Book Review: “This Thing Called Grief: New Understandings of Loss” by Thomas M. Ellis

The short book provides insightful ways to deal with loss and grief

This Thing Called Grief” by Thomas M. Ellis is a treatise on loss and grief. It is a short yet powerful book comprised of tips and helpful ways to understand and deal with the messiness that is grief.

Book cover of "This Thing Called Grief"Mr. Ellis is certainly an expert in the field. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the former executive director of the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul, Minnesota. Throughout the book he includes anecdotes about his former clients to help illustrate specific points.

The first sentence of the introduction puts it bluntly: “Grief is a crazy-making, complicated process.” And, indeed that is one of the major takeaways from the book. There is nothing linear about the grieving process. It is not cut-and-dry, and it does not take a set amount of time to “get over it.” No two grief-stricken people will experience it the same way. It’s a wild, cavernous phenomenon that hits us hard and leaves us asking many questions.

The layout of the book is interesting. Every chapter begins and ends with a poem about loss and/or grief. These poems can be a soothing respite from Dr. Ellis’ psychiatrist-like writing style. He uses the second-person narrative throughout the book, which does provide a kind of intimacy. It is almost as if you’re in his office speaking directly with him.

Within each chapter are real-life stories pertaining to the subject matter. For instance, one chapter deals with the idea of being “stuck” in a state of grief, thinking that something is wrong with them because they can’t just “get over it.”

One anecdote in this chapter is about Jack, a young father whose wife committed suicide. A well-intentioned friend told Jack that he needed to move on and begin dating so he could find another wife and a mother for his children. This led Jack to believe he was “stuck” in his grief because he hadn’t done so yet. But according to Ellis, Jack was actually doing well considering the circumstances. His friend had planted this false idea of being “stuck” into Jack’s mind.

Seagull flying in front of the setting sun along the coast symbolizing griefThis is a major lesson we can learn from “This Thing Called Grief” — allowing the necessary time to deal with grief is not a sign that someone is “stuck.” It is just a part of the process. And this process is drastically different for every person. There is no grief timeline, and there’s certainly not a single, perfect way to deal with grief.

And that is essentially what “This Thing Called Grief” is: a how-to guide for grievers. Ellis teaches us that the grieving process is a complex one. It is isolating, overwhelming, difficult and nasty. The pain caused by the loss of a loved one may never go away, but we can use the experience to transform our lives in a meaningful way.

Ellis touches on many topics related to grief. He discusses grieving as a family; common misconceptions about the grieving process; ways in which men and women deal with grief differently; and how children may grieve. He offers metaphors alongside definitions, and uses his experience as a grief counselor to offer helpful insight into the world of the griever.

“You Can’t Do It Alone”

Perhaps the greatest piece of advice Ellis give us is that a grieving person should never try to get through the process alone. It is futile to tackle this storm by yourself. He writes:

“To begin its healing, grief requires an honest understanding of the responses to and validation of a new reality — many new realities. You need permission to tell your story without being judged or ridiculed. Having access to someone who will listen to your difficult story without putting a time frame on the experience is essential. You cannot journey through this process in isolation.”

Girl looking out onto the ocean as the sun is setting symbolizing griefDuring their darkest hours, a grieving person may have a strong desire to be alone. And at times, this is necessary. But to get through the muck of the grieving process, we all need to be heard. We need a willing ear to listen to our stories and help sift through our emotions.

“This Thing Called Grief” is a handy book to have around for someone who is dealing with loss and grief. Mr. Ellis does a good job of laying the groundwork for ways in which a griever can begin to get through this difficult process. His short treatise lets the reader know that they are not alone in this world and that others have gone through what they are going through. 

I’d recommend this book to anyone dealing with the death of a loved one. It is a short read, so those who are grieving can read it easily. It is also a good primer for those who have not yet experienced full-scale grief. Though not the densest book out there, it is full of useful and important information.

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