Book Review: How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies

Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

How to Go on Living when Someone You Love Dies by Therese RandoHow to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies
Therese Rando

Therese Rando has written several books on grief and bereavement for professional audiences; this is her first book for a general audience. In How to Go On Living When Someone You Loves Dies, she has produced a plain-spoken, down-to-earth primer on moving through grief and bereavement.

Rando lists a number of myths about grief -- two full pages of them. ("All losses are the same." "When grief is resolved, it never comes up again." "Children grieve like adults." "Feeling sorry for yourself is not allowable." And many more.) She points out how this kind of misinformation about grief abounds in our culture, making the grief process more difficult and painful. This book addresses that lack of accurate and useful information to guide those who grieve.

It is important to clarify misunderstandings about grief because you use your knowledge about grief to establish your expectations for what it will be like to grieve your loss; to measure how well you are doing with your grief; and to determine the type of help and support you should get from others.

Our culture provides few clear guidelines for the grieving person. Few are the books or movies, for example, which seriously address the experience of grief. The recent novel Gilead: A Novel is an exception to this; its elegaic language elegantly captures the protracted pain of the loss of a loved one. But in everyday life, we have few rituals to mark the passing of significant people in our lives. The wake, the funeral, and the week of compassionate leave from work, while significant and important, do not provide a realistic holding structure for the bereaved who continues to mourn his or her loss.

Judaism provides more structure for the mourning process: sitting shiva for seven days after the burial; daily minyans and kaddish prayers; the unveiling of the gravestone on the first anniversary of the death; and the continuing remembrance of the deceased on the anniversary of their death day (Jahrzeit).

Rando's book offers the bereaved person and family a kind of roadmap to the journey ahead. It provides clear descriptions on the nature of grief, what "grief work" is, how grief affects you, what factors influence your grief, and what to expect.

Dr. Rando addresses the characteristics of different forms of death; whether the death is sudden, or anticipated. A death which is anticipated, perhaps the result of a long illness or advanced age, gives the family time to anticipate, to finish unfinished business, and to say good-bye to the loved one. A sudden death deprives the family of those opportunities, and they are likely to feel overwhelmed by the shock of the untimely death, as well as their grief.

The cause of death influences the grief process: a long illness, with a well-understood course (such as cancer) and plenty of time to say goodbye to your loved one, while very difficult, is less complex than dealing with a shocking accident which results in an untimely death. A death by homnicide may lead to unwanted publicity for the family and years of involvement with the criminal justice and legal system, with protracted and wrenching feelings of being unable to move on. A death by suicide leaves the survivors to deal with their feelings of shock and anger and guilt, as well as their grief.

Following a death, there is reorganization within the family system. For example, the loss of a breadwinner necessitates making other arrangements for financial support of the family; the loss of the primary childcare provider means that others must step forward to care for the children. No matter who dies, the person is no longer there to play their roles in the ongoing relationship system of the family.

Rando describes in detail the differences in the experience of grief depending on whether one has lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a child (of any age). Each loss has different meanings for the survivors: a bereaved spouse becomes a widow; a person of any age who has lost parents will experience some version of orphanhood; the loss of a child leaves parents feeling they have failed in their role to protect and care for their child.

The final section of the book is devoted to guidance and wisdom about how grief is resolved: the answer to the question of the title of the book. Rando emphasizes the importance of meaningful support; celebrating the memory of the deceased; taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually; finding ways to express all the feelings which are part of your grief; and over time making the shifts that are needed to accomodate to the loss of the loved one.

This is an important self help book, one that many bereaved persons have found to be immensely helpful to them in their grief process. It offers a great deal of information in an easy-to-understand format. Dr. Rando does not talk down to her readers and imparts her wisdom in clear language.

Most of all, however, this is a compassionate book, one that acknowledges the depth and the complexity and the confusion of loss. It deserves a place on every family's bookshelf.