How to live after a loved one dies

‘It’s all right to cry’: the Angel of Grief at Stanford University, California

The Gift of Grief
by Andrew Stringfellow,
Redemptorist, £7

One evening in 2014, I stepped out of the bus, looked to see if the road was clear for me to cross – and cried. Without realising, it was the first time that I had taken that particular bus at that particular time since I left school and, unthinkingly, I had looked for my father, with whom I often travelled.

The difficulty was that my beloved Dad died in 1982. Thirty-two years later, a forgotten coincidence of time and place was enough to cause the tears to flow. When a loved one dies, they leave behind a heart-space which is never entirely healed – a place which always was, and always will be, uniquely theirs, a place which only that one individual will ever completely fill.

The Gift of Grief is one son’s story about coming to terms with his father’s death. The fact that the author is a Catholic priest did not mean that the grieving process was “signed, sealed and delivered” automatically and virtually instantaneously: three months passed before he “really cried”. Years passed before Fr Andrew Stringfellow began to deal with the “huge impact” on his life.

In simple, uncomplicated and deeply personal language, Fr Andrew tells his story in such a way that the reader re-lives his or her own experience of encounter and loss, recognises the aching emptiness and the subconscious acceptance that life has changed for ever. He shows us that the death of a loved one uniquely challenges us, raising questions and starting a search for answers to our questions in a way that nothing else does. Throughout this book, the reader walks alongside its writer, perhaps wrapped in their own memories and thoughts, but also with a sense of shared experience and understanding.

Fr Andrew does not pretend that his journey towards making sense of his father’s death is an example for others to follow. Each death is one-of-a-kind and affects the bereaved in a one-off manner. In talking of his own grief, Fr Andrew also has his years as a priest, when he has helped others to come to terms with their loss. The beautifully illustrated book is, therefore, a pastoral opportunity where “my story” helps the reader to focus on “your story”.

Death has an impact on the whole family. That is part of its pain. Fr Andrew describes the effect of his father’s death on his mother. He stresses that “it’s all right to cry”, to feel lonely, to struggle to recover balance and normality when a great gaping hole appears in the middle of life’s journey – and yet “normality” can never again be exactly the same as it was before. His mother lost her husband. Fr Andrew lost his father, who would never again be at family gatherings, who would never again “guard me from the vulnerability of life”.

But the voyage towards healing is not one made in isolation: relatives, friends, colleagues are only too willing to help. Professional support is also there if needed. God is the greatest defender in the hour of need, taking our anger, pain and questions and bringing us towards an acceptance of our own vulnerability.

Dealing with grief is a process of recognising the great gift of the one who has died and of starting to live anew, appreciating their giftedness and weaving it into the fabric of a new life.

Yet some people must recognise that, far from losing someone who was deeply loved, they have been liberated from someone whom they did not love. Recognising the truth makes a new beginning possible.

In his comments on The Gift of Grief, Fr Paul Murray OP writes: “For anyone suffering loss, here is a work that will at once quicken and console, disturb and heal.”

Perhaps there is nothing else that needs to be said.