Book Review

Book Review: 'Grief Growth Grace' by Neena Verma delves deep into coping with grief

Print edition : February 11, 2022
The book illumines the reader’s mind, throwing light on dark, deep crevices, often hidden from the world, but not necessarily without need for attention.

The world has been living through a pandemic for the past two years. The months April and May of 2021 were particularly challenging. And there were messages in the social media, much like those in an airport departure lounge, of people checking in, moving on, losing their loved ones, and taking that final flight with no return. One was reminded of the Quranic verse, ‘He who has taken a breath shall taste death too.’ Then there were images of mass cremations, pyres lined up outside crematoria, and graveyards running out of space. Life, as the Buddha put it, seemed full of sorrow and suffering. It is against this backdrop that Rupa has published Grief Growth Grace: A Sacred Pilgrimage by Neena Verma, a well-known grief and growth counsellor. While the book could not have come at a better time, considering how millions have experienced loss and bereavement, it stands out in its details, sensitive handling, and non-preachy, non-didactic approach.

Early in the book, Neena Verma infuses grief and loss with dignity. Much like a healer, she assures her readers that grief is not a sickness, mental or physical, and advises those around not to make light of the situation. Grief, like joy, is something to be experienced. It comes with no timelines, a start date or a closing date. Life and growth are always in an open-ended yet intimate relationship.

While visiting friends and relatives who may have experienced a bereavement in their families, we often tend to offer platitudes in solace. Words such as ‘it happens’, ‘time will heal’ and ‘stay strong’ come out of our lips almost mechanically. Neena Verma asks us to avoid this.

Neena Verma tells us lucidly, “Grief…should not be made light of with clichés and sermons like ‘time will heal’, ‘be strong’, ‘move on’ and more. In fact, sometimes, grief may have no closure.” Indeed, why should it? Would it not be disrespectful to the memory of departed loved ones to run away from memories and thoughts about them? When they were alive, they brought us joy; when they are no longer with us, their memory and values can still shine a light on the path ahead.

Inbuilt mechanism

Each individual has his or her inbuilt mechanism to cope with grief. As the author says, “Most of us learn to affirm our grief, adapt resiliently to our loss-altered reality, and find a way to restore our well-being.” Of course, the indelible belief that none of us is burdened more than we can bear with helps. As does a book of this nature. Grief Growth Grace is a therapeutic exercise. It illumines the reader’s mind, throwing light on dark, deep crevices, often hidden from the world, but not necessarily without need for attention.

The book contains many real-life case studies of people finding their own individual mechanism to deal with grief, many even transforming into better human beings after their loss; incidentally the author is one of them. She lost her son Utkarsh when he was barely 23. Instead of sinking into the quicksands of overpowering grief, she mustered all her courage to live with the reality that her son lives on even after breathing his last in the mortal world, that he continues to shape her life, and that his presence, though no longer seen, is always felt.

Under normal circumstances, children are orphaned at the departure of parents. In rare cases, parents feel orphaned when their beloved child moves on. Neena Verma and her spouse, Yogesh, fall in that category.

The first of the three parts of the book discusses the inevitability of grief in our lives. Titled ‘Maze of Grief’, this section tells us that while loss may seem debilitating, and at specific moments even overwhelming, it is actually life-affirming in its own way. Neena Verma refers to loss as “the intricate warp and weft of life”, but through the words of Donald Miller has a simple lesson for us all, “All the trees are shedding their leaves, and not one of them is worried.”

Here, the author brings to fore a unique form of loss experienced by many of us during COVID-19, that of denial of the last sight, the last touch of the departed. Calling it a variant of “complex bereavement”, she writes: “The dreaded virus is depriving people of parting contact with the deceased, and leaving the bereaved in a state of incomprehensible pain over not being able to see, touch, talk to, say a symbolic goodbye and have some sort of closure with their departing loved one.”

While millions may have experienced this kind of complex bereavement during COVID-19, what often goes unnoticed is the ambiguous loss, of the feeling of being suspended between a sense of hope and loss. For instance, the plight of half-widows of Kashmir, who may not have an idea where their husbands are, whether they are alive, in some prison, or were shot dead by militants or security forces and buried without notice. Do such women live as married people, or do they reconcile themselves to the final loss and seek to start afresh in their life?

One wishes the author had gone into greater detail about the plight of such women. She, however, tackles it in an indirect manner when she quotes Laurell K. Hamilton while talking of trauma, “There are wounds that never show on the body, that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” While resilience helps deal with the sense of acute loss, some need psychological help in dealing with grief or post-traumatic stress disorder. Equally, again, a recourse to the reality of life may help. As Krishna says in the Bhagvad Gita, “Death is the only abiding truth of life.” Indeed, life culminates in death. Imbibing this simple reality may not be easy, though.

The first section holds the reader’s attention, but the real value of the book, the reason for spending money on this, comes in the second section, ‘Mystique of Growth’. It is not growth in the sense business experts would define it in terms of dividends, but growth of the individual after a life-altering experience. In a systematic manner, almost like climbing a ladder, the author gives a blueprint to overcome adversity. The chapters with self-explanatory titles such as ‘Grief Affirmation’, ‘Resilient Adaptation’ and ‘Way to Well-Being and Transformation’ are complemented with messages from stalwarts at the beginning of a new passage.

For instance, the chapter titled ‘Season of Grief, Reason for Growth’ begins with the Canadian poet Brittin Oakman’s words, “Every season is one of becoming, but not always one of blooming. Be gracious with your ever-evolving self.” And one way of being gracious with oneself is to be involved in self-care, some gentle exercise, meditation, or whatever suits a person after a shattering loss. Every human being is a creation of the almighty, each soul deserving to be here, and deserving to utilise his or her potential to its maximum. The author provides a few self-help meditative exercises and concludes: “The day you start your healing journey, sow a plant of your liking. Give it a name that represents your heal-thyself journey. Feel the soil and the seed, both in your hands and your heart. Take good care of the plant as it grows. And let the plant take care of you. See your growth in the plant’s growth and vice-versa.”

Real-life stories

The book is replete with real-life stories of people who conquered grief, sorrow and impediments. For instance, United States President Joe Biden overcame a speech impediment to become the second youngest Senator in the country at the age of 29. He lost his wife and daughter to a tragic accident soon after, and was told that his sons had little chance of survival because of critical injuries. In 2015, he lost a son to brain cancer, yet five years later rose to be the President. He recalled what his mother had told him early in life, “Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.” Joe did, and the rest is history.

Neena Verma puts this ability and willingness to overcome adversity with a simple explanation, “RISE: Restorative will, Imaginal wisdom, Supple strength, Expansive emergence.”

In the final section of the book, the author clears many lingering doubts that people have during illness, loss and trauma. For instance, why did it have to happen to me, why did so and so do this to me, and so on. She offers a solution that is easy to say but difficult to practise, that is, forgiveness. The author relates the story of Savi, a bright 19-year-old girl who married early, only to find herself married to an alcoholic. Savi had four children. Forever short of cash, she tried to somehow give them education, only to find that not all children are passports to future happiness. It is with such stories that the author is able to strike a chord with the readers, and advises them to undertake a therapeutic writing exercise. Long after the therapeutic writing exercise has ended, the book will stay with the readers.

Books tackling grief are few and far between. Many are academic and thus self-limiting by nature. Others are not much more than grief memoirs. This one here avoids both traps. As Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor, says in the foreword, it is “intimate but never indulgent”. Neena Verma’s well-crafted counsel deserves your time, and space on the bookshelf.