A Coming Comfort to those who Grieve

Is there anyone out there who is grieving? Or maybe the better question is this: Is there anyone out there who is not—to some degree, about some loss? That’s why I believe my latest book might be the most impactful of my career.

The title is Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, to be published on July 1. It has been my great privilege to collaborate with my friend, longtime Fort Worth therapist Patrick O’Malley. The book is his gift to the world, his story. I helped him tell it.

It is also fair to say that Fred Rogers and the beloved Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, are spiritual godfathers of Getting Grief Right. They come up in the book frequently. Both urged us to embrace our pain, not be ashamed of it. “What is most personal is most universal,” Fred often used to say, quoting Henri. That personal pain is indeed what we have most in common.

But we can emerge from the shadows of our isolation. We need not suffer alone.  We can share our burdens with trusted others. Getting Grief Right is another beautiful and informative invitation to do just that.

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Patrick was the office mate of my first therapist, truth be told. After we met some thirty years ago, he and I discovered a mutual admiration for Fred and Henri. Over long breakfasts and lunches, Patrick and I found a real kinship—could finish each other’s sentences about important things.

At lunch about a decade ago, Patrick first mentioned his idea for a book.

“That day, we wrote down on a napkin, ‘The Myth of Closure,’ as a possible title,” he remembered when we were speaking the other night.

A few years passed. He agreed to read a draft of my first novel and his insights helped me understand my characters much more deeply. He, in turn, asked me to look at an early outline of his grief book. Which led to another lunch.

“I remember you said two things,” Patrick recalled. “One, you said this needed to be my story, not just the grief stories of others. And two, you said, ‘You can’t do this without me.’”

It was in his outline that I first learned that Patrick’s notions about grieving were not based on what he learned in graduate school, but on his own tragic experience. In 1981, he and his wife lost their first child, an infant son named Ryan. Patrick was understandably devastated, but as a mental health professional, he had expected to mourn efficiently, to march through the stages of grief, achieve closure, and move on with his life as before.

The reality of his experience was something altogether different. His grief endured, fit no theory.

“I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son,” Patrick would later write in the introduction to Getting Grief Right. “I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief ‘right.’ I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that (Patrick’s grieving client) Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.

“It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.

“I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning—through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss. ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,’ author Isak Dinesen once said.

“This book is an invitation for you to do just that.”

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Patrick and I developed a book proposal, and submitted it to about fifty literary agents, with no takers. Traditional publishing is a tough business. Then, one day a few years ago, Patrick brought up a longshot idea. He would submit an essay on grieving to the New York Times, which had been publishing a weekly column on therapy. I helped him polish it, but given our slew of recent rejections, I secretly thought, “Good luck with that.”

He emailed it to the Times on a Wednesday. By Thursday he was told it would appear in Sunday’s paper, on January 10, 2015, beneath the headline, “Getting Grief Right.”

“I was in my second year of practice when (Ryan) died, and I subsequently had many grieving patients referred to me,” Patrick wrote in the Times. “The problem in those early days was that my grief training was not helping either my patients or me. When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed.

Patrick O'Malley

“That model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.

“To be sure, some people who come to see me exhibit serious, diagnosable symptoms that require treatment. Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.”

The essay inspired a remarkable outpouring among its readers. Patrick’s editor said, “I’ve never seen so many (reader) comments that began with the words, ‘Thank you.'”

Needless to say, we had a wonderful agent, Linda Konner of New York, within a week. Linda found us the perfect publishing home, Sounds True books in Colorado.

I will share much more to come on Getting Grief Right in future blogs. For now, let me say that I can’t wait for this book to be out in the world. It will bring comfort to so many, not just those who grieve the loss of a loved one, but those who carry burdens of any sort. As I asked at the beginning, is there anyone who isn’t grieving, at some level?

Preorder Getting Grief Right from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.