For many cultures that are addicted to the relentless quest to feel happy, perhaps as an unconscious attempt to bypass disavowed misery, grief is sort of a taboo, often pathologized and avoided by multiple means of denial. When we grieve, we’re told by well-meaning friends and relatives to “think positively” or to “count your blessings.” Studies have shown that people who experience anguish may often numb their pain with drugs and alcohol, which leaves many victims of loss and grief feeling guilty about their crippling sadness and often left alone to handle their pain.
There are scores of books dealing with the complex existential problems involved with the mortality issues faced by patients and their families and caregivers. However, few books deal solely with grief, the deep sorrow one experiences by a loved one’s death.
Loss of a Daughter Defines a Life’s Work
In Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, Joanne Cacciatore,
PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, draws on more than 20 years of clinical experience and research to illuminate the emotional impact of grief and the psychological, relational, and spiritual elements of healing and transformation. Dr. Cacciatore is herself a bereaved mother and bares her pain in the opening sentences:
“There is a place, an inviolable place, where her name is ensconced, beaten and burned into the deepest crevices of my heart. It was a hot summer day when I buried my baby daughter, Cheyenne. I watched as the men in gray suits scooped up heaps of soft earth atop the pink satin casket that held her wrapped body. It was a small service, there were so few who knew her…. Only hours earlier, I had closed the casket lid myself. There are no words to describe it, other than by saying that I also died at her sudden death.”
Title: Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief
Authors: Joanne Cacciatore, PhD
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Publication Date: June 2017
Price: $21.95, paperback, 248 pages
Separate Vignettes, Each a Small Gem
Organized into 50 brief stories, the heart of the book begins with the death of the author’s newborn daughter. However, the writing of the book took flight during a 6-week East Coast speaking tour to Richmond, Virginia, where she taught grief-focused mediation, and then up the coast, where she met with members of the Bacon family, who had lost a child in first grade during the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The author then travels to St. Louis, where she poignantly describes a man who told her about the death of his first wife to breast cancer and how he remarried within months because the sadness was “too much to bear alone.” However, not being able to shed enough of his mind-numbing grief, he and his second wife divorced after the birth of their first child, and he began drinking heavily and lost contact with his only offspring. “The pain from all those losses had etched deep lines on his face, “Dr. Cacciatore writes.
In chapter 30, the author uses personal stories to address a question with no firm answer: How long will my grief last? She uses her own loss and grief to look into the question of duration. “Grief comes and subsides in waves, as unpredictable as the ocean itself. And like the ocean, it’s there forever. The years have made me stronger, but I would gladly give back my newfound strength for one fleeting day with Cheyenne…. But the truth is, I am more whole today than I would have been without having known and loved my daughter,” the author writes.
Many Types of Grief, No Single Answer
One of the more interesting parts of this unrelenting narrative of loss and grief is when the author goes through the many types of grief. With anticipatory grief, a person or family is expecting death, and it is normal to begin to anticipate how one will react and cope when that person actually dies. Sudden loss can temporarily overwhelm or even immobilize anyone. With complicated grief, the duration of grief is prolonged and may interfere with a person’s ability to function; thus, grief can become “a way of life.” After identifying the types of grief, Dr. Cacciatore offers some hard-earned advice about ways to deal with each one.
Bearing the Unbearable is a powerful examination of our humanity on the edge of despair, a place where we will all venture during life. At times, the author strays too closely to prose poetry in an effort to emphasize emotions that would be better left standing alone. Sometimes the sky is just blue. However, this is a small complaint for such a strong effort.
“The only thing for which life offers even a fleeting guarantee is this moment, right here and right now. This is all we have; all we ever have. It is both absolving and terrifying,” writes Dr. Cacciatore. This tender look into the human heart, broken, healed, but never fully whole again, is recommended for the readers of The ASCO Post.