If one is looking for a book on grief and grieving based on lived experience rather than more remote psychosocial theories, then Thomas Attig’s How We Grieve is the resource to read. Although it is not a brand new book (first published in 1996), in this reviewer’s opinion no book published in the last four years comes close to the power of Attig’s contribution to understanding the grief process.
Attig, a former philosophy professor and past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, uses the power of story to unlock the mystery of the human experience of life and death, and produces a rich treasure of intensely human stories of coping with loss due to death. This book has substance, theory and organization, and is highly readablepacked with the everyday drama of life and death. It is an immensely useful and provocative, sensitive and human, inspiring and engaging book.
While the author does develop a theory in this book, he does so by relying upon over two decades of teaching and writing in the area of death and dying, grief and grieving, as well as years of careful listening to the stories...[of those who] have lost someone dear to them and struggled with how to go on living without the deceased. He writes this book for anyone who has ever lost a significant person to death, as well as for professionals who wonder how to support and comfort them and for those with theoretical and professional interest in bereavement and grieving. The validity of Attig’s research lies with the resonance between the reader’s lived experience and the stories he so sensitively shares.
At times, however, the book has a cumbersome feelin its repetition of certain story datawhile at other times it seems there is not enough data to support a thesis. In one chapter, for example, the author raises the question, Why Do People Look to Books on Grieving? Yet nowhere in these 15 pages can the author apparently conjure up supportive material from the story data that he uses to significant effect elsewhere. While Attig refers to his case base (e.g., Jennifer, like so many other mourners I have spoken with, longs for people who will understand her), never once does he illustrate how Jennifer ever went to a book to seek a sense of being understood. It feels as if the author is setting up a straw man argument.
In the same fashion, the author (like so many other contemporary writers, it seems) sets up a similar argument to discredit Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s theoretical schema (Death: The Final Stage of Growth) in order to raise up his own schema. In doing so, unfortunately, Attig labors through a 23-page defense of his very adequate perspective. Since Attig’s construct almost speaks for itself (certainly the stories do!), there is no need to mount a howitzer to kill a mouse; there is certainly no need to discredit another’s useful perspective.
The major theme of this book is that grieving is a process of relearning the world, i.e., relearning how to live in the world without that significant person physically present any longera process that involves relearning ourselves, our relationships with the deceased as well as fellow survivors, our places in space and time and our spiritual places in the world. It is through detailed stories of real people attempting to relearn their world that this book and its message work. In fact, as the stories of Martin and Louise, Jennifer, and the three other episodes of massive loss unfold, it is like reading a novel or six novellas wrapped up in a book of theoryor is it a book of theory wrapped up in six painfully factual stories?
One of the strengths of Attig’s work is the framework for doing bereavement assessmentone that calls us to understand and appreciate the details of their lives before bereavement. How did they flourish while those now dead were with them? How did sharing life with them color and shape their experiences? How did they interweave their lives...in ways they found meaningful? As the book unfolds, the author puts human flesh on this simple structure for addressing a very complicated questionand does so in a very compelling way.
Another strength of this book is the author’s sub-model, so to speak, of respecting individual vulnerabilities, i.e., being vulnerable in: 1) our connections with those who die, 2) our loss of wholeness, 3) our anguish over unfinished business, 4) the lingering effects of hurtful relationships with the deceased, 5) disenfranchised grief, 6) the very circumstances of the death, 7) coping limitations and 8) sometimes challenging social circumstances. Again, each of these vulnerabilities is exemplified with story throughout the book.
Perhaps one of the strongest pieces of the book swirls around Attig’s reliance upon C. S. Lewis’s notion that death is like the dance of life: It is not the truncation of the process but one of its phases, not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. Or, as Attig puts it: As we grieve we struggle to learn the next figure of the dance and to find a meaningful way to continue caring about, and loving, the absent person even as our lives are transformed by our losses. As we grieve, we learn to love in separation.
To round out a treatise based on story, the author closes this book with the recognition that it is through the stories about our loved ones that we realize the eternal value of those lives. As the Rev. John Shea, a great storyteller, has often said: We tell the stories of our lives over and over again, until we get them right. Thomas Attig describes well how story enables us to relearn our world and find new life after the death of a significant other.