Renske Visser, PhD, is a medical anthropologist living in Helsinki, Finland, who writes a blog, Dead Good Reading, reviewing mainly nonfiction books on the topics of ageing, dying, and death. She is also the co-host of The Death Studies Podcast. We will be republishing, in whole or in part, her reviews of books of particular interest to the palliative care community.
Irvin Y. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom
2021, Redwood Press
240 pp, hardcover
Also available: softcover, audio book (CD)
Reviewed by Renske Visser, PhD
Author and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom and his wife Marilyn, a renowned feminist and historian, alternate writing chapters of A Matter of Death and Life: Love, loss and what matters at the end.
“We write to make sense of our existence, even as it sweeps us into the darkest zones of physical decline, and death. This book is meant, first and foremost, to help us navigate the end of life.”
Marilyn, confronted with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that turns out to be terminal, talks about receiving cancer treatment, the experience of living with a body that is ageing and increasingly letting her down, and the reality of leaving her family behind. Irvin describes his fears of becoming a widower, recounts stories of his psychiatric practice in which he has helped others cope with death anxiety, and also returns to his own work, such as Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death, to see if his own words can help him in the same way they have helped others.
They read each other’s chapters, so the book is both individual reflection and conversation with the other.
Partway through, Marilyn becomes too unwell to continue to write, so Irvin takes over. In this second half, Irvin talks about Marilyn’s dying and death and his subsequent move into widowhood. This change in format, caused by a change in life’s circumstances, also serves as a beautiful metaphor that life might not go according to plan. Instead, I believe the death of Marilyn has created a more beautiful and more profound book than had she been able to complete it.
Katrina Taee, Wendelien McNicoll; illustrated by Ruth Thorp
2019, NewAct Publishing
117 pp, softcover
£17.99, $29.95 USD
Reviewed by Renske Visser, PhD
Surviving the Tsunami of Grief is visually stunning and intentionally sparse in words: authors Katrina Taee and Wendelien McNicoll note that recently bereaved people might have trouble concentrating.
Having been recently bereaved, I can confirm that the book does exactly what it sets out to do: while I find it difficult to focus on the book’s words, I have found myself staring at the illustrations on multiple occasions. Looking at beaches and waves is deeply soothing.
The book is divided in two parts: the first part describes the “tsunami of grief” and shows what grieving can look like for different individuals, as grief is not a singular experience. The second part offers suggestions to those who wish to help a person who is grieving. Visually and verbally, the book moves through different stages of a tsunami, such as the receding sea, the surge of incoming waves, but also the aftermath and need to rebuild life. The book is filled with statements, often opposing statements, highlighting the fact that each grieving experience is unique and shaped by the individual experiencing a loss.
This book is an excellent, non-intrusive way to start thinking about grief and bereavement. It would be a perfect addition to waiting rooms; I can picture people casually picking this up and having a browse. It could serve equally well as a beautiful coffee table book. Hopefully, it will foster opportunities for both individual reflection as well as collective conversations about experiences of grief.
Editor’s note: During “Memoir March,” Renske Visser reviewed several books on personal experiences of death and loss in her blog, including:
Note for authors and publishers
If you wish to have your book reviewed, please send an email with the book title, a brief description, and the ISBN to: Alison Ramsey. Do not ship hard copies to the IAHPC office.
NB: Review copies become the property of IAHPC and are not returned to the author. Only books related to palliative care that have been approved and have an ISBN will be reviewed. Due to the large number of requests, we cannot provide exact dates of when books will be reviewed.
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