Sunday, July 16, 2017

Book Review: How to Survive the Loss of a Love

Title: How to Survive the Loss of a Love

Author: Melba Colgrove with Harold Bloomfield and Peter McWilliams

Date: 1976, 1991

Publisher: Bantam

ISBN: 0-553-07760-0

Length: 212 pages

Illustrations: a few vintage woodcuts

Quote: “It's hard to look back on any gain in life that does not have a loss attached to it.”

How to Survive the Loss of a Love is not exactly a Christian book. It does discuss "spiritual" matters, and has been marketed as a Christian book, so it belongs in the Sunday Book Review category. Although this web site reviews religious books from a Christian perspective, this one was written with the hope of being inclusive for readers of any faith or none.

In this book, the authors attempt to guide everybody through every conceivable kind of “loss,” specifically including bereavement, divorce, unemployment, violent crimes, changes of address, illness, graduation, “success (the loss of striving),” midlife, retirement, lawsuits, and waiting for test results—all of this, using the end of a romantic infatuation as the paradigm. Alternate pages reiterate in prose that the only way out of the grief process is through it, and display free-verse “poems” about McWilliams' failed romance in the early 1970s.

It does take courage for a grown man publicly to claim the “poems” he wrote about a love affair that ended fifteen or twenty years ago, so first this web site salutes McWilliams for that.

Now, does anyone really need this book? Does anyone not already know that the only way out of the grief process is through it? I think this book may help some people but I'd like, for the record, to say some more about some of the ways I've seen it (and the kind of advice it contains) fail people.

First, even the authors fell for a popular error of the 1990s. Ah yes, some people think they'd like to identify their grief (or, more dangerously, someone else's grief) as “continu[ing] longer than normal” and requiring medication, and the authors blithely assure us that “Antidepressants, taken as prescribed by a psychiatrist, are non-addictive and effective. If you wonder whether you need antidepressant medication, contact a competent psychiatrist for an evaluation.”

And the helpful pharmaceutical industry has supplied that psychiatrist with a checklist of symptoms that definitely will not include the one I'd consider indispensable, “Has the patient honestly tried every other alternative over a period of no less than ten years, and/or is the patient already receiving treatment and/or hospice care?” That checklist may not include, in so many words, “Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever been blue? Have you ever loved someone who didn't love you? Are you still alive? If so, you need antidepressants immediately,” but it won't be a great deal more subtle than that; it will most definitely not be written to yield results like “You're not depressed, you're a teenager,” and “You're not depressed, you're bereaved,” and “You're not depressed, you're lactose-intolerant,” and “You're depressed all right, and you need to watch your moods as a symptom while seeking a diagnosis of the physical disease that's causing your depression, so if you can't say no to all drugs including alcohol it'd be a good idea to check into a drug treatment facility,” and, for maybe five percent of all patients, “You're depressed, which is understandable since you have an incurable disease, and an antidepressant may alleviate your distress during the hospice process.”

Admittedly this approach to depression might allow some people to suffer from gloomy moods longer, but it would restore the incidence of murders of total strangers by females back to the norm of virtually zero, where it was before today's popular antidepressant drugs came onto the market.

Because many English-speaking people use the word “depressed” to describe any noticeably “low” mood however transient, many people will say that everybody gets depressed. Psychiatrists used to be required to limit the discussion of “clinical depression” to cases where the patient insists that s/he has felt intensely unhappy, consistently, for at least six months, in the absence of real-world bereavement or other major losses or of treatable physical diseases. The pharmaceutical industry has pushed very hard to create a cultural atmosphere in which random acquaintances feel free to tell anyone who seems calmer than they are all about the wonderful pills they can start popping to “get rid of that depression” and be as manic as TV commercial actors are required to appear to be. Those of us who prefer to live in a world where most strangers aren't likely to murder us (and where we're not likely to feel a need to murder strangers, ourselves) need to push back, reminding everyone that TV commercial actors spend whole days splicing recordings to get the perkiest look and sound from a hundred different “takes,” and end up merely boring and annoying us anyway.

Meanwhile, with its wonderful 1990s discovery that “antidepressants are non-addictive” (disproven by now), How to Survive received a boost and reprinting...not specifically credited to any pharmaceutical company. Despite the shiny new binding it's still the same consciously “cornball” book that expresses where baby-boomers' heads generally tended to be at (yes, that was the phrase) in the 1970s.

