Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Parting CompanyReview - Parting Company
Understanding the Loss of a Loved One
by Cynthia Pearson and Margaret L. Stubbs
Seal Press, 1999
Review by Brandon Hunt, Ph.D.
Oct 11th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 41)

I selected this book because I have a keen interest in grief and loss counseling and thought it would be helpful to read a qualitative study that investigates people’s experiences with grief. After reading it, I don’t know that I could have selected a better book to meet this purpose. Pearson and Stubbs have written a moving, compassionate, and honest book that addresses grief and loss from the perspective of a diverse group of people. The genesis for the book came when both women, friends since childhood, were responsible for managing the care for family members who were dying. They realized there was little information available to actually prepare people for the role of caretaker for the dying. Most of the literature was written from an academic perspective that focused on the dying person, rather than addressing practical information that would benefit caregivers. As a result, they decided to write the book they wish they had been able to read as they learned how to be caregivers.

Their book is the culmination of interviews conducted with professional and lay caregivers. The stories presented represent a diverse group of grief and loss experiences, including the experiences of adult children, spouses and partners, friends, and professional caregivers like personal care attendants and physicians. The first chapter of the book provides background and context for the book. Written from a feminist perspective, the authors address many of the challenges caregivers face when witnessing the dying process of another person. Based on their personal experiences and the experiences of the people they interviewed, the authors learned three central principles: “every death is unique, God is in the details, and the past is prologue” (p. 7). These principles are evident throughout the book.

The next fourteen chapters give an overview of the interviews that were conducted. Each chapter tells the story of a person who has provided care, either as a family member, a friend, or a professional caregiver, for a person who was dying. The authors provide context for each person’s story but the majority of the chapters consist of each person’s actual words and experiences. Pearson and Stubbs do a wonderful job of letting people’s voices shine through so they become “real” to the reader. The final chapter is a summary of the book that synthesized the authors’ thoughts and reactions to the interviews.

Although I have personal and professional experience with death and grief, I found I learned something new from each and every chapter. What I really appreciated about these stories was how real and honest the people were. The interviewees were able to talk about the difficulties and challenges of caring for a dying person, while also expressing the sense of honor and privilege they felt about providing such an important and essential service to another person. It’s hard to tell if this is a result of the way people told their stories or how the authors framed the finding of their interviews. Regardless, the authors’ care and respect for the people they interviewed is evident in every sentence of the book.

Although it may sound a bit trite, I think anyone would benefit from reading this book since grief and loss are unifying human experiences. The book is thoughtful, very well written, and well organized. In fact, I think it is so good I will be assigning it as a required text for a graduate level grief counseling course I will be teaching this summer. The book is designed to be read from beginning to end, but each chapter could be read alone—almost like a book of essays—depending on what the reader wanted. I found that I read the book more slowly than usual just because of the nature of the content. Some of the people interviewed had such tragic grief and loss experiences, including multiple loss experiences, that I had to put the book down for a few days and just think about what I had read. I still think about some of the people and wonder how they are, which only shows the power of the stories and how they are presented. I can think of no ways to improve or enhance this book because it is so well done. I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about other people’s experiences with loss, whether they have never experienced the death of a loved one and want to learn more about it or they want to have their own experiences validated. The authors’ intention was to write a book that provides “information from the survivor’s perspective about the true phenomenon of being in attendance during dying” (p. 4). I believe they more than achieved their goal.

Brandon Hunt, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Penn State University in the Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology, and Rehabilitation Services where she trains counselors to work with people with disabilities. Her research interests include HIV disease, counselor attitudes and training,and grief and loss counseling.


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