A review of Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief by Spike Gillespie & Katherine Tanney (Eds)

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief
Spike Gillespie & Katherine Tanney (Eds)
Dalton Publishing
2009, Softcover, 208 pages, RRP $14.95 USD, ISBN 13:978-0-9817443-6-0

When my partner noticed me reading this book, he remarked ‘Boy, that sounds cheerful!’ But, surprisingly, I found the whole thing very moving and hard to put down. Grief is a very difficult subject to write about in any engaging and meaningful way, and sentimentality and vapid, hollow cliches are often the norm as people search for the right words of comfort. But the editors and writers of the essays in Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief have succeeded admirably. What makes this collection so moving and useful is the generosity of all the writers in revealing their deepest sorrows and fears with the reader. Anyone who has lost a close loved one, or been through a process of grieving for lost relationships, health, jobs or houses, will recognise and empathise with the many responses to loss conveyed here.

Katherine Tanney writes: ‘how grief weighs like a physical burden on you. You have to drag the sadness and anxiety and depression around with you. Your life is just as it was … but all the joy has gone out of it. You go through the motions with the friends considerate enough to extend invitations. You dress up, show up, bathed and smelling good, as if all is just dandy. But inside the pain is sharp and will not be put off. (P. 13-14)’ Laura House writes of losing her mother, of the uncontrollable crying that came upon her and how it slowly began to dissipate over time until the crying jags became fewer and life began to again seem brighter. A friend tells her that she has a ‘special year’ to use in whatever way is meaningful to her – the year it takes for the grief to begin to become bearable. Rachel Resnick’s essay, ‘Touch Me’ is ostensibly about receiving a massage in Mexico, but the nub of the narrative is her grief and sense of abandonment over her mother’s suicide, feelings that one can easily hold onto for years. As the masseur works on her neck, she physically recalls her mother’s method of death, by hanging, and weeps uncontrollably: ‘This year it will be 30 years since her death. Sometimes that feels like an eternity. Sometimes it feels like today. (P.33)’. We share with Resnick both the grief and the release.

Owen Egerton writes sensitively of his grandfather’s death, of the gathering of family around the loved one’s deathbed and the sense that ‘normal’ life cannot possibly be allowed to go on in the face of loss. From David Zuniga comes an interfaith chaplain’s Buddhist approach to death and dying, pointing out that ‘Death is the ultimate teacher. It teaches us gratitude and illuminates the interconnection with all sentient beings. When we deny our mortality we are truly dead. When we face our death directly, we learn to live fully in every moment of our precious existence. (P.48)’ Jim Krusoe writes of roadside crosses and considers where, if not here, the bereaved should go to grieve for loved ones lost in car accidents. Marie Wilson writes of losing her beloved son, Clifford, just before his nineteenth birthday, and how participating in the annual five kilometre race he liked to run helped her to move on. Her essay concludes with a list of the truths her grief has revealed to her: ‘I know that this empty space in my heart will always be here … I will carry on. (P.61-62)’ And so it goes on.

Donnalyn Watt, in ‘I Cannot Think What To Do’, discusses the grief of the empty nester, as children become independent and leave home, and it becomes clear to the reader that the ‘symptoms’ are pretty similar, whether we are grieving a person or a way of life. Other writers discuss the various stages of grief, either Kubler-Ross’ list or Dr Phil McGraw’s, and relate their own circumstances to these. Holly Whittaker’s essay traces the process for a family in accepting that a loved member is never coming back. Editor, Spike Gillespie, looks at another kind of grief – brought on by the ending of her marriage – and muses on the irony of her work as a marriage celebrant in the face of the feeling of failure the breakup engendered. Buffy Cram’s essay, ‘Still Life With Loss’ looks at the generational nature of grief, and how earlier losses can continue to impact on a family for many years, particularly if sudden or violent.

I’ve mentioned here only a brief survey of some of the essays in this this book, but rest assured it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever read on this subject. Stricken is filled with honest and heartfelt stories from a collection of very good, mostly Texas-based writers who possess the life experience and courage to share their stories with others. The next time someone I care about is in need of comfort and solace in the face of loss, I’ll be certain to pass on this worthy and life-affirming book. And I’m sure that in the future I’ll have occasion to reread it for myself.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been writing, publishing and performing since the early 1980s. Her published poetry collections include: Conscious Razing: combustible poems (1986), Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets (1993), Fit of Passion (1997), Girl With Green Hair (2000), and My Arthritic Heart (2006). Her poetry has been broadcast on television and radio in Australia and the USA, and published in literary journals. A past winner of poetry slams in St Kilda, Melbourne (1991) and Austin, Texas (1994), she has worked with several performance poetry outfits including ‘The Word Warriors’ (1990-1), ‘Stand-Up Poets’ (1992-4), ‘Ozpoets’ (USA tour 1994), and ‘Fit of Passion’ (1995-2000). Since 2006 has been singing and playing bush bass in the Brisbane-based alt-country-blues-roots trio ‘Cathouse Creek’. An experienced factual writer, editor, reviewer and manuscript assessor, she has worked on many community arts projects and in 2004 was employed as a writer for Brisbane City Council’s ‘Creative Democracy: Homelessness’ Project.