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Claiming one’s sorrow, reaching for hope

By Richard Gilbert
Ave Maria Press, 124 pages, $9.95
To order: 1-800-282-1865


“No one ever told me grief felt so like fear,” wrote C. S. Lewis in his masterful A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife, Joy. Following the death of his mother, theologian Henri Nouwen wrote in In Memoriam: “I knew the time had come for me to learn again how to make this world my home.”

Reading Richard Gilbert’s Finding Your Way After Your Parent Dies sent me back to these two old friends. Each is a beautiful reflection on a loved one and how it is to lose her, and each has something meaningful to say to us who have lost one we held dear.

So does Gilbert’s new book that, while less personal, is also more practical. The author says he hopes readers will find the book is “like a friend who will walk with you as you find your own way” through the grieving process, specifically -- though not exclusively -- the death of a parent.

A couple of years ago I had dinner with a friend who had buried her mother just a month earlier. She was upset, angry even, with her co-workers, who in the weeks leading up to her mother’s death had been most caring and solicitous, but once the funeral leftovers were gone, expected her to jump right back in the saddle as if the previous weeks had not happened. “I’m not ready yet,” she cried. “I can’t let go of her so quickly.”

Those of us who have been there know exactly what Nora was talking about. So does Gilbert, who, writing as a bereaved son, grief counselor and Anglican priest, acknowledges that adults dealing with the death of a parent are the most overlooked and neglected group of mourners. Through this book he invites such persons to “claim their sorrow, but reach for healing, hope and memories.”

The book is well organized and thoughtfully arranged. It moves from one aspect of the grieving experience to another -- from the feelings of emptiness and fear, to a feeling of abandonment. It also comments on dealing with a surviving parent who, not incidentally, is also grieving, and, furthermore, on bringing to the table for resolution deep-seated feelings of anger or resentment.

So, having praised the thought-filled content of the book, let me just pull up a few points that resonated with me.

Don’t allow the denial of others to prevent you from grieving as you need to.

Grief is hard work. Take care of yourself.

Establish some new rituals as ways to release, but also remember the dead. Claim rituals that heal and energize you.

Your own role in the universe has changed; in some basic ways you are now walking life’s pathways alone.

In the wake of a parent’s death we may experience powerful feelings of guilt or shame -- for most of us, in the form of “should haves.”

If I might identify one shortcoming in the book it would be in this last category. I think that feelings of guilt are deeper and more pervasive than Gilbert allows, and that he dismisses some powerful emotions by suggesting merely that “you may need to examine them.” He might have been more helpful here.

Early on, Gilbert makes the connection between grief and spirituality. As we search for answers in our grief, we are also at the center of what we call spirituality. Accordingly, each chapter concludes with a brief opportunity for reflection in the form of a thought, an opportunity or a prayer. Gilbert invites us to read with pen in hand, allowing for a sort of dialogue or journaling as we move through the book.

My father has been dead for 19 years, my mother for five. Even now, I find value in this book. Grief support groups would find it especially helpful. If you would like to reach out to someone who is coping with the death of a parent, this would be an appropriate and welcome gift. You might accompany it with Nouwen’s In Memoriam (also by Ave Maria Press) or, in the case of a spouse, Lewis’ A Grief Observed (my old copy is a Bantam book).

Lewis concludes his piece by quoting his wife as she lay dying: “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back.” Nouwen resolves his grief about his mother by observing, “Yet I know I must be patient and allow her who taught me so much by her life to teach me even more by her death.”

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999