Patricia Luce Chapman's husband died four days after being told by his doctor he was "coming along just fine." "After his death," Chapman writes, "I found I was making decisions based on relative ignorance, at a time when my whole life had fallen apart and my brain wasn't working very well. I needed a simple, uncomplicated explanation of what was happening to me and what I should be doing."
In Survivor's Guide to Grief: Be Like a Starfish and Grow New Legs, Chapman attempts "to lessen the extreme difficulty for survivors at the sudden passing of a loved one and to help them rebuild a new life."
The first three chapters of the guide concern the days before and the weeks and months after Brewster Chapman's death. Chapman discusses how family and friends can care for the survivor and help handle necessary activities immediately following the death, such as preparing appropriate meals, cleaning up the house, planning the funeral or memorial service, and notifying people. She discusses what is involved in administering an estate and filing tax returns. She also describes the many forms grief can take and the "marathon emotional trampoline" the survivor experiences. In the fourth chapter, "Growing New Legs," Chapman explains how the survivor can start to build a new life even while working through the grief that is a constant companion. An appendix comprises brief articles by medical professionals, other survivors (a mother and a widower), a death educator, and Chapman herself.
The advice Chapman offers is specific and practical, and formatting aids the reader in locating information. For example, the documents necessary for administration of an estate and preparation of tax records, the steps in writing an obituary, and things to consider in maintaining a grave are listed in bold font. It is clear, however, that everything she shares is rooted in experience. For example, in the section on administration of the estate, titled "Lunacy 101," she begins, "There is no adequate way to describe the paperwork." She also describes her worry and frustration over finances during the weeks when bills, but no money, came in, and tells of her difficult first visit to her husband's grave.
Chapman's book contains as much information for caregivers, friends, and family as for survivors. An interview with Christopher Lucci, M.D., which appears in the appendix, describes the changes in vital signs that precede death, information her husband's doctors withheld from her while he was dying. An article written by a registered nurse lists information caregivers and family should be able to get from doctors, nurses, hospitals, and other resources. A third article, by Chapman herself, details exactly what family and friends should do and say (and what they should not say) to aid the survivor.
In the preface, Chapman writes that her book grew out of notes she made while negotiating the unfamiliar world of widowhood. The "occasionally erratic" sequence of events in the book, she says, reflects their sequence in real life. The book appears to have been self-published, and this shows in format and production values. It also appears that the book was edited by a member of Chapman's family, and I wonder whether an editor less personally involved might at times have wielded a heavier hand. These issues, however, do not detract significantly from the book's value.
One of the blurbs on the back of Survivor's Guide to Grief refers to it as "a charming personal account" of Chapman's experience with death and its aftermath. I did not find it charming. Rather, I found it in turn blunt, angry, bitter, regretful, darkly humorous—in other words, inconveniently honest—about an experience the author didn't want but couldn't escape. The book made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of emotions I felt while taking care of my mother for the ten years before her death and told me things I wish I'd known then. It reminded me of topics my husband and I need to talk about. It reminded me that I might outlive my husband. In fact, I caught myself deliberately (and ironically) skimming over certain paragraphs because they contain information I might someday need.
But even though parts of the book can be difficult to read, Chapman writes in the spirit of hope. In the last chapter, describing her new life as a writer, songwriter, and businesswoman, she assures other survivors that they, too, can "build a bridge across the chaos, leaving acute grief behind and leading toward a rebuilt life filled with joy and purpose."
Survivor's Guide to Grief is not a perfect book, but it is a valuable one. It should be read now—before it is needed.
Patricia Luce Chapman grew up in China to American parents and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She has worked as a photojournalist and as the CEO of a non-profit and has written for the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Associated Press. She is currently a writer, songwriter, and executive; her book To Bernard Berenson With Love was published in 2005. More information about Chapman can be found on her blog.
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