Languages of Loss: A psychotherapist’s journey through grief
Hodder & Stoughton, 2020
Reviewer: Holly Rees
Languages of Loss is part-memoir, part-analysis by psychotherapist Sasha Bates as she explores her own grief and loss after the sudden death of her beloved husband and best friend Bill. Told as a conversation between Sasha’s grieving self and her therapist self, it blends the personal and professional, intertwining the different perspectives on grief. The book is divided into seven sections reflecting the author's own stages of grief (or shapes, as she calls them, as they are not linear) – implosion, scattering, flailing, floating, balancing, sailing, swimming.
The pain of the author's grief can truly be felt through the pages of the book as she takes the reader on a deep, honest, and intimate journey. Using the recurring imagery of the ocean and a boat to chart the range of emotions and experiences she navigates after Bill’s death, the rawness at times made my voyage as a reader uncomfortable. I felt as though I was invading her space, an unwanted witness to her grief, just like this new world she found herself plunged into, I felt unwelcome. At times, I wanted to turn away from the agony, but that is what makes this book so extraordinary. Sasha's openness to share her anguish whilst trying to find humour has opened up the much-needed conversation on the taboos of death, loss and mourning.
Alongside her grieving self, Bates also uses her training as a therapist to look at her grief through the psychotherapeutic lens and explores different grief theories to see what they can offer her. Bates tells us that, ‘grief is now her life’ (page 131) and she looks at Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief and the Four Tasks of Grief by William Worden in an attempt to make sense of her new reality. She also touches upon transpersonal theory, existentialism and Yalom, attachment theory and Bowlby as well as more recent theories like Margert Stroebe and Henk Schut’s Dual Process Model of Grief and Continuing Bonds Theory by Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman.
As therapists, we often ask our clients to get in touch with what they are feeling in their bodies. Body psychotherapy is another model that Bates explores as she feels she has lost connection with her own body and grapples between her therapist-self being aware of the need to address the physicality of her pain and her grieving-self, “fighting to stay afloat” (page 188).
Although Bates has agreed and responded to Kubler-Ross and Worden, it is the newer approaches that have reflected the reality of what she has been feeling more closely. Bates describes grief as “nothing if not individually tailored” (page 9). By delving into the different theories and offering up what has helped her, Bates also sends an important message - everyone’s grief is different and unique. “There is no right or wrong way to get through this; that you need to find what works for you and allow yourself to do it in your own way,” (page 165).
Understanding the theory and learning a new vocabulary with grief, will not necessarily ease it, but this book offers a powerful mix of professional and personal that I believe can help people suffering to feel less alone. To say I enjoyed the book feels wrong, I did not enjoy the discomfort of hearing about Sasha’s pain, but I am truly thankful and humbled that she has shared her shapes of grief with me as a reader. As therapists, we understand that death is inevitable, but do we talk about it enough in the therapy room or in our personal lives? By telling her story, Bates has helped to bring some normality to the topic and her engaging style of writing makes this a book not just for therapists, but for everyone.
But there is no better person to explain than Bates herself as she returns to the ocean imagery: “The ocean never stays still; it is at the mercy of the tidal pull of the moon, dragging it in and pushing it out. Even on the calmest days and in the sturdiest of boats there is movement underfoot to which you must rebalance minutely, constantly re-finding your centre of gravity,” (p.228).