I'm a bit dismayed to see that my 1991 edition of How to Survive was distributed as a Christian book, years after Dave Hunt had guided Christians to repudiate The Seduction of Christianity by the various New Age feel-good cults that were typically formed by and for ex-Christians. At their best the New Age groups wanted to blend a few aspects of Christian practice that still felt warm'n'fuzzy with a sort of warmer'n'fuzzier watered-down Buddhism, so they could make peace with their parents without actually having to give up a few cherished sins. At their worst they were psychological personality cults. If How to Survive hadn't been mistaken for a Christian book I'd have no qualms about sharing it with Christians as a general-audience book, but since that mistake has been made...

How to Survive is the nicer sort of New Age book. It tries—sincerely, no doubt—to stay accessible to Christians but it advises readers to adopt that bland, Buddhist-passivist attitude toward sin that is, in fact, contrary to Christian teaching...not just blanket one-way “forgiveness” (meaning emotional release), but an effort to dispense with all moral judgments whatsoever. Many Christians are still trying to practice this (per)version of our faith, because they've never taken a long step back and looked at the results trying to embrace all behaviors impartially has had in the Buddhist countries. No, not the absence of totalitarian governments, and not the absence of material wealth; the absence of a firm sense of right and wrong is what leads to slavery and thuggery and all kinds of abuse.

Individual Christians who have physical “anger addictions” can benefit from recusing themselves from passing moral judgments. Society as a whole cannot afford to do this. Most people are not anger addicts and need to take a firmer, not softer, attitude toward immoral behavior, beginning with our own. Instead of trying (futilely, if we have healthy moral senses) to achieve warm'n'fuzzy moods by “forgiving ourselves for judging ourselves,” we need to recognize what we did wrong, to whom, and ask those people what we have to do to put things right.

If you understand forgiveness (as I do) to mean a process that begins when we sincerely want to make amends for behavior we sincerely intend not to repeat because we realize that it's done harm to other people, then one of the losses you have to accept, at various times in your life, is that some people are going to die before they can forgive us or we can forgive them. Some of the emotions we release, without that process of forgiveness, just in order to get on with our own lives, may include frustration (that feels like anger) with the people who died before we wanted to live without them.

I have found it useful to make a very clear, firm distinction between releasing emotions (the one-way process that other people want us to be able to rush through in a few hours, and usually we can) and forgiveness (always at least a two-party process that can only ever begin with the person seeking to be forgiven). It is harmful to others, as well as ourselves, to babble about forgiving a child molester who is still actively abusing people who are still children. It is wrong to try to feel good about having “forgiven” a swindler who is still cheating other people out of money. The emotional mood we feel about these things normally passes at a rate that corresponds fairly exactly to the rate at which we're able to recover from the physical, material damage that's been done to us. Thus, when we


One of the facts that may or may not be fixable is whether or not the person who did us wrong has repented, so that we can forgive him or her. If that hasn't happened, it's probably not a high priority. By fixing the more direct damage done, we can look forward to reaching an emotional position from which we can release our emotions about the fact that that person hasn't received our forgiveness in this life and may thereby be disqualified from receiving God's forgiveness in the next.

(Another fact, which may in some cases be “fixed” by thinking about the matter more clearly, is that the person may not have done us ending or never beginning the sort of premarital sexual relationship that the “poems” in How to Survive suggest, for instance, the person may have spared us from the misery of premature parenthood, thereby doing us a good turn, as we can clearly see once we've readjusted.)

It may be a source of tremendous frustration and anxiety and pain to those who've trained themselves to alleviate their own emotions by trying to “help someone else” (yes, that's one of the generally better suggestions in How to Survive)...but we really can't help someone feel better just by focussing on the person's feelings. We can offer ourselves, if we so choose, as emotional crutches. We can listen-more-than-talk about whatever the person wants to talk about during the (hours, not quarter-hours) it takes a normal emotional mood to subside. That will help the person if, meanwhile, the facts of the person's life are improving or being improved. Otherwise, it won't; the person will feel just as bad, or worse, about the same thing another day. So if we want to do more than just encourage the person to go on and on feeling worse and worse until s/he becomes desperate enough to make the facts of his/her situation even worse than that, we can sit still and chatter and blather about the person's feelings. If we want to be the one who actually helps, we're going to have to exercise body parts other than our mouths. Don't even bother uttering words like “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” Get up and feed the person, if you find someone whose main complaint is not having enough to eat.

