As I quickly discovered when my husband died nine years ago, there’s a cornucopia of books about bereavement and grief – memoirs, self-help books and psychological analyses of this key part of life. They range from the well-written and deeply thoughtful to the superficial and banal. Of course, it was the first category that I found consoling. Style matters, even when you are heart-broken.
The banal, which are in the majority, were irritating. Many of those consisted of case studies, which seemed invented. “Caroline was wearing a cream wooly coat and bright pink ear-rings. She spoke in a cheerful voice and smiled a lot. Her daughter had died two years earlier. Shouldn’t I be over it by now? she asked, her cornflower blue eyes wide and puzzled.” Caroline and her creator were not for me, but some books became my trusty companions. Why would anyone find any sort of grief book comforting? I’m not sure, but I think it is because they confirm the message of Cariad Lloyd’s title: You are not alone. Misery likes bedfellows – at least if they write well and have something interesting to say.
Cariad Lloyd is a Londoner, whose father was Welsh. He died in 1998 when she was 15 – clearly a terrible age at which to lose a beloved parent. The angst of teenagehood was compounded by the loss, which she couldn’t “process” then or for many years afterwards. Now a comedian and actor, she hosts an excellent podcast, Griefcast in which she interviews bereaved people – whom she calls “griefsters” – about their experiences. I highly recommend the podcasts!
The backbone of this book is the story of her father’s death and her reaction to it over the years. Thematically, chapters cover topics such as what grief is, how to behave when in grief, the history of grief and bereavement in England, finishing with some useful and original chapters on how to deal with bereaved people, what to say to them – and, interestingly, how to prepare for one’s own death. She is an expert on bereavement and grief and has a fund of knowledge garnered from personal experience and from her podcast interviews with griefsters.
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On her podcasts, her speaking voice is beautiful – gentle, dignified, a lovely London accent. Her writing voice is different. It can come across as lightweight, sometimes to the point of silliness. There are astute insights, but these are sometimes diminished by the comic asides. For instance, the account of Victorian customs relating to mourning is interesting, if superficial. Lloyd’s commentary is sensible, she notes that although the formal tradition of wearing black, or black crepe on your sleeve, for some years after the death of a close relative seems stiflingly regimental, it had the advantage of alerting others to who was in mourning and encouraging them to behave sympathetically. But her overview of Victorian funeral customs is leavened with comments: “They [the mutes] would carry crepe-covered wands and wear frock coats and top hats (strangely these were bright pink… JOKE… they were black.”
Comedy is always tricky – as we know even from reactions to The Banshees of Inisherin. Maybe it is just grumpy old me. Or is there a difference between my dark Irish sense of humour and Lloyd’s? She scattered her father’s ashes in Wales, but there is little sense of any culture other than that of London evident in the writing. Even her observations on death, bereavement and grief don’t ring true for an Irish context (and why should they?) According to Lloyd, people are afraid to talk about death, don’t know what to say, don’t allow the bereaved to mourn. The entire thrust of the book is to change that stiff-upper-lip culture and encourage us to accept grief as normal. But I don’t think we are all that embarrassed by death and the bereaved over here. (And I am not referring to our obsessive funeral-going tradition.)
On the other hand, no doubt like most bereaved people, I received annoying comments from well-meaning people. Cariad Lloyd’s advice on how to talk to the griefsters – touchy as they can be – is excellent, and I have not come across such advice before. As she writes, the thing to do is to allow or encourage the griefster to talk, listen respectfully and, if commenting, just say “it’s really shit”.
I’m never going to say that, precisely, but I agree that something along those lines is definitely what is required.
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s memoir, Twelve Thousand Days. A Memoir of Love And Loss, was shortlisted for the Michel Déon Prize in 2020 and is available from Blackstaff Press