Book Review: Adventure in Grief by Catherine de Courcy. The Collins Press 2009

Reviewed by Tony Bates

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, Gandalf visits Bilbo Baggins and invites him to share in an adventure that he is arranging. Bilbo declines the offer on the grounds that hobbits are plain quiet folk who have “no use for adventures”. Furthermore, he declares, that adventures are “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think of what anybody sees in them”.

Modern day therapists can find themselves in Gandalf’s place, inviting their wary clients to embark on an adventure, when these same clients are primarily seeking to overcome some particular discomfort so that they can resume their ‘normal’ lives.  Therapy is not for the faint-hearted; it involves a lot more than simply overcoming uncomfortable symptoms. It is a journey of discovery that takes a person through some very dark and difficult places where the outcome is uncertain, but where there is the possibility of awakening their true selves and living more freely as human beings.

Catherine de Courcy’s book tells the story of what happens in her life when she said “Yes” to an adventure that was triggered by the shattering experience of her husband John’s suicide. This book brings wisdom and insight to the whole discourse of suicide and the pain it visits on those bereaved in this way. If that were all it offered it would surely merit a place in our national discourse on this very difficult public health problem.

But I believe that Catherine’s book offers a great deal more. It describes a journey of personal recovery that is so beautifully and honestly articulated that it speaks to all of us. For Catherine, it was her husband’s death that pulled her out of her comfort zone and challenged her to grow, or to give up on her life. Each of us has had some experience that has similarly challenged us to engage with the painful complexity of our lives or to turn away from what hurts us and cling fiercely to our comfort zones. This book is an encouragement to anyone who is serious about achieving integration within their personal lives and learning to find their own unique way of belonging to and contributing to the world. It maps out a journey of recovery that will have resonance particularly for anyone who is trying to come to terms with trauma and loss.

Sometimes I have found personal narratives on overcoming adversity difficult to read. Either they gloss over the terror and tedium of recovery and make it all sound too easy; or they dwell on the gruesome details of personal tragedy to a degree which I can find hard going. What I appreciated about Catherine’s book was that it was deeply personal without ever becoming sentimental. She was candid about her own limitations and difficulties as she worked her way through grief, but she was also remarkably practical and even humorous at times about what worked and what didn’t work for her.

In the immediate aftermath of John’s tragic death, she wrapped herself inside her grief to shield herself from the demands of the world and to buy herself some time. When she stepped out from behind her widowhood status, her experience became more raw and more intense than ever.

My head was rattling, my body was sore and jumpy, I couldn’t sleep at all without the help of a Valium, there was a lot of anger in my dreams, I cried easily, and was constantly depressed and miserable. Most worrying of all, I had lost the ability to see my grief objectively. The little voice in the back of my head that had been urging me on had vanished, the pain was becoming intolerable and I was losing interest in caring what happened to me.” (pp 136-37)

Initially she allocated two years to her grieving process, but she learns that her grief cannot be timed or controlled as she had first imagined; it proceeds at its own pace and takes her down many twists and turns.

She spends time alone and begins to nourish her body. She eats simple foods. She gradually finds herself through listening to her body and being guided by it. She rests and sleeps when her body is tired and too sore to drag around the world. She gets fresh air and takes trips to old places, places of memory, and she begins to relax and to feel freedom within herself again, without her husband physically present.

She finds people she can trust to help her to take care of her mind, her body and her spirit. The therapists, the naturopath, the homeopath, the Reiki therapist, and spiritually-minded counselors she engages each contribute to her self-understanding and teach her to give herself time and to trust the healing process that was unfolding inside her.

She learns the importance of making daily plans, working towards achievable goals, and taking practical steps to prepare herself for difficult encounters. She makes copies of John’s death certificate and of other documents that she would be asked to produce by numerous banks and social agencies. She stocks up on envelopes and stamps in her home so that she was prepared to handle demands with the least amount of emotional pressure.

She plans anniversaries “with utmost care”, and respects the meaning that those days hold for her. The simple rituals which she prepares help her to get through these days and to mark them as important and bearable events in her life. On the second anniversary of John’s death, when she neglected to prepare herself in this way, she “got a terrible jolt” and suffered considerably.

She learns that the intensity of her grief partly reflects deeper wounds that she has carried from earlier in her life. She works with her therapist- someone who sounds particularly skilled and enlightened – to expose, face and ultimately release these “old emotions” and she experiences noticeable changes in her life when she does this work.

She gets to a place in her life, four years after John’s death, where she forms a view of his death that makes sense to her and which allows her to come to terms with the manner of his passing. While she never diminishes the degree to which his suicide was “tragic and devastating”, she begins to appreciate that it had happened in the context of a long history of debilitating PTSD symptoms which afflicted him years after his experiences in the Vietnam War. “Ultimately”, she accepts that, “John’s suicide was simply the way he had died.” Her reactions, her distress and her upset in the aftermath of his death were her own business.

“Grief had pushed me to my limits and brought me to dark, exotic, strange and uncomfortable places. As with all the most successful adventures, I had received critical help and support when I needed it, and I had learned an immeasurable amount about myself. Some of what I had learned I had picked up quickly and some of it I had laboured over at an excruciatingly slow pace but, as I had been under no time pressure, the pace had been my business. Now, after five years, I had at least ‘got it’, or at least enough of it to attempt trying to live a fully integrated life once more.” (p. 234)

Catherine writes from a depth of connection with her body, mind and heart that reaches beyond the merely personal to something that holds some relevance for us all. Her tenacity in piecing together the broken pieces of her shattered life, her courage in engaging with depths of emotional pain, and her awakening to a new levels of freedom in herself, clearly depict her adventure in grief; but ultimately this is not a book about grief so much as it is a book that invites us to share someone’s adventure in living, and to be less afraid of making that journey in our own lives.

Tony Bates is a clinical psychologist and founder director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health