There are some good suggestions in How to Survive for those of us who are co-surviving someone else's loss, e.g. the end of a Teen Romance. By reading the book along with this person we may get ideas for things that actually keep the emotional pain from expanding into, say, a physical illness. In order to get the most use from this book it may be good to make it a rule not to volunteer any thoughts about the person's emotional feelings. (Listen if the person wants to talk through a mood swing, but don't talk about the mood; let it pass.) Do offer to do things with or for the person: cook, clean, walk, drive, do chores and errands. (Bereaved people may be brainfogged by their overwhelming loss for months, and need you to do things for them. Adolescents with heartache are feeling as if they'd lost something they'd had, although they've not, and need you to do things with them, keeping them in motion, until the hormones subside and they can go to sleep.) Let them be the judges of how relevant, irrelevant, cheering, annoying, etc., McWilliams' poems are. You're outside of their emotions; that means you can monitor, and when possible improve, the facts.

To Melody Beattie's expressed dismay, a lot of baby-boomers chose to interpret Co-Dependent No More as telling them they must never do anything practical to help other people. “If I drive for someone who's crying, cook for someone who's not eating, or heavenforbidandfend give or lend someone MONEY (expression of horror), the person might become dependent on me! No no no, all I can do is tell people to get professional help to deal with their feelings!” People who never depend on each other (as crutches, yes) never bond with each other. If you do not, in fact, want to be a close friend, you don't have to be one; you wouldn't be one in any case. You might hand someone money while expressing a mental attitude that would guarantee that the person might continue to use you, but would never ever like, trust, or respect you, for the rest of your lives. If your friend is in financial distress, whether you prefer to be “Lady Bountiful, That Stupid Sucker” or “Scrooge McWorthless” may be the only choice you're able to make—if you're really all that attached to having more money. If you do choose to be a friend worth having, you should know that (1) most people naturally prefer to be independent (many of the people exploiting Lady Bountiful, That Stupid Sucker, turned down several offers before they realized that she likes to be exploited), and (2) the time to haul out Co-Dependent No More is when you see evidence that someone is excessively dependent on you, at which point you can always say, “I offered to drive for you while you were crying every day, but that doesn't mean I like driving,” or “I appreciate the part-time work you did while I was able to pay for it, but with the medical bills I have now I can't afford a lawn service,” or whatever may apply.

Which brings me to a final observation: If you read a few cubic yards of the popular psychology-philosophy-religious thought of the 1970s, and you used what you found good in it and threw away the rest, such that as an adult you live with inner peace and self-respect and integrity and all of those things that some hoped would displace spirituality, and you also have spirituality...oh wow, are some of the self-appointed amateur psychotherapists of this world ever going to hate you. Would you rather be co-dependent and depressive and addictive and blah blah blah, and have friends, or be liberated from all the emotional dreck and be your own, and only, trusted friend? (It's up to you, but here I stand to testify: the latter is more fun.)

Readers of the book of Job in the Bible have always agreed that, of all Job's miseries, his four longwinded friends had to have been the most likely to turn him against God. The book of Job is generally thought to be a legend from far back in the mists of prehistoric time...and it's been hard for friends' reactions to alleviate, rather than aggravate, any source of pain anybody has ever had, ever since. Sharing How to Survive with a grief-stricken friend can have either effect. I've discussed some common pitfalls into which people my age have fallen since 1976; that may not prevent you and your friends from discovering new ones. Then again, it may actually help you, your friend, and your friendship survive that first doom-guaranteed Teen Romance...or even the loss of a job or a relative.

Melba Cosgrove is alive and active in cyberspace, so this is a Fair Trade Book. When you send $5 per copy of this book, plus $5 per package (at least six and possibly eight copies of this book would fit in one $5 package), via U.S. postal order to P.O. Box 322, or add $1 per online payment for a total of $11 via Paypal to the address you get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi @ yahoo, this web site will send $1 to Cosgrove or a charity of her choice.