The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves–Stephen Grosz

examined life
How did I end up ordering this book? It’s not my type–written by a psychoanalyst, full of stories about his patients. I have to have heard it reviewed on Fresh Air by Maureen Corrigan, whose reviews I generally adore. She can talk me into just about any book. ¬†However I found it, I put it on my Amazon Wish List and, this summer to round out an order for free shipping, moved it into my cart. Three days ago I finally opened it.

Why did Grosz write this boook? The jacket says we all tell stories and all need someone to listen, but Grosz’ epigraph is from Andre Dubus II, Broken Vessels–“We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after losses.” He ends the book with a story about a patient he could not save and a closing paragraph that laments the patients he has lost since his days as a young therapist and his wish to reach out to them and say one more thing (the opposite of listening, really). To me, the author of the book jacket got it wrong. This is not a book about listening. It’s a book about losses and the ways we try to survive with loss. As an academic I support that with his epigraph and his closing, but I must acknowledge that the theme of loss resonates particularly with me this fall as I read this book just weeks before the anniversary of my father’s death.

In each story, Grosz helps his patient (and sometimes himself) uncover what is painful, what is lost. He writes early in the book, “At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lost the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why” (27). Later he writes that closure is a fantasy of mourning and compares it to visiting a clairvoyant. “Closure,” he writes, “is just as delusive–it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief” (210). Grief does not end, but can surprise us years after our loss. What happens when we close off our grief because our culture has told us grief is something we do and then finish? We act like his patients. We act like ourselves–everyday crazy and a bit adrift. We lose ourselves, in his subtitle, by not allowing ourselves the experience of grief and we only find ourselves when we acknowledge and allow ourselves our grief(s).

It’s still not my type of book. I’ll be honest. I felt a bit indulgent at times reading the stories. Not quite Nicholas Sparks, but in that area. I’ll also be honest and say that his view of grief, his permission to allow grief to be ongoing and spasmodic, his permission to not feel a failure for being unable to “do” and finish grief, was liberating. I felt like he heard me before I opened the covers.

Finished 12/1/14