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Book Review: Stricken – The 5,000 Stages of Grief, edited by Spike Gilespie and Katherine Tanney

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An anthology about grief is a very good idea. I know because I had the idea myself although I was beaten to it by editors Spike Gillespie and Katherine Tanney. Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief is a wonderful title and there are some excellent essays among the 24 pieces that make up this book.

As editor Tanney notes in her introduction the isolation of grief comes through quite stirringly: “Your life is just the same as it was – same busy schedule, same good friend, sweet dogs, love of yoga, but all the joy has gone out of it.” And that lack of joy, as one goes through the motions of an ordinary, everyday life, is just what the writers try to convey.

Some of them do an amazing job of it. Most notably Laura House who opens her essay “The Thing Bout Losing My Mom” with a wonderful retake on Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief with her own: “Denial. Crying. Eating. Anger. Rage. Freak Out. Bargaining. Drinking. Begging. Pleading. Sex with strangers. Reluctant Acceptance. Acceptance. But these don’t tell you the whole story. You actually have to go through an entire reprogramming of your brain.”

She then goes on to detail ordinary days when she would be doing ordinary things: “Or I‘d be at Target. I’d see a necklace, ‘Mom would really like that — But she’s dead — She’s what? — Dead! Oh, god’” House tells the reader: “It’s grief… Honor it. Pay attention."

In “Touch Me,” Rachel Resnick writes about getting a deep painful massage which brings up horrible memories of her mother’s suicide by hanging.

And in one of the most stunning essays, Amy Friedman’s “New Year’s Day,” Friedman writes about her life as the wife of a man incarcerated for murder. Her honest and unflinching and beautifully written portrait of a woman waiting for a man to leave her as she knows he must when he is given parole is mesmerizing. Her grief at his betrayal is palpable and profound.

In two others: Katherine Tanney’s witty and sad account of trying to make peace with her mother (which struck close to home) and Spike Gillespie’s essay on trying to officiate at weddings after the breakup of her own storybook marriage, which is gorgeous and heartbreaking, the writers are right on.

But, all in all, the book is a very mixed bag. In between the wonderful essays are those that would be better read in Family Circle or Parade magazines. They are badly executed stories of dead children, the horrific subject matter rendered trite and dull by the pedestrian writing and clichéd philosophy. And oddly, a very good piece by a man named David Zuniga entitled “The Truth Remains” completely breaks up the flow of the book. Zuniga is a Buddhist chaplain and trained healthcare worker who deals with end-of-life issues. His essay is interesting but it has little to do with his book which deals with all kinds of grief, not just that of death. And the end-of-the-book essay is a little self-help ditty that left me wondering just what book I had stumbled on to.

Gillespie and Tanney had a great idea and they gathered some superior writers together to take a stab at the 5,000 stages of grief. Had they stuck to their convictions and not tried to be all things to all people; had they gathered the kind of brilliant essays that make up a third of the book to finish out the rest of it, they would have had a truly brilliant anthology that would be required reading for anyone who has suffered any kind of loss. As it is, Striken has some great stuff in it, but one must pick and choose carefully.

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About Lisa Solod