When my dear sister-in-law Erica McNeal asked me to write a review of her recently published print edition of her book, Good Grief! In my blog, I confess to hesitating. My reflections on her original e-book release a year ago were somewhat less than either of us had hoped. So right off the bat, here’s my confession: I am a brutal critic, especially as writing is concerned. If you ever ask me to review your work, I will proceed fully intending to shred it. Not because I get my jollies out of tearing down the labor of others (far from it!). Blame it on my years as a collegiate English tutor. “I want to help you get an A from a finicky and narcissistic professor.” Hey! It’s the truth! That being said …
The print edition is, in a word, illuminating. In Good Grief! How to Create an Oasis when Life is a Desert, Erica systematically lays out for her readers her personal story of loss and survival; reflects on how the actions and words of others either encouraged or hampered her healing process; and exhorts her readers in appropriate ways to encourage and support grieving loved ones.
Right off the bat, Erica addresses what I considered to be the greatest weakness in her e-book. While her e-book 1st edition of Good Grief! was written for those who followed her fledgling blog Finding God’s Fingerprints (and thus were already intimately acquainted with her raw story),this print edition is written for the masses. It unceremoniously answers the question, “Who are you to illicit this advice?” Well, she tells you. By the time Erica McNeal was thirty-two years old, she was already a three-time cancer survivor, and had experienced the loss of five children. No matter how hardened in life you are, you have to admit: that’s a lot to endure before even reaching the peak of adulthood. She walks us through the outline of her adult life: her initial diagnosis of a very rare cancer at 22; the heart-wrenching neonatal loss of their secondborn daughter Kylie Joy; and the failed adoption of JT, the boy who would have been their eldest son. Throw in two more cancer battles and two miscarriages, and it kind of leaves the reader’s head spinning. As an “insider,” I often find myself marveling that Erica is neither clinically depressed nor a complete hermit. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You would think that those close to Erica (and Todd, her husband and my husband’s brother) would have done everything in their power to bear her up in these times of difficulty. Sadly, it is not human nature to have a Servant’s Heart. Even so, reading through the words people thoughtlessly threw at her … needless to say, I was, in a word, disgusted. My first thoughts were a bit shameful: Girl, what hole did you dig these characters out of? Even my father (who is browsing her book as I write) looked up abruptly with his infamous “someone’s smoking dope” look and grunted, “’At least you’ve got the good kind of cancer’? What the heck is that supposed to mean?” Yes, that is one of the more charming comments Erica has had to endure from a “helpful” individual. Apparently common sense is not as “common” as we are taught to believe. Have you ever heard of the show, “What Not to Wear”? Yeah, since her e-book release, I’ve nicknamed Erica’s works “What not to say.” Or sometimes simply, ”NO DUH!”
Fortunately, she doesn’t simply leave her readers with bitter memories of words that hurt and what not to say/do (though they do make great mental notes). She also lays out examples of constructive ways the reader can help a loved one endure through and recover from a night season.
Now, this is the one area where my personal reflections don’t 100% align with Erica’s. Mind you, I have only endured one particularly painful miscarriage, but I can tell you bluntly that my expression of grief can be best captured in a picture of Oscar the Grouch’s™ trash can, suspending the sign that declares in bold scraggly script, “GO AWAY!” Don’t talk to me, don’t even look at me. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Don’t check on me; I’ll come find you when I’m ready for human contact.
But … I am an introvert. A vocal one, yes. But even in the happiest of circumstances, I find human interaction to be incredibly draining. In a time of grief or stress, the thought of even being near people is nothing short of agonizing. Like sandpaper on a burn. So when Erica stresses the importance of checking in on people in the weeks following a loss or on the anniversary of one (a time I need to keep intensely private), my first response was to recoil. No, you can not – you WILL not – touch me when I’m hurting! Or I will be forced to bite you! And I confess to projecting this on everyone around me. Yes, my instinct is to treat everyone who is hurting like a wounded animal. Give them space. Let them come to you when they’re ready.
Then again … I then have to remind myself that introverts only comprise an estimated 25% of the population. What about the other 75/100 people … people-oriented people (I think Barbra Streisand sang about them once?). People who draw energy from contact from others … People who are most effectively healed by the expressions of love and compassion from others … oh yes …my dear, dear sister: Erica, you have given me a window into the hearts of those who I do not understand. You have shown me how even my best efforts to uphold the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39) could completely backfire on me. And I’m chewing on it.
Today is Kylie’s Day. Today, had she lived, my sweet little niece would have turned five years old. Instead, she is dancing in the arms of Adonai. And to honor her memory, Erica is officially launching her new blog domain. And I strongly recommend you visit, for she has some fantastic prizes lined up for those who purchase a copy of Good Grief! this week (June 11th-16th), including gift cards to Outback and Amazon. She'll also be including a free digital copy with purchase this week (so you won't have to wait for the paper version to ship to dig in). And small group leaders: she has something special lined up for you too!!
And do I think you should read her book? Absolutely! It offers overarching and tangible guidelines for tending to the needs of loved ones enduring the painful tribulations of cancer and childloss. And to my fellow introverts: at least half of her advice will make perfect sense. As for the rest of it … remember that it is likely you have many “people-people” in your life. Consider her words an invaluable roadmap to a foreign land.