WHEN GRIEF EQUALS LOVE
by Lizzie Pickering (Unbound £18.99, 352pp)
How long does grief last? Should bereaved people be expected to ‘move on’ after a certain time?
Both questions have impossible answers, because no matter who tells us about the ‘stages of grief,’ the individual who mourns for years will call all theories into question. This is what Lizzie Pickering has learned from her own experience and from a wide range of interviewees — hence the book’s subtitle: Long-term Perspectives On Living With Loss. There are writers who rush into print to detail their pain — yet Pickering shows there is much wisdom in the waiting.
Changed life: Lizzie Pickering with her beloved son Harry
Pickering’s son, Harry, died at the age of six in 2000. He had been diagnosed with terminal spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) just before his second birthday — news which plunged Pickering and her husband into a state of what she called, ‘anticipatory grief’ and ‘living grief’.
All parents of very sick children will recognise the dread, mixed with a desperate hope that the diagnosis could be wrong and your child might be the exception. But the ‘reality check’ is always there: ‘We have had all hope taken away; they are incurable, untreatable and terminal. We are stripped of our maternal or paternal rights to protect our child.’
This moving book is a hymn of praise to the hospice movement and also a testimony to the usefulness of keeping a journal at a time of great stress and pain.
As Pickering’s son is reaching the end of his short life, her heart-breaking diary entries give her account the kind of immediacy and weight not achievable by memory alone, not over 20 years later.
She details Harry’s terrible symptoms and writes, ‘. . . antibiotics, although acting as an aid against infection, are not really the answer. Actually there is no answer.
‘This is, of course, what we have known all along . . . ‘
Her account of her child’s last month is devastating: ‘I am dying with Harry; my heart is bleeding and I feel my head exploding.’
Pickering and her husband are guided in the agonising task of communicating truth, loss and grief to Harry’s two younger siblings, Cameron and Emilie
After talking to other bereaved parents, she writes: ‘Shock, trauma and gut-wrenching grief.’
It feels almost unbearable to read — and yet, at the same time, it is essential reading.
There are different strands in this book. One reflects on the importance of the hospice movement, for Harry’s care in the first children’s hospice, Helen House, was exemplary.
Pickering and her husband are guided in the agonising task of communicating truth, loss and grief to Harry’s two younger siblings, Cameron and Emilie: ‘Never protect or placate . . . only tell the truth.’
They are given time with their son’s body and supported in every way possible by the hospice staff.
After Harry’s death the author works for and with Helen House helping bereaved parents and fundraising, using an extensive and impressive network of contacts from her previous broadcasting career. All of us should find out about local hospices and support them.
Then there is the common unwillingness to face up to the grief of others. In nearly 50 years of writing (often) about death and mourning, I have never met one bereaved person who didn’t experience people crossing the road to avoid them.
Pickering writes: ‘I have seen people turn away from the grief of their friends and I have personally witnessed friends walk away from me and turn the other cheek when they couldn’t cope with my grief.’
But although she says, ‘grief makes you unreachable’ she can also be grateful for those who do try to reach: ‘I have also felt the bonds of the friends who could withstand the effects of my loss, and the strength of the community around me.’
To return to the fallacious notion of ‘moving on’, Pickering makes it very clear (writing so long afterwards) that grief remains a part of your life, changing you for ever.
Harry pictured with his siblings. When Grief Equals Love will be essential reading for those who mourn and those who help
Her last diary entry, five years after Harry’s death, states bluntly: ‘I will never heal, and as a mum, why would I want to? . . . if I think about the pain representing my love for Harry, alongside my equally unconditional love for Cam and Emilie, then I can live well with it. They are all here. The pain equals love.’
Time does not ‘heal’; it enables those who mourn to go on with their changed lives. What Pickering calls ‘survivor’s energy’ can be harnessed in many ways, and the structure of this book is a testimony to that transformative strength.
After the first sections containing her personal story and reflections, she moves on to what she calls ‘community’. This contains revealing interviews with family and friends who have experienced loss (as well as others working in the field), and leaves you in no doubt that every mourner is unique.
Yet there are many lessons to learn from the experience of others — and here we have invaluable ‘toolkits’ of advice; for example, advising people to avoid cliche.
If you don’t know what to say (the common excuse) just utter that truth, but don’t turn away. ‘Small acts of kindness’ have far more power than you might think.
With the cumulative wisdom of many experiences, a plethora of excellent advice and a wealth of books and other resources, When Grief Equals Love will be essential reading for those who mourn and those who help. One day we will almost certainly find ourselves in those categories.
Pickering’s final thoughts are brave and inspiring: ‘You will never find more courage or awareness of the very essence of life than right there, in the community of the grieving.’