1. Brady, E. Michael PhD, MDiv, MSW

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Unspeakable: The Truth About Grief


by Herb Orrell, Bayou Publishing, 2524 Nottingham, Houston, TX, Tele: 800.340.2034. E-mail:, Web site, Price: $24.95()


In some ways my thoughts about this book mirror its title. They are unspeakable. This book, written by an experienced Methodist pastor, is one of the strangest I have read in a long time. The book is purportedly about grief. Yet I found it to be more a series of homilies on a myriad of topics ranging from the experience of trauma, to America's unproductive love affair with self-help techniques, to atonement theology.


To be frank, the first thing that irked me about this book was its title. I have long believed that grief, while a universal human experience, has as many faces and characteristics as people who experience it. In other words, grief is personal and idiosyncratic. No two stories of loss and the subsequent bereavement that humans undergo are alike. Yet the very title of this book suggests that Rev Orrell believes there is a single truth about grief-and what's more that he knows what it is!!


As a reader of bereavement literature for decades, I expected to see at least some references in Unspeakable: The Truth About Grief to the seminal studies and writers who have contributed to this important and rich subfield of thanatology-people such as Eric Lindemann, Colin Murray Parkes, Robert Kastenbaum, John Bowlby, Margaret and Wolfgang Stroebe, Henk Schut, and others. There was not a single one. There was a brief section about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In fact, what seems to be a misreading of her work serves as the apparent rationale for the author having written this book.


The opening two sentences of Unspeakable are as follows: "In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced a ground-breaking idea. Grief is a process involving six necessary and predictable stages [horizontal ellipsis]" Two problems immediately surface. First, many scholars do not interpret this famous typology as representing "necessary and predictable" stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was describing rather than prescribing human behavior. Second, the number "six" in this opening statement may have been an editorial oversight, since the author goes on to enumerate Dr Kubler-Ross' famous five stages (eg, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Or, could it be that the number six was used by the author here to give the reader advance notice of what is to come later in the narrative, that is, Mr Orrell's theory that there is a "hidden stage" in the grieving process? In fact, a fundamental idea on which the entire book is based is that there is a "sixth stage," the search for meaning, that has been heretofore neglected in discussions about grief.


But can a dying individual, or this person's family and care providers, possibly escape the quest for meaning while engaging the other stages of grief? I don't think so. In fact, it is precisely because the confrontation with death evokes questions of meaning that people experience denial, anger, and the other stages described in On Death and Dying. There would be no "stages" without the struggle to make sense of life and loss in the face of imminent death.


In the author's view what is "unspeakable" is that the question of meaning is ultimately and intimately related to our thoughts and feelings about God. We labor under the "Just World Theory," ie, that God made the world in such a manner that good things come to good people and bad things come to bad. Hence, persons who are dying often feel they are meeting their just rewards, which consequently leads to self-blame and increased feelings of abandonment and trauma. This basic theological assumption is the reason why so much of this book focuses on religious formulations with chapter titles such as "Forbidden Fruit," "Virtual Spirituality," and "Beyond Atonement."


While the author apparently has worked in the trenches of religious ministry for more than two decades and certainly has earned the right to his point of view, I was offended by his tendency to universalize and assume that the reader shares his opinion. "You once believed that this was a Just World ruled by a loving God who cared about His children and that if you played by the rules, you could count on some fairness, mercy, and maybe even a little protection. That belief helped you feel safe and gave meaning and purpose to your life. Now all of that has been shattered" (pp. 75-76). Well Mr Orrell-maybe I don't feel this way at all. Mr Orrell also seems more certain and dogmatic than many religious thinkers and writers about the phenomenon of "spirituality" that, as far as I am concerned, is and will always be fundamentally mysterious. There is even a section in the book subtitled "Unlocking the Door to Spirituality." As if there were a key. Perhaps he has not read-or agreed with-Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once wrote, "Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most will say least."


Despite its weaknesses, I did find several worthwhile aspects to this book. One was the fact that the author begins each of his 11 chapters with an epigram, a pithy quote from both famous and obscure sources. One of my favorites came from the theologian Frederick Buechner: "I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets. Our trusting each other enough to share them has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human." The author went on in this chapter to develop his core thesis: How there are "unspeakable" secrets in peoples' relationship with God in the face of suffering and trauma that cannot be readily shared and thus often imprison them in self-recrimination and guilt.


Also, because of his breadth of pastoral experience, Rev Orrell has a wealth of personal stories from which to draw. Several of these were compelling, especially those relating to his own father, who suffered and ultimately died with Alzheimer's disease and one, at the end of the book, in which the author relates his experience with a Roman Catholic nun who worked in a children's oncology unit. These several pages of dialogue at the end of the book were the clearest and most moving part of this reading experience for me. At one point in their conversation, in response to a comment the author made to her about death, Sister Maria responded: "I don't work with death [horizontal ellipsis] I work with life." That paradox and the sublime mystery it reflects is perhaps the most unspeakable thing of all.