Book review: Notes on Grief

My very first counselling placement was within bereavement. Where I listened as clients explored their grief. Often they spoke of shock, sometimes abandonment and occasionally a sense of overwhelm. Reflecting on this work, I’m struck by how inept words are to express the raw, desperate, profound feelings that death can deliver to those left behind. And it’s this idea about the failure of language, to adequately express the hardest emotions, which makes Notes on Grief such a stand out book.

Notes on Grief is written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Ngozi Adiche is a best selling, internationally acclaimed, Nigerian author. She has five non fiction novels to her name including the Orange prize winner Half a Yellow Sun. She’s also given a fascinating Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, which is well worth a look. In short, if anyone can find the words to express the inexpressible, it’s her.

Tell it like it is

This is a thin book, not even 100 pages long. But what Notes on Grief lacks in size it makes up for in impact. Ngozi Adiche dives straight in, talking about the complex maelstrom of emotions she experiences after her father’s sudden death, aged 88. “Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger.”

And this immediately chimes. When I think of grief I think of a widow, silent, passive and tearful. But the reality within the therapy room is often rage. A rage at the unfairness of it all, a fury that life can be so unfair and anger that long held spiritual beliefs have let you down. Within my years of practice I have seen clients out of their chair, fists clenched in fury and pacing the room with the physicality of their anger.

Adiche also talks about the irritation she feels as mourners attempt to comfort her. She writes, ” ‘He is in a better place.’ is startling in its presumptuousness, and has a taint of the inapt.” This is one of the reasons that counsellors are taught not to give platitudes. Because who can really be sure everything will be fine? And although comforting comments are often well meaning they are also meaningless. And frequently they serve as a way to disengage from the conversation, when you can no longer bear to see a person’s distress.

Death and culture

Notes on Grief also gives a glimpse in to the way that different cultures and tribes deals with death and grieving. Chimamanda mentions her strong desire to give her dad the burial he would have wanted. But it’s laced with her irritation in having to pay ‘dues’ to so many different groups and organisations to ensure a proper burial. She also despairs at the constant stream of mourners visiting the house. How it appears like a party when the reality is so different. Both insights touch on a cross generational tension, and a tension within oneself when conforming to cultural and religious norms. The feelings she would rather express or conceal somtimes have to be buried behind the customs.

There is so much within this book that is meaningful. As I read through it, I found myself constantly underlining passages. Bereavement is hard to describe, but there are parts in this book that do it so well I feel a little pull in my stomach. And that’s not an altogether pleasant feeling.

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by your grief, afraid you’re drowning in sadness, or wondered why other people don’t seem to feel loss as strongly as you, then this book is well worth a look. If only to know you’re not alone.

For the rest of my life I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.

chimamanda Ngozi Adiche notes on grief