Cover of When Words are Not Enough
Clinical

Growing around grief

Kavita Solder reviews 'When Words Are Not Enough – Creative Responses to Grief', by Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds.

04 November 2022

From the very first page I was emotionally invested in Jane Harris’ and Jimmy Edmonds’ personal journeys navigating the loss of their son, Joshua; aged only 22, he sadly died in a road accident in South-East Asia. Loss of life is tragic regardless, but parental grief adds a further layer of complexity. It defies the natural order of being and forces the creation of a new narrative.

As the title suggests, words are not enough to express the myriad emotions that inevitably ensue alongside grief. Nor do we, as well-meaning individuals, always have the language to offer appropriate support and condolences. The authors aptly comment on phrases including, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “at least he’s in a better place now,” as being unhelpful clichés. In our professional roles, it can be difficult to deviate from these scripts which are so deeply embedded in society.

Jane and Jimmy write about finding a community of others who were facing bereavement and grief. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are unique but by sharing lived experiences, it opens a dialogue and creates a ‘safe space’ where people feel more comfortable in communicating their stories and asking questions. There is no substitute for lived experience, especially in the field of parental grief, but listening and empathising with others’ accounts is the next best thing.

In the 11 years since Joshua’s passing, the authors have had to confront and ‘grow around’ the grief. Tonkin’s (1996) theory of ‘growing around grief’ suggests that the painful feelings remain present, but through new experiences, meeting others and the pursuit of new activities, enjoyment can be achieved.

In addition to Jane and Jimmy’s lived experiences, which is a central thread throughout, the text is punctuated with the accounts of others’ experiences of bereavement and the creative coping mechanisms that they have discovered along the way. From open water swimming to daily doodles, a number of innovative outlets are explored. The reader is invited to share in the raw feelings that arise in the immediate aftermath of death, understand that these can be managed and fulfilling futures can be constructed. Each contribution outlines a recovery process which is beautifully crafted through honest, yet poetic memoirs.

My interest in this book stemmed from a recent critical incident in one of the secondary schools I support. It was the third death that this particular school community had experienced in a short space of time and the devastating news had a huge impact on both students and staff members. When Words Are Not Enough served as a timely reminder that being present and ready to listen is sometimes all that is initially required. Grief is not constrained by timescales or bound by rules and acts of remembrance do not need to be confined to a single day. Grief is a process and does not follow a trajectory; like life, there are ups, downs and everything in between.

Although a sombre topic, the authors have done a fantastic job of producing a collaborative, informative and empowering resource. The text is written in accessible language and incorporates information boxes which link biographical content to theory. There are also poems, quotes, diary entries, song lyrics and paintings, enriching individual stories and breathing life into the themes. Guided by hope, the book proves that re-imagined futures can be built when previously unknown inner strengths are called upon.

Recommended for: Parents, Educational and Clinical Psychologists, Therapists, Mental Health Leads, Teachers and the bereaved.

Tonkin, L. (1996). Growing around grief – another way of looking at grief and recovery. Bereavement Care15(1), 10-10.

- Reviewed by Dr Kavita Solder, Educational Psychologist

We spoke with Jane Harris here, and reviewed a previous film. See also this piece from Kathryn Mannix, who wrote the foreword to this book.

Find more about the book here.