Grief Book Review: Before and After Loss
"The traumatic nature of events lies in their personal meaning." Lisa M. Shulman, MD
I am an old-fashioned book-a-holic. I know the correct term is bibliophile, but that sounds way too pretentious for my humbly casual character. I tried to use an e-book a few years back. I actually used it for comfort reading: to reread Anne of Green Gables during a particularly stressful time in my life. The e-reader wasn’t terrible, but the experience was definitely not as satisfying as a good, solid paper version. You know, the REAL thing.
Anyway, I am often asked for book recommendations related to grief. I hesitate to refer anyone to a specific book unless I have read it and can vouch for how it might be helpful for specific situations. So I decided to start adding book reviews to my monthly bog lineup, so you can see for yourself if a book fits your needs.
I am going to start with one I recently read, Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain, by Dr. Lisa Shulman. (Note: I have NO financial ties to this book or this author. I am sharing my opinion for your information only.) This book caught my attention because the author writes about her personal experience as a wife, as a doctor, and as a widow. Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am a neuroscience geek and I bring that information into every client session. I strongly believe that grief support must address brain and other physical changes, in addition to the traditional education about “thoughts and emotions” coping techniques. The author's unique perspective as a neurologist brings a depth of insight rarely seen in typical grief-related memoirs.
What is the book about?
In the first half of the book, the author shares her compelling and not-too-sentimental journey through her early marriage, and then her husband’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. She offers us a glimpse into the special rituals of their love story, including special meals and travel adventures. The second half of the book, raw and honest, covers her wild ride through acute grief, as well as her adjustment to her new reality without the love of her life by her side.
Main points of the book
Trauma is unique to each person
Journey of terminal illness from medical side: even the experts have no answers, and must accept they can’t always fix or control the course of disease
There are no simple resolutions ahead of time, even when death is predicted: you never have the amount of time you think you have
Grief deeply affects your brain and body: it is more than simply emotional pain
What “normal grief” looks like (hint: there is no such thing as normal!)
How your faith and your personality shape your grief experience
Loss of a life partner leads to loneliness and identity crises
How to find hope in restoration for the future
Who should read this book
If you are looking for an unfiltered account of grief before a loved one dies, and during the early, acute phase after a death, as well as how grief becomes integrated into life after loss, this book is for you.
This book is especially for you if you want to know...
about the brain science of grief
why your body feels out of control during grief
why your brain feels off-kilter during grief
about alternative methods for coping with grief symptoms
how to effectively use dreams and journaling to process grief
My opinion (not that you asked)
I appreciated the honest humanity of this book, from a clinical standpoint as well as personally. The author is not a mental health professional, but she provided a comprehensive overview of pros and cons of grief therapy, some common therapy interventions, and the mixed results when using medication to address grief symptoms.
The author mentioned that the grief support group she attended was less than helpful. This is unfortunate and all too common. Grief support groups are incredibly important to help mourners feel less alone in their grief and to connect with others living through similar circumstances. I recommend folks do a bit of research before choosing a support group. Find out the training of the facilitator and the makeup of the group. If your spouse of 40 years recently died, you might not feel understood in a group of 30 year old men and women who are mourning their parents. The grief experience is much too different. Read my blog about grief support groups for further information on finding the right group.
I really appreciated the list of alternative coping techniques that the author mentioned. I have discussed mindfulness meditation in previous blogs, so you already know I fully agree with the author about the importance of this technique for nervous system regulation. The journal prompts at the end of each chapter are thoughtful and appropriate for every mourner's "toolbox for coping." I will be incorporating them into my own clinical toolbox.
I was especially interested to read about the author's dreams and her analysis of their meaning and patterns over time. Many practical-minded physicians downplay the significance of dreams during grief, but the clients I work with have consistently noted how their dreams often help maintain the connection with their loved one who died.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has lived through a loss and wants to understand how your grief symptoms are influenced by brain and body functions. Lisa and Bill’s story will draw you in. You’ll cry when they part, and you will cheer for Lisa as she endures unspeakable pain. We will all experience the pain of loss. We can't change it, but in the sharing of grief, we can be empowered by understanding.
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