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‘The Gift of Grief’ By Matthew Gewirtz: A Book Review

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Ordained clergywoman and former hospice & hospital chaplain

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This is a book for the times we are living in right now, as we experience sorrow about the pandemic and our rapidly changing lives. We see the deaths of thousands of Americans, dying without family in hospitals across the country.

Jump ahead to these sections:

The loss so many feel about what life in the past is, and what the “new normal” means that much of life as we have known it will never be the same. There’s great sorrow in our homes, neighborhoods, states, country, and world. And if you are grieving the loss of someone beloved, life is filled with sorrows of a different proportion.

What is The Gift of Grief?

If there is any good news in all of this, author Matthew D. Gewirtz writes is that there are ways to find new life in the transformation that we are going through. Despite the fact that we will be experiencing this transformation in the months to come, peace can eventually be found. 

For the record, I’m a chaplain and bereavement counselor at a small, start-up hospice. I’m also grieving the death of my mother in December. My take on Gewirtz is seen through those two lenses, and through the lens of living through the grief of so much death in the last six weeks in the United States and for the last few months around the world.

Gewirtz, a rabbi in the Reformed tradition, interweaves the stories of two of his parishioners, Emily and Susan, who both had husbands who died. Their stories of grief and sorrow, and transformation in that grief, are told throughout this sweet book. Their stories of death and grief are really our stories. 

“Grief does not end where clarity begins,” he writes in the introduction. “But our grieving does have the potential to transform us when we cultivate spiritual clarity. Our whole trajectory can be changed through suffering.” 

From the very first chapters, Gewirtz unpacks a toolbox for healing our grief through our suffering. First, with identifying the very soul, or light, each of us has, and how that spirit inside ourselves can “sustain us when we are at our most vulnerable. Indeed, there is sacred light within us all.”

He then helps the reader find that light, the light that “makes us uniquely human – and unique as individuals – but at the same time part of something bigger than any one human being.” This light, the human soul is the very essence of where we begin to do our healing work, Gewirtz says.

Finding healing in suffering through grief

As expected with his background as a rabbi, there is lots of language in The Gift of Grief around faith, spirit, the divine, and God. He writes from the heart of his own experiences of companioning with grieving parishioners, and the trajectory of his own faith and theology. This all comes full circle when readers are introduced to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived 200 years ago and who is a teacher for Gewirtz around bittul or surrender. 

“When we transform through suffering, we stay present in our pain. We become vulnerable and deeply open because all we want to do is tell our truth since it hurts too much to keep it inside. We can transform; we can transcend; but first we must have the fortitude to surrender to our reality,” Gewirtz writes.

Bittul comes not just from the suffering we experience from loss, but the awareness that we have lost touch with ourselves in that suffering. He describes it as the “profound bereavement that accompanies or even leads to the process of bittul, the stripping down of ourselves through suffering.”

Gewirtz notes that to get to a transformational place of grief, one has to feel the intensity of suffering because the “forces of our human and physical self, fight back against our struggle towards transcendence. You may wonder, why would I want to feel worse than I did before? I thought the point was to feel better. The point is not just to feel better but to heal. And to heal, you have to be present in your pain, even if it deepens before it gets better. We need great spiritual courage to engage in this process, of course, and fortunately there are rewards, though they may not come immediately or be what you expected them to be.”

That nugget is the essence of The Gift of Grief. While it may seem that this is lonely or solitary work, community plays a very important role in our healing, writes Gewirtz. “Trust that your truest and closest friends and family members stand ready to be there for you authentically,” he writes.

The back end of this easy read is about the sacred and how faith plays a big part in this healing that Gewirtz writes, it is the centering place of what is sacred truth. In this healing, he writes that we find comfort in new rituals and prayers. “The lessons we can learn in our grief – about the value of vulnerability, openness, awareness, connection, faith, and humility – can be taken with us and used for the rest of our lives. They place us in the center of life, in touch with our inner strength, and in profound relationship with our loved ones, our communities, and our faith.”

We travel through the transformation of grief in the lives of Emily and Susan in this book. We learn how Emily’s beloved husband, Andrew, died on September 11. Susan’s husband, Eric, died of a rare cancer. We journey with them in this book in Gewirtz’ passionate storytelling of their raw grief, through their own transformation in grief, and we are able to see them in the end, seeing the healing that brings new life to both of them. Bearing witness to their transformation in this book was one of the most meaning-making places for me. 

Discussion Questions

Maybe you’re a member of a book club among friends, in your faith community, or you want to start up a grief group that reads books together. Whatever your group is, here are a few discussion questions to get you started after you read The Gift of Grief.

  • Before you read The Gift of Grief, what was your own understanding, and personal experience of suffering. What changed for you, or not, after reading the book?
  • Gewirtz writes that every human is born with a spark that directs us to an inner purpose. He names that spark as a “calling.” He asks these questions. “Do you hear when that voice from within is calling? Can you dig down to realize what your specific reason for being is all about?” Have you experienced a “calling”?
  • The concept of bittul, or surrendering, is woven throughout the book as an important foundation of transforming grief. What have been your experiences of bittul in your life?
  • Gewirtz writes that so many of us wear disguises to make ourselves appear balanced, together, and strong especially when we grieve. “This is what society teaches us to do.” What have been the disguises you’ve worn in your grief?
  • The healing process in The Gift of Grief “cannot begin in earnest unless we are willing to be present in our pain and willing to undergo the process of being stripped down, which emanates naturally from the experience of suffering. Healing cannot progress unless we are willing to get out of the way of ourselves, become devoid of our ego, and underneath it all, find our true purpose, direction, faith, and maybe even God.” What have you been willing to surrender in your grief that has led to your healing?
    • If you haven’t, what does surrender look like to you?
  • In the stories of Emily and Susan, we discover that they have created new rituals and prayers for their lives. What new rituals have you developed in your own grief, whether it be the loss of someone beloved, or in the loss of what you’ve experienced living through the pandemic?
    • In other words, what have you gained?
  • Gewirtz writes that “when we transform through suffering, we stay present in our pain? What does “being present in your pain” feel like to you? What does it look like? 
  • The lessons we can learn in our grief – “about the value of vulnerability, openness, awareness, connection, faith and humility – can be taken with us and used for the rest of our lives.” What have been your lessons learned?

Grief Can Offer Insight and Hope

Grief. We find it when we love and lose deeply. While we may grieve in different ways, Matthew Gewirtz offers us a way to shift our grief, move and mold it into something transformative by naming and addressing the human experience of suffering. Through this suffering and pain, he shows us that we can create a road map to healing our grief. 

This is a book for us all, whether we grieve the loss of someone beloved, or grieve the loss of what has been lost as a result of a pandemic. The journey toward healing is never too late.