others.  But here in America, we seem to want this sanitized view of grief.  The young widow will be sad…but not too sad.  She will be able to cope with her life…but she certainly won’t start feeling better anytime soon.  She will remain in the confines of what society wants her to be…no longer sad, but not happy either.

Well I’m sorry.   I’m not going to follow this guidebook.  Obviously, my blog is probably the opposite of what this book’s authors would advise, but I hope that my writing is helping people to talk about grief and loss.  I know it’s helping me process my own pain.  And even though I’ve just read that I shouldn’t think about having any sort of normalcy for a few years, I am still going to laugh with my friends even if I cry with them as well.  I may even (shockingly!) cry when I talk to strangers.

But maybe – just maybe – all that talking and crying with everyone around me is helping me heal.  Maybe the reason that it takes some widows 5 or 6 or more years to begin their healing is because they are expected to keep it hidden, or at least perfectly curated for a public audience.  Maybe, rather than writing thank-you cards, we should encourage widows to ask for help and share their stories with tears and heartfelt remembrances of what they’ve lost.

Finally – just so I cover my bases – I truly appreciate all of you who came to Shawn’s funeral and heard my eulogy and sent flowers and contributed to my kids’ college accounts.  You may never get a handwritten note, but all of those things you did for me made me feel like the world was wrapping its arms around me and my kids.  But it wasn’t just the tangible things that were great.  I also really appreciate all of you who let me cry and laugh at seemingly inappropriate times and asked for more stories about Shawn.  I appreciate those of you walked with me through the pain, even when it wasn’t pretty.  More than anything, that’s how I’m starting to heal.

22 Replies to “A Review of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing””

  1. That’s some half-baked sh*t, right there. I recommend you take this weighty tome and use it to start your next camp fire!

    1. Good idea!

  2. I wonder if the widowers books offer the same guidance? Hiding or denying grief helps no one. Your blog subtitle is spot on. There is NO handbook for this. Keep on doing you.

    1. That’s a really good question! I don’t know, honestly. But yes – I am going to just try and keeping doing it my way.

  3. Bryan McGrath says: Reply

    Quiet, beautiful morning here on the Eastern Shore, and I decided to look in on you here after talking about you and Shawn at a function in DC earlier in the week. The conversation came round to this blog, and what a real talent for writing/storytelling that you have–one that anyone who heard your eulogy would have realized. Shawn is missed, and you and the kids remain in the hearts of his friends.

    1. Oh, thank you so much for sharing stories about Shawn and thank you also for reading my blog. I love those quiet mornings – as did Shawn.

  4. I totally agree. You know I think we need to move towards what I call “noisy grief.” In other cultures, people wail and scream and secrecy and howl at funerals and after. Here we try to sob silently or, better yet, aim for some long-ingrained stiff upper lip. To me, the silence doesn’t serve. It makes for lonely grief, shameful grief. Grief is loud and messy. Grief is sloppy, slippery and sneaky. Just like all our other emotions like love, anger, frustration and joy, we need the social space to shout it from the mountain tops, to wail and hail it, to see and hear it. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but you’ve hit on a nerve for me that I hope resonates with lots of people. Love you, xo

    1. I know we talked about this a lot way before Shawn was even sick – but yes, I love your perspective. And as you know, I feel like I can definitely “grieve out loud” with you, my dear friend. xo

  5. Gotta love how to books on something so personal as grief. In my experience (8 months) it ebbs and flows. Some days I want to talk about it, other days I just answer “fine.”

    1. That should be the title of a book on grief – “ebbs and flows” – because it’s way more accurate than anything I read in this book! Thanks so much for reading my blog and sharing a bit of your feelings as well.

  6. Jennifer Munson says: Reply

    Well ffs. I’m so glad you posted this or I might’ve gone and bought this book in my next bibliotherapy binge. I can’t handle how our culture deals with grief. As if we need an Emily Post to shame us about thank-you cards or how to respond to “how are you?”. I’m sad this was written, sadder that it was published, and saddest that we all are so desperate to find guidance in this nightmare that we can’t avoid shit like this. Grateful for you, for writing the much-needed counter-narrative. Could you review Option B next, lol? (p.s. I hope you post this as an Amazon review!)

    1. Oh yes….definitely avoid this book. Unless you need something to bring to your next “widow gathering” to lambaste! I actually have also read Option B and yes, I think I’ll need to review it. I liked it more than this book (which wasn’t hard!) but I think it’s just WAY too positive for me. So, maybe that’s next. And I didn’t even think of posting this as an Amazon review, but that’s actually a great idea! Thanks for reading and sharing.

  7. Was this book written in 1955? WTF? I am grateful this is not your ‘guide’ to managing grief. What shit!

    1. You’d think, but it was published in 2015. 2015!!

  8. You could write–and are already writing–a much better version of this book.

    1. Thanks my friend. Though – to be fair – it wouldn’t be hard! It was awful!!

  9. Here’s the thing: you are doing this as perfectly as you can. Maybe YOU write the book on how grief looks when you so tragically lose the love of your life. Screw the other author. You’ve got this and I know you know that.

    1. Thanks so much! Love this comment.

  10. Nicole Starr says: Reply

    I think you should write your own book. You have an incredible voice and a more real perspective on life that people can relate to. I’ve learned so much from you already.

    1. Thanks my friend! (Though that would be QUITE the undertaking!)

  11. Hey Marjorie… unfortunately in my job I’ve run into a lot of life situations that people are going through. Whether it’s a bankruptcy, a business failure, a loss of a parent, child or spouse, or any other significant life shift. I have decided that there is a five year process to the recovery. Now this works on a bell curve so some people get through it quicker and some get through it slower. But what I’ve seen is that the first two years suck. You are going through holidays, birthdays, and everyday things for the first or second time and it is natural for it to suck because wisdom only comes from experience. Each time you go through it will get “easier” only because you know what to expect. By the third year you can start to see the path forward much easier (even though you don’t like the path without Shawn). Somewhere in the third to fourth year things actually start to become easier because you will start to truely remember all of the great things about Shawn and it won’t be a sad remembrance. This is where I always tell people that you need to be careful. If you are getting through these two years and the sadness or grief is just as strong as it was before, you need to reach out for help. I’ve seen people who have not reached out and they have a tendency for their new normal to be in that sadness and grief stricken state. Shawn would definitely not want this for you, as you are too beautiful a person for that.

    The reason I always talk to people about this timeline is to make sure they don’t think you should be fine after 6 months or that they are somehow doing it wrong because their not happier at that point. You are wonderful and the first two years will suck, but it is perfectly normal for them to suck. And sometimes knowing that can be helpful.

    I love you, Jim

    1. Oh, Jim, I love you too. Thanks for this, my dear, dear cousin. As I write this, I’m listening to your voice singing Amazing Grace – my kids still request to listen to it every night. Love you.